Ethical dilemma of the day: hipsters on food stamps

At this point, the iconography of hipsterism has become so esoteric as to just be iconography itself. If your primary focus is your clothes and you still look terrible, you're a hipster. Photo courtesy of

Salon provides us with an interesting ethical question/reminds us of its existence today, with this article about hip, educated young people who use food stamps to buy organic groceries. Much to the consternation of Mose, hipsters have been a perennial object of fascination here at Combat! blog, in part because they’re so difficult to pin down. In reporting the apparent uptick in hipster consumption of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefit cards, Jennifer Bleyer acknowledges the difficulty of proving that what she’s writing about is actually happening. “The increase in food stamp use among this demographic is hard to measure,” she admits, “as they represent a cross section of characteristics not specifically tracked by the Agriculture Department, which administers the program.” When writing about hipsters, one must continually examine the possibility that they do not exist. For Bleyer’s purposes, the hipster is a fairly identifiable, if vague, marketing demographic: twenty/thirtysomething, college-educated, and willing to pay money for organic tarragon. In this case, the money is yours.

Why is that infuriating? If you’re anything like me, your first impulse upon reading the article—hell, upon seeing the picture that comes with it—was to dismantle the welfare state immediately, and possibly the entire US government, on the off chance that it might benefit even one hipster. Such people deserve nothing, by definition. Which returns us to that sticky problem of hipster bashing and its gentler cousin, the trend piece: how are we defining “hipster?”

The hipsters in Bleyer’s article are named Magida and Mak; both of them are in their thirties, have college degrees, and are un- or underemployed apparently due to their refusal to get unhip jobs. Magida has an art degree and worked installing museum exhibitions until “arts funding dried up,” meaning that she’s essentially switched to a more efficient form of charity. Mak grew up in Westchester, attended the University of Chicago and, after he “toiled in publishing,” moved to Baltimore with no plans for a job, unless you consider part-time blogging a job.* Like pornography, we know such people when we see them: they are hipsters. But how do we know?

Sure, the article tells us so, but we agree with it when it does. First of all, unlike actual poor people, Magida and Mak went to college. That they got degrees in art and (in Mak’s case probably) English was their mistake, and more likely indicative of privilege than of economic tragedy. Then there is their curious provenance; the article does not mention how Mak and Magida became interview subjects, and combines the acknowledgement that no real method exists to measure this phenomenon with unquestioned assertions like, “about half his friends in Baltimore are on food stamps.” Basically, Mak and Magida are Jennifer Breyer’s friends. Like the mysterious sources in a Times youth fashion article, they are the kind of people who—unlike regular poor people—know someone who writes for Salon.

All these details tell us something, but the literal selling point is the food. Mak and Magida spend their electronic food stamps on a comically stereotypical section of groceries—one that easily pegs them as members of a generation that is, as Breyer puts it, “as obsessed with food as previous generations were with music and sex.” First of all, no matter how much Mak is pining for braised rabbit with organic truffle oil, I doubt he would like it as much as even a mediocre handjob. Second of all, when he says “I’m kind of a foodie, and I’m not going to do the ‘living off ramen’ thing,” we immediately want to punch him in the mouth. Here is a man who actually regards his taste for gourmet food as A) an unchangeable aspect of his identity, so much that it is B) a legitimate reason to accept public assistance. And why shouldn’t he? Aren’t organic foods and local produce and free-range meat an ethical choice? Aren’t they expressions of Mak’s best self?

Here we encounter the busy intersection of organic eating, hipsterism and consumption, right outside Whole Foods. The first thing you will notice, when you make the switch to organic food, is that everything costs three times as much. Whether you believe that the higher price reflects value or not—the “real cost” argument—is beside the point; eating organic only works if you have extra money to spend on food, which makes it a province of the middle class.* Not coincidentally, eating organically is also an indicator of status. Insisting that your beef be grass fed and your asparagus come from local farmers demonstrates that you are a conscientious person, and that your conscience is informed by a certain degree of education, taste and refinement. Unlike a lot of consumer signifiers—the Hummer, say, or the opera—organic eating has not yet acquired the taint of luxury. It’s the smart thing to do, the right thing to do, and it just happens to cost a lot more money. In other words, it’s hip.

This is why the hipster is so hard to define: because hipsterism is attached not to any particular signifiers, but to the concept of signifiers themselves. Mak’s argument that he needed to go on food stamps because “I’m kind of a foodie” captures the core belief of the hipster project: that the self is expressed by and inseparable from consumer choices—the way you dress, what music you listen to, the meals you eat. It’s why hipsters are so amorphous and yet so identifiable. Their belief that consumption is a form of personal expression is the hallmark of the contemporary American middle class.

Hipsters are the children of an inordinately moneyed and leisured generation of Americans. Of course, that makes it prima facie unacceptable that they should be getting food stamps, since a middle class person brought low by her inability to find work in a gallery is still middle class. Think about that statement for a moment, though: the hipsters in Jennifer Breyer’s article prove that you can qualify for food stamps and still not be poor, that you can need money and still be middle class. It says something about the nature of social stratification in America, not to mention something about the state of an economy in which so many young, college-educated white people have run out of money for food.

Or think about this: what kind of groceries do you want people to buy with food stamps? Would Mak and Magida stop being hipsters if they spent their $200 a month on Wonder Bread and Cool Whip? Would that somehow be better? Funny how a consumer choice can be enlightened or crass, and the only real difference seems to be whether we’re spending our own money.

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  1. A jackass recycling is still a jackass.

    I was going to draw a parallel between hipsters using Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (oh, SNAP!) cards and the Federal Arts Program of FDR’s New Deal.

    The FAP paid artists to create art, giving us murals in public schools and post offices everywhere. However, the SNAP gives hipsters “delectables like artisanal bread, heirloom tomatoes and grass-fed beef” for doing absolutely nothing.

    Basically, this is a failure of the stimulus programs—and welfare programs in general—to require any effort besides filling out some forms. It’s also a failure of the hipsters to do anything worthwhile, besides lay down fat beats over old TV commercials, which is pretty sweet.

  2. When I originally read the salon article, I thought to myself, “Self, there are two ways Dan might tackle this in today’s blog (because he WILL tackle this in today’s blog)- he will either address the welfare state, and individual morality therein… oooooooor he’ll go off on hipster culture.

    In the words of that old lonely knight in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade… “You have chosen… wisely.”

  3. Is it wrong of me to assume that Dan and most of his readers are overeducated, tasteful, American “hipsters”? Why do you folks hate yourselves so much? What the hell is going on over there? Am I missing something?

    There’s so many things wrong with today’s entry this could turn into quite the consternated rant. But I’m on lunch break and don’t have a lot of time so I’ll limit it to this…

    As a one-time underemployed, college-grad, bobo (“hipster”) writer who has been on French rental assistance and social security and taken advantage of other similar French public benefits, I think it’s fantastic that public benefits are at least starting to trickle up to a wider section of the American public.

    When food stamps are not just for the desperate, but for those with just temporarily less, a greater portion of the public begins to rely on and support these public programs.

    European public programs have wide public support because everyone is entitled to them. Since we all pay for them, why shouldn’t we benefit? Importantly, the upper class pays disproportionately more taxes so there is a redistributive function at work here, plus the program’s limitations allow the government to have a say in how the money is used, which has economic and public health benefits.

    Two hundred bucks a month isn’t going to pay a true foodie’s entire grocery bills–those hipsters are still going to have to get real work at some point. Or they’ll transition into being “actual” poor, with mind-numbing minimum wage jobs and unironically ripped clothes. Is that the point when you can stop hating them?

  4. Mose,

    I think the problem that you ignore here is that these people’s unemployment appears to be, at least in part, a choice. Social welfare is there for those in need, not those who refuse to work in anything less than ideal situations. Going on the dole when you hit rough times is the purpose of the dole, but not gaining employment in one specific field and refusing to look elsewhere on principle is not. I am running under the assumption that these people are taking food stamps because it’s cooler and easier than working, not because they can’t provide for themselves.

    Let me also point out that a lot of people call me a hipster (although I will disagree adamantly) (and yes, I understand that every hipster will disagree adamantly) and I am often disregarded by new people because I work as a structural engineer rather than something cooler. I understand what it’s like to have a job that is often not fun and always not hip, but it’s not a reason to quit and expect others to provide for me.

    If Magida and Mak are out there everyday looking for jobs on every website they can think of, I will eat my words but I think we all know they’re not.

  5. Oh Salon! Citing a joke post from the humor blog “Stuff Unemployed People Like,” which uses statistical data such as “some people” and “a lot of people” is like using a Mad Magazine satire as evidence that film critics really blasted THE GODFATHER. So, as this phenomenon not “actually” happening, what is this “about”?

    Beyond this particular economic/ obesity / hipster crisis, it’s an allegory about how in a society where everyone can do what they want, people are going to do things that annoy you… and furthermore, that is sometimes going to cost you, personally.

    Why should we provide financial assistance to manual laborers who didn’t bother to take business administration classes? Why should I give that guy with no legs a dollar, when he’s going to buy Thunderbird with it? Why do I want the government to provide me with health care when I smoke cigarettes ON PURPOSE? Well I dunno, why should I pay my taxes when they keep spending my hard-earneds on tanks and bombs, maaaaan? Why be a Friend of the Public Library when they just keep buying R.L. Stine books? Why do I allow the weak and dull-eyed to walk the earth, when I could murder them and hide their bones in my crawlspace?

    Those things are not the same, but also they are. To make things fair for everyone, to make things more-fair for folks who can’t catch a goddamned break, so that we also reap the benefits of civilization, and because we are not individually the Judge of All Humanity, we sometimes/all the time have to put up with obnoxious shit we don’t like.

    In this case, SNAP provides free food for poor people. You can’t use SNAP money for booze, not even PBR, and not even ironic PBR. You have to be pretty broke to qualify, and in 2008 the average benefit was $101 per adult person. In most states you have to work 20 hours a week. As the Salon article creeps have SNAP cards, I deduce that they went through the proper channels and were deemed adults in need.

    $200 a month to feed a grown man is not a pretty sight. If a fellow who worked for AmeriCorps (which, you know, builds homes and educates children and does environmental clean up, usually in exchange for low-rent housing and partial college tuition) finds that on that budget he can eat real bread and not an unhealthy, spongy bread-like substitute, more power to him.

    Maybe these straw men would happily take extra jobs but there aren’t any jobs. Maybe low-income families would stuff their children with 99-cent Little Debbie Pecan Spinwheels, whether they were on food stamps or not.

  6. I never know what’s up with all the different Mikes in the comment section, but can I assume this was from little-bro Mike? If so, he, and only he, has every right to shame these hipsters for their $200/month handouts. The rest of us, however, contribute almost nothing to society, even when we have jobs. (And isn’t that the point here? That how much you take from the kitty should reflect how much you benefit society at large?)

    Take me, for example. I’ve worked as a technician at a performance art space in the East Village, abetting “artists” (80 percent of them, absolutely terrible) to spout off to empty rows of seats, using mainly an unwilling public’s tax and other funds. In view of my overall contribution to society, me doing that job was worse than me having no job, as I was actively counterproductive to the general good.

    And I’ve taken on other work (in fashion) that is several degrees of counterproductivity worse (hello, glamorizing income stratification and anorexia). And this is still not quite as bad as some friends who work to destroy small companies, or in advertising, or in engineering deliberately mutually incompatible consumer electronic doohickeys. (I even have a sort-of “friend” here in Paris who engineers nuclear weapons, though our relationship is strained by my obnoxious, anti-genocidal weaponry stance.)

    We should all be working to lead lives and get jobs that are more productive. But I think in terms of gross quantity of evil, receiving food stamps is nowhere near as bad as the vast majority of modern jobs on offer. Let’s criticize the performance art enablers and fashion writers first, then the hipster who’s not finding work fast enough while on foodstamps. Chances are, the food stamps keep him from doing something even more evil.

  7. Hipsters are losers. They will never get a real job dressing the way thy do. Who doesn’t want a real job to be able to afford the finer things in life. Who doesn’t want to be able to provide their families with luxuries and nice things? How are you going to put your kid through college working as a museum exhibit set-up boy?? You hipsters will be broke at 30 and its going to hit you over the head like a ton of bricks. Get a grip on life.

  8. Actually ….who really cares how these people live. Be a loser if you want to be a loser. Im going to have a big crib and multiple ill vehicles no matter what they do.

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