Hipsters on Food Stamps

I recently read this article in Salon about the strange recessionary phenomenon of hipsters who are on food stamps and eating well, never missing a beat with their Whole Foods-quality standards of foodie existence. They’re young, they’re broke, and they pay for organic salmon with government subsidies.

Here’s an excerpt from the article (which you should take the time to read):

Magida, a 30-year-old art school graduate, had been installing museum exhibits for a living until the recession caused arts funding — and her usual gigs — to dry up. She applied for food stamps last summer, and since then she’s used her $150 in monthly benefits for things like fresh produce, raw honey and fresh-squeezed juices from markets near her house in the neighborhood of Hampden, and soy meat alternatives and gourmet ice cream from a Whole Foods a few miles away.

“I’m eating better than I ever have before,” she told me. “Even with food stamps, it’s not like I’m living large, but it helps.” …

Think of it as the effect of a grinding recession crossed with the epicurean tastes of young people as obsessed with food as previous generations were with music and sex. Faced with lingering unemployment, 20- and 30-somethings with college degrees and foodie standards are shaking off old taboos about who should get government assistance and discovering that government benefits can indeed be used for just about anything edible, including wild-caught fish, organic asparagus and triple-crème cheese.

This curious phenomenon–paradoxical though it may seem–is thoroughly unsurprising and immediately familiar to anyone who has monitored the long hipster narrative of fascination with urban struggle and the fetishizing of working class subsistence. Always on the lookout for new ways to coopt the tropes of the proletariat–whether it be in dress (vagrant chic), residence (gentrification), or behavior (riding buses)–hipsters are now gladly jumping into a another everyday activity that has long been the terrain (and still is) of the working poor, the elderly and single parents on welfare: Food stamps.

Of course, these hipsters ARE poor. In this economy, a graduate degree in rhetoric from Columbia doesn’t promise a job. These food stamps hipsters are financially struggling, and so I don’t doubt that they qualify for food stamps. And if the government is going to be subsidizing food, I’d rather it be Michael Pollan-sanctioned free range chicken and kale rather than Hot Pockets and Mr. Pibb. At least the former will make our impoverished youngsters healthier.

But I can’t help but wonder: If hipsters are using food stamps to purchase organic quinoa, lobster ravioli and sparkling hibiscus lime juice, they had to have learned their expensive tastes somewhere, and most likely in the upper middle class comforts of their well-heeled upbringing. Don’t they have wealthy parents, a trust fund, or some sort of other bailout… must they really resort to food stamps? Must they really turn so quickly to the desperately overspent government for support? Or is food stamps just another way to “be in solidarity” with the downtrodden, while conveniently tricking Uncle Sam into supporting one’s addiction to Piedmont truffles?

I guess you could call me skeptical about the whole thing. I’m skeptical about hipsters romanticizing poverty; I’m skeptical about whether the recent explosion in food stamps among unemployed, educated 20-somethings is a systemic outgrowth of economic conditions as much as it is an outgrowth of a spoiled generation that wants to have it’s vegan cake and eat it too; I’m even dubious about the whole enterprise of food stamps and wonder if some sort of reform is in order.

Mostly I just find it all a bit distasteful. Like it or not: food means. It symbolizes, connotes, describes… frequently along the lines of class and culture. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with foie gras or duck confit; just that we shouldn’t ignore the fact that these foods have blatant associations with privilege. Imagine if you were standing in line to sleep at a homeless shelter and, once you were granted a bed, you reached into your bag and pulled out 1200 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets and a goose-down pillow, proceeding to make your bed in front of all the other homeless people sleeping with a burlap blanket and clumpy feather pillows. Even if you legitimately had not a penny to your name, your extravagant bedding in a homeless shelter–like your sage-encrusted Kobe filet in a world where Ramen can barely cover it for a family’s sustenance–would understandably raise eyebrows and questions about, if nothing else, your tact.

15 responses to “Hipsters on Food Stamps

  1. great post! i specifically love the statement of hipsters romanticizing poverty. it’s a fun adventure if you know that you can get out of poverty at any time, like the majority of educated hipsters. i couldn’t agree more with the questionable (or lack thereof) tact; this is offensive to the legitimately poor people are desperate for food stamps.

  2. Brett, this is my favorite article I’ve seen you post. Tact and fact.

    I’m RTing it.

  3. Agreed, good post and good questions. My only curiosity comes in relationship to this sentence:

    “In this economy, a graduate degree in rhetoric from Columbia doesn’t promise a job.”

    Has there ever been an economy in which it would? ;-)

  4. Great Post Brett- this reminds me a lot of my college experience. Rich white kids dressing & acting like they are poor, homeless & hipster, only to call mommy & daddy for more pot/beer money.

    We used to have this saying at my college: “Hippies with ipods aren’t real Hippies.” I think it could manifest into:
    “Hipsters on Food Stamps aren’t real hipsters.”

  5. wow! this is so hectic. i’m with you on your sentiments regarding this strange phenomenon.

  6. Great post. Wholeheartedly agree. And even if they may not have the job of their dreams, if they have an education, it’s highly unlikely they wouldn’t be hired at say, Starbucks (gasp!), to provide enough green for at least food.

  7. Fwiw (and it might not be much) the cash equivalent you get in food stamps really is a LOT of money.

    A couple married friends of mine were on stamps for a while – he was suffering from a wicked bout of depression and couldn’t find a decent job and she was in grad school and they had a 2 yr. old daughter.

    They always had TONS of food.

    Granted, they couldn’t ever go out and they could barely pay rent, but there was always tons of snack food around their place b/c they had so much stamp money for food.

  8. What, Tim Coe, we can’t ask questions?

    It seems as if you only post in disagreement.

  9. We can certainly ask questions. But being presumptuous about the life situations of less fortunate strangers and making assumptions about whether people are on EBT or food stamps are maybe just too lazy to get a job at Starbucks isn’t asking questions, it’s begging the question.

  10. Speaking as someone who has been on food stamps: The level of condescension and bogus assumptions happening here are pretty silly.

    Also, Brett is embellishing. No one is buying Kobe beef or fois gras on food stamps. There is an obvious difference between food that is more of a luxury because it’s organic/free-range/more healthy/ecologically sustainable but not subsidized the way cheap less nutritious food is–and food products that are just about conspicuous consumption.

    I’m starting to suspect this entire enterprise of writing about hipsters is one giant straw-man exercise.

  11. ChristianPinko

    Ok, Brett’s raising some good points here. But I have to ask, what use of food stamps WOULD be ok? It seems like there’s always some reason to disparage food stamp recipients as undeserving of charity. Brett doesn’t like hipsters buying organic/gourmet food; funny, I’ve heard complaints about working-poor people spending food stamps on junk food. If you’re on food stamps, you’re always guilty. Meanwhile, recipients of farm subsidies or other middle-class programs never seem to have guardians of public morality come snooping around to make sure that every last cent of the taxpayers’ money is being spent wisely.

  12. This is a rehash of the welfare queen driving a Cadillac story. Just as you criticize people romanticizing poverty, this story also romanticizes poverty. Poverty popularly means that people in poverty can’t have nice things or be related to nice people. They should have sold anything that could be sold (1200 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets). They should have begged from whoever they could have begged (Mom and Dad). But they definitely should not have accepted government assistance.

    Food is a great uniter and it is a great divider. It reflects our likes and dislikes, how we grew up, our politics, our education, our class, our patience, our hypochondria, our allergies, our disabilities, our medical conditions, our neighborhood, our parents, and our persuadability.

    STOP JUDGING!

    The typical anger is usually how we as taxpayers feel about how are tax dollars our being wasted by some poor person buying processed food, in this case, buying healthier (misunderstood as more expensive) food. Do you know how this anger is unjustified? The SNAP (food stamps) recipient spends the same dollar amount every month no matter what he/she purchases. Thus, our taxes are used the same no matter what someone on food stamps purchases.

    What we should be angry about is the 1 out of 7 people who are going to sleep tonight having not been able to feed themselves completely? And we should be especially angry that of the 49 million people, which includes 17 million children, with hunger in this country, all of them could use food stamps, but not all of them qualify.

  13. Excellent post, I have just quoted you, bravo!

  14. I would like someone to explore this matter more deeply. I grew up working class, but was exposed to high class lifestyle because I served rich people (nanny, housecleaning, waitress). In the mid 90′s people like myself, low income kids were accepted to nice colleges, offering us grants, loans and financial aid. Thus, being one of those kids,I was exposed to more people with affluence. Since I had to work, no parents supporting me, I took jobs the nice cafe’s, juice bars, and restaurants near my school, thus more exposure. Visit Whole Foods in the NYC, those are low income jobs, and who is taking such jobs? Look who is making your fancy macrobiotic food. It’s been like this since there has been money, the poor sleep in the next room to the rich. It’s always been that way, and that is one thing,in our society that will never change.

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