TheDC Investigation: Food Stamps are easier to get than you think

Matthew Boyle Investigative Reporter
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I’m on food stamps. Last month, despite the fact that I’m middle class and have a job, the District of Columbia enrolled me in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. For the next year, I’ll be getting $105 a month in assistance, no strings attached.

[SEE: What you can buy with food stamps]

You wouldn’t think I’d qualify. As a master’s student at American University and a part-time reporter for The Daily Caller, I don’t meet the traditional definition of a poor person, and in fact I’m not poor. But that didn’t matter to the District’s Department of Human Services. They approved me anyway.

I make $600 a month writing for TheDC and another $493 as a teaching assistant at AU. My rent is $1,365. The arrangement works because most of my rent and other expenses are covered under my student loans or paid by my parents (thanks, Mom and Dad). But because my official income is less than my rent, I qualify for a monthly handout.

A few weeks ago, after learning that several colleges and universities encourage their students to apply for food stamps, I decided to try myself. A single Google search (keyword: “How do I apply for food stamps?”) brought me to the Social Security Administration website, which offered step-by-step instructions, complete with an online benefit calculator.

[SEE: Universities encouraging students to receive food stamps]

The process is simple. You don’t need to pass a test, display virtue or demonstrate poverty. All you need is some free time and a stomach for bureaucracy.

One Friday afternoon I headed to D.C. Hunger Solutions, on Connecticut Avenue in Washington. Passing a group of hostile-looking men in red Americorps jackets out front, I entered, took a number and waited while a man went into the back room and got me an application. With the form in hand, I went next to the H Street Income Maintenance Administration (IMA) Service Center, one of seven such outlets in D.C., signed in and sat down to wait.

The waiting area was filled with people who, like me, had come to apply for food stamps. Some of them were talking on their cell phones. This surprised me until I learned that cell phones are considered a necessary expense by the District government, and don’t count against eligibility for assistance. A few of the people in the waiting room seemed to be doing phone interviews for government jobs.

Meanwhile, the bureaucrats in charge of getting us food stamps stood behind the counter laughing, joking and socializing with each other. After two and a half hours, my number finally got called. I followed the caseworker to her cubicle in the back of the building.

After looking over my papers, she told me to come back Monday. Apparently I had brought only one pay-stub instead of the required two. Wait, I said. That requirement isn’t listed anywhere and that I’ve been waiting for more than two hours. She was unmoved. It was the end of her work day, she said, and she was going home. I asked if I had everything else I needed for the application. She shuffled through my paperwork quickly, without even looking at it, and said that I did.

On Monday morning, I returned to the IMA Service Center. After checking in around 8 a.m., I waited another two and a half hours before my number was called. I followed the caseworker, this time a different woman, back to her cubicle. I handed the woman my two pay-stubs, my lease for my apartment, my food stamps application and my Florida driver’s license.

For the next 45 minutes, the woman silently punched my personal information into her computer. After making photocopies of the documents, she returned. “You’re approved,” she said.

The final step, after being photographed for a District of Columbia photo ID, was picking up my benefits. Food stamps used to resemble brightly colored currency. Now, they’re dispensed in a credit card, known as the Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card. I picked mine up at yet another government office.

The process is supposed to entail a “training” session, designed to show recipients how to use the card and explain the rules and regulations that accompany it. As it turns out, the bureaucrats at the “training center” just took my information and handed me a card. In the “training room,” an employee simply had me swipe my card to activate it, select a pin number and sent me on my way. There was no training. I’m still not sure what the “rules and regulations” are.