News item: North Carolina is listed as one of the states where the food stamp program is underused. Social workers say they can’t seem to interest eligible families to come in and sign up.

“I don’t think they understand that we’re here to help them,” one explains.


On the tight little benches and awkward chairs sat a double handful of people, staring down at their shoes.

“Yes, Mr. Perkins is still here,” the receptionist’s voice broke over the silence as she cradled the phone. “That’s right, he’s waiting for Mrs. Neal.”

In the tight little room, Perkins shuffled his feet a little and stared harder at his shoe tips.

Only the little children looked up. Like children waiting to see the doctor they fidgeted, clung to sleeves.

“Miss Nattie Perry,” the secretary called through the open doorway. “You may come this way.”

A young black girl hesitated, then keeping her eyes down and scooping up a small child, eased across the room toward the door.

“You’re on short-time I see, Mr. Williams,” the secretary with the severe brown hair called from the receptionist’s alcove. “My husband’s been put on short-time, too.”

Williams blinked. “I work over in Siler City,” he said quickly, “We’ve been cut back is all. We’re on three days.”

His daughter huddled against his light jacket.

“Yes, well my husband is over at the label mill, they’ve been cut back to four days now,” the secretary called back antiseptically, staring at the folder. “Well I’m sure we can do something.”

Williams adjusted his cap, resettled his daughter and drew back into the tight silence.

A middle-aged farmer brushed through the room, finished, and with­out looking to either side, went out.

In the background the two secretaries were laughing about Betty Harris’ house.

“I don’t know how the woman can stand it,” the severe one told the group.

“Have you filled out one of these before? It’s a work form,” the bright-eyed social worker asked lightly, sliding the forms across the desk. “You’ll have to have one before we can do anything.”

As he filled in the blanks, the questions continued. “Now do you own any real property? . . . no, no, I mean houses, land, things like that . . . you don’t keep any money in the house, do you? . . . you’ll need to bring in rent receipts, you don’t pay by check do you? . . . do you have any money in the bank? . . . Could you kind of explain just where that is? . . . Well we’ll certainly want to get in touch with you sometimes . . .”

Her voice curled upward at the end of each question, impersonal as the wind on a sunny day.

“Do you expect your financial situation to change any time soon?”

“Yes,” he replied, slowly pushing the piece of paper back to her. “I’m hoping to find some work.”

“Good, good . . .” she said softly as she read.

The room was hot as a kitchen.

“Now may I help you?” The teller turned brightly to the grey­-haired woman at the head of the line.

“They . . . they told me to bring this over here and you would take care of it,” she said, nervously handing over the grey card.

“Oh food stamps . . . certainly Mrs. Norris.” The same bright southern voice. “Did you want to buy all of them or just part?”

“I’d like to buy $40 worth, if I can. How much is that?”

“You could buy $45. Do you have $45 with you, Mrs. Norris?”

“I don’t have that much right now,” she said weakly. “Could I buy some and come back for the rest later?”

“I’m sorry but the rules don’t allow that. You have to buy them all at once, but you have until the 25th.”

There was a pause. “Could I buy $40 worth?”

She bought $40 worth of stamps and left quickly. Her face was set; she did not notice her neighbors.

Some of ’em come in any old tine. Mostly they’ve been on ’em some time. The new ones, they come in when they ain’t too many people in the store. You oughta see what all they buy with them things. I oughta be on ’em.” The cashier laughed as he leaned back and sipped his Pepsi.

“Payin’ ’em not to work.”

“Hell no it don’t bother me anymore,” Jaimie laughed, grabbing a baked potato.“They gave Nixon $200,000 and he doesn’t even have to look for a job.

“But I’ll tell you, if I had friends like Bebe and Bob Alphabet you wouldn’t catch me standing in no lines either.”