Foodstamp Blues in El Norte

by Luciente

Revolutionary Worker #897, March 9, 1997

It seems that a new battlefront opens up every week as the U.S. steps up its war on the poor. Legal immigrants are among the first targets of these welfare cuts. An estimated 1 million legal immigrants will lose food stamps beginning in April. The new welfare laws do allow for some exceptions: For now, at least, benefits will continue for immigrants who are U.S. citizens, veterans and in the U.S. armed forces, and for immigrants with official refugee status who have lived in the U.S. less than five years.

But legal immigrants will be cut off food stamps and Supplemental Security Income (SSI), if they can't prove they have worked in the U.S. for more than 10 years. Many legal immigrants worked in the U.S. that long, but can't prove their long years of hard work because they worked "under the table" or as day laborers. Social security tax records are being used as proof of employment--and many immigrants work jobs where employers do not keep detailed records or withhold such taxes.

California will be hard hit by these cuts--270,000 immigrants there are scheduled to be cut off from food stamps. In Los Angeles alone, more than 150,000 immigrants will lose food stamps, and more than 99,000 elderly and disabled immigrants will no longer get SSI.

L.A. County officials are worried about the unrest these cuts will cause. They say they have figured out a way to postpone the food stamp cuts until September--instead of cutting people off one at a time as individual benefits expire. A postponement doesn't solve the problems of the people--though it may create better conditions for struggle when thousands of immigrant people are cut off all at once.

The Sad Tet New Year

When I first heard about the cuts I thought of how devastated people's lives were going to be. I read articles in the L.A. Times about the effect these cuts will have on old people in immigrant communities. There have been Saturday morning meetings of hundreds of older Asian immigrants who told of their fear that they will be evicted when they lose their SSI or will starve. These immigrant workers have spent years working in sweatshop factories or picking in the fields only to find they don't have enough money to eat and pay rent in the last years of their lives. In addition, many of the elderly immigrants have no one they can look to for financial support when these cuts take place. Others are the financial support for their families.

Vietnamese people in Orange County told how Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, is usually a very festive time of the year celebrated with gifts and food. But since Clinton signed the welfare reform, people stopped buying things. Instead of giving each other small presents, they are trying to figure out how they can stretch out the little money they have.

An 80-year-old Vietnamese immigrant must sell a stamp collection he's had since he was 20 years old. It is the only thing of value he has and he will desperately need the money it might bring in. Many Vietnamese immigrants have enrolled in citizenship classes in hopes of becoming citizens before the cuts hit them. Many of these immigrants speak little or no English and often can't read. Some of the older immigrants are frustrated that they learn things one minute but forget them the next--all of which present major obstacles in the way of citizenship.

As I read these stories I thought a lot about the effect these cuts will have in my own neighborhood--an area with a lot of immigrants from Mexico, Central and South America, Korea and other parts of the world. I wondered how many kids would go to bed hungry night after night because of these cuts and what that would do to their overall health. How many mothers would sacrifice their own food and health to try to take care of their children? And how many families who have to count every nickel and dime now will end up living on the streets in the coming months? I went out to talk to some of these people as word of the cuts began to spread in the community.


Juana was waiting at a busstop as she told me how she worries about all the mothers and children who will be cut from welfare. Twelve years ago she met a woman from El Salvador at the waiting room of General Hospital. They both gave birth on the same day to baby boys. The Salvadoran woman's son was born severely mentally retarded. She had to stop working and apply for welfare to be able to take care of her son full time--so she can't possibly meet the requirement about proving that she had worked in the U.S. for 10 years in order to continue receiving aid.

These two women have known each other for 12 years, they're neighbors, and throughout that time welfare checks haven't always been on time or haven't arrived at all. The kid is twelve now, but it's like he's still a baby--he can't walk by himself, bathe, eat, or do anything without the help of his mother.

Juana asks, "What will happen to her and her son and people like them?"

Who Will Care for the Kids

I visited a local immigrants rights group. They told me that people were very worried. More and more were contacting the group every day to see what could be done. This group put together a packet of information on how these cuts will affect the families of people on assistance: "Florencio and Estela S. and their four children are legal immigrants from Mexico. Mr. S. has been in the United States for 30 years. Mrs. S. arrived in the United States with the four children ten years ago. The S. family has been on public assistance since March 1995 because Mr. S. has been unable to find a job. The best he has been able to find are temporary jobs which he works whenever they are available. Mrs. S. speaks only Spanish. She worries about what will happen to the family if their benefits are cut off because the money from her husband's temporary jobs are not enough to support the family. The children could even end up in foster care if Mr. and Mrs. S. are unable to provide for them."

I talked with Maria, a woman from Central America who worked 15 hours a day picking up and cleaning after other people and only making minimum wage. She eventually had to go on welfare and asks how dare the government say that people on welfare live luxuriously when she remembers that for years she couldn't afford to buy her three kids new shoes and clothes. She still only gets enough money to pay for the bare necessities--nothing more. "My daughter needs braces really badly. It costs like $1,500 and Medical won't cover it. Where will I get that kind of money? Nowhere." How will she be able to support three children, her mother, and herself on a minimum-wage job? When her mother's gone and there's no one to care for the kids, where will money for a sitter come from? "I might be forced to leave them in the playground for a long time."


Leonor has lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years. She was injured on her job and could no longer work so she applied for food stamps. "I get stress every time I go to the mailbox and look at all my bills. These cuts will have horrible results. What will people do? For me it's not as bad as other people with children. The $200 people get isn't enough to pay bills. What will people wear? Where will people live? Sometimes I don't eat well for two or three days, but I tell myself that soon enough I'll get my food stamps and I'll be able to go to the store and buy food."

Leonor knows she won't reapply for food stamps because of this welfare reform and its cuts. And, while the cuts anger and worry her, she won't be around to see firsthand the effect that these cuts will have on people. She'll be going back to El Salvador soon. She says she never liked this country, but it was either put up with the humiliations here or starve to death in El Salvador. And now, she will also face starvation if she stays here.

For the majority of immigrants, going back to their countries isn't an option. And besides--millions have spent years of hard labor in this place. Simple justice demands that they be taken care of when they are too sick to work, too old or simply unable to find a decent job.

While these welfare cuts are certainly bringing down tremendous suffering, they are also giving rise to something else. Many, including people not on welfare and people who aren't immigrants, are opening up their eyes and seeing--some for the first time--the cold, murderous and greedy monster this system really is.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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