America’s generous welfare system

Several years ago, during a harsh Detroit winter, I swallowed my pride and applied for food stamps. I wasn’t sure I’d qualify, but I knew three things. I had little money in the bank, little chance of quickly earning more and I needed to eat. So I tried my luck with the government.

I received $16 a month in benefits. By my cynical calculation, the eight hours I had spent applying would pay for itself, at minimum wage, after four months. I was grateful for the help. Usually, my $4 a week bought bacon, which could stretch several batches of beans.

Being broke wasn’t new to me. Food stamps, officially known as SNAP, were. My family had battled medical debt and unemployment when I was a kid, and I started working at 14. When I got a partial college scholarship and left my rural Michigan hometown, I made tuition and rent by juggling up to five jobs at once. I prided myself on never asking for help.

At age 34, though, I faced the awkward, privileged dilemma of a working-class journalist: I’d accepted a book contract to write about poverty, but it turned out to be too small to cover my health insurance and rent. I saw two options. Get a job, return my advance and abandon two years’ worth of work — or somehow continue working on my book without an income.

So food stamps it was.

Doubt you’d get welfare in the UK if you had a book advance in the bank, would you?

26 comments on “America’s generous welfare system

  1. “I’d accepted a book contract to write about poverty, but it turned out to be too small to cover my health insurance and rent.”

    So why accept it? Or is this the journalistic equivalent of method acting?

  2. Julia M – or journalistic equivalent of suffering for your art or is it suffering for taking 2 years+ what could be done in 6 months.

  3. JuliaM – writers routinely get arse-raped by publishers, as it’s a buyer’s market. Too many books, too many wannabes, like our clueless chum in the story.

  4. Why would anyone spend $4 a week, when $16 would probably have purchased in one go much of the food you needed?

    This is the problem I have with the left, they protray themselves as ‘educated’ and ‘intelligent’, but then reveal themselves to be as thick as pigshit.

  5. “but then reveal themselves to be as thick as pigshit.”

    Quite. Why was he paying for health insurance if he was that hard up? Surely he’d have qualified for Medicaid. Unless the fact that he’d *chosen* to write a book rather than look for normal work disqualified him?

    This seems to be a classic “woe is me for making a conscious decision to do exactly what I want rather than something more sensible”.

  6. I’d accepted a book contract to write about poverty, but it turned out to be too small to cover my health insurance and rent.

    Turned out to be too small? Oh noes. If only there was some way to work out if a job will cover your fixed expenses…

  7. @MC,

    “Turned out to be too small? Oh noes. If only there was some way to work out if a job will cover your fixed expenses…”

    You know the left don’t do maths…

  8. “Surely one can fit in a job around writing a book.”

    Not if you insist on doing exactly whatever the crap you want.

  9. Isn’t the rent in Detroit cheap as peanuts?

    “Brooklyn; Detroit”

    Ah, well if she has two homes, and spends money travelling between them, then she can’t expect the advance to last.

    Doubt you’d get welfare in the UK if you had a book advance in the bank, would you?

    If you have less than £6,000 in savings and are actively job-seeking, you can claim JSA. But she isn’t looking for work, hence she can’t claim.

  10. @JuliaM – you might be on the money with that ‘method acting’ quip. If you’re a writer trying to prove you are an authentic voice when writing poverty porn for liberals, a few months on food stamps is probably a worthwhile investment.

    Probably $1,000 for that NYT article for one thing, but it’s the air of authenticity that makes it worthwhile overall.

  11. Probably $1,000 for that NYT article for one thing

    I think our esteemed host may be able to confirm that you’re unlikely to get as much as $1,000 for writing an article in the NYT.

  12. Excluding your primary residence and one car SNAP requires less than 5,000 in assets and crap for income. Whatever the advance was it had to be pretty small.

  13. NYT is odd. Walk in off the street with an OpEd and $150 maybe? Get commissioned to do a piece and anything from $1 to $4 a word.

  14. JuliaM – writers routinely get arse-raped by publishers

    Indeed, I believe it was your experience recounted on here that persuaded me to give traditional publishers a wide berth.

  15. Age 34 and no savings?

    Very common among the arsty types in the US: they spend all their money to live in squalor in the trendy areas of Brooklyn.

  16. Age 34 and no savings?

    Choice, choice, choice.

    My brother-in-law has Type 1 diabetes (the hereditary kind – he’s 5’11” and 9-and-a-bit stone) so I decided to have savings (and life insurance as a back-up) from when I started work, just in case. My choice but don’t expect me to think that she was forced into anything.

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