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Jobless Protest Abuses of Food Stamp Plan

Relief Clients Voice Complaints at UPWU Meeting

(11 November 1940)

From Labor Action, Vol. 4 No. 31, 11 November 1940, pp. 1 & 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

When the food stamp plan went into effect in Brooklyn in September, Welfare Commissioner William Hodson made the following optimistic statement:

“From every standpoint it is helpful and constructive; and we are certainly grateful to the Federal Government for making the experiment possible. My hope is that it will prove so successful in Brooklyn that we can extend it throughout the city without too much delay.”

That the optimism of Hodson has not been realized in the eight weeks that the plan has been in operation in Brooklyn was attested to at the meeting of the Unemployed and Project Workers Union on October 29. One home relief client after another got up and told about the abuses of the food stamp plan.

The complaints tell into three categories: (1) families taking the stamps were deprived of cash for even the most elementary needs; (2) they were not getting the full value of the stamps because of change difficulties; (3) housewives going into stores with stamps were ashamed, and store keepers took advantage of’ their shame.

It will be remembered: that, under the plan for each member of a home relief family $3 is deducted from the semi-monthly checks. In return the family gets orange stamps, with a face value of $3 for each member, good for any type of foodstuff, and blue stamps, with a face value of $1.50, good only for foods designated as surplus by the Secretary of Agriculture.

Imposes Hardships

Because the whole family has to participate in the plan, and not only one or two members, it results in great hardship by taking a huge slice out of cash payments. As it works out, for example, a family of five, will get only $20 instead of $35 in cash.

It was pointed out at the UPWU meeting that, with so little cash, participants in the food stamp plan have no money for such things as haircuts, stockings, an occasional movie, or even a ride on the city’s subway. The barber will not accept a bunch of carrots for payment, nor will a head of cabbage fit into the slot of the subway machine. Smokers to whom an occasional pack of cigarettes is almost indispensable feel the pinch. Housewives, who before the food stamp plan could squeeze a few pennies off the food to patch up the electric bill when it got beyond the $1.50 allowed, are now at a loss, and the same is true on a larger scale when it comes to paying rent above the allowed scale.

Storekeepers Chisel

Storekeepers are supposed to give a signed credit slip for the change when a purchaser does not buy for the full amount of the stamp. However, there has been chiseling and great inconvenience on this score, according to speakers at the UPWU meeting.

The story was told of a Negro woman at a butcher shop. The butcher refused to give her a credit slip for change. Finally, because she kept insisting, he tore off a bit of newspaper and jotted down something hardly legible. It was obvious he had no intention of honoring the slip in the future. Often grocers refuse outright to give the credit slips, demanding that the customer buy more merchandise, stuff she does not want and which may go bad on her before she needs it.

At the open air markets, where business is done on pushcarts and stands, it is almost impossible to get credit slips for change. The result is that women buy an extra bunch of this and an extra head of that. They don’t need it and it gets stale before they get around to using it.

Many women feel stigmatized and set apart as second-class citizens because they have to buy for stamps instead or cash. They will wait around a store or a pushcart until there are no customers before going over to make their purchases. One stamp user said he gave up buying in a butcher shop where he bought for seven years because he was ashamed to go in with stamps. This feeling of shame and inferiority also accounts for some of the loss stamp users suffer because of the stamps. They are hasty, are afraid to insist on their rights, and when there are other customers around they will go away without getting satisfaction.

It is not only in the UPWU that complaints are voiced. Complaints have seeped through to the capitalist press. Some papers have carried the story of Mrs. Felloruis of the Red Hook district. With her husband sick and a family of seven children, the stamp plan badly restricted her purchases of necessities other than food. She said the cash which is being deducted from the relief check would be more welcome since they need shoes and other things, and even soap has to be paid for in cash.

A representative of Local 17 of the UPWU in Williamsburgh said that there the small grocer will often give actual bits of cash change, even though it is illegal. He does that in order to compete with the chain store, but gets it out of the customer in some other way. A woman told how storekeepers would not accept stamps, of either color, for goods on special sale. They simply brush aside a stamp customer with the comment, “Sales is for cash customers”.

The false idea is current that the acceptance of food stamps is entirely voluntary. The fact is that very real pressure has been used by the Welfare Department. Relief clients eligible for stamps, who do not take them, are also deprived of the privilege of going to the surplus commodity depots which was their privilege before. Thus it is a case of either taking stamps or doing without surplus food altogether.

Complaints Ignored

Four times this matter has been brought before Commissioner Hodson by the Unemployed & Project Workers Union, but nothing has been done. The UPWU, therefore on the basis of the evidence presented by its members, adopted a resolution at the Oct. 29 meeting which condemned the stamp plan as a step towards putting relief families entirely on the card system. The resolution called for the abolition of the plan for the re-opening of surplus food depots and for more cash relief. The meeting also passed a motion for its Central Committee to implement the union position by the use of picket lines and whatever other means seem advisable.

It is estimated that there are in Brooklyn 28,000 relief families, a total of nearly 70,000 persons, who have taken food stamps. It becomes evident that many of these people did not realize the full implication of what the stamp plan meant, especially that nothing but food can be bought for the stamps. As the Department of Agriculture is planning to introduce the food stamp plan in 200 cities by the end of the year, the stand of the UPWU is one of extreme importance. We will comment further on it in a coming issue of Labor Action.

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