Across America, state governments are pursuing harsh restrictions on public anti-poverty benefits. Each week, we’re publishing true stories from people who receive those benefits. It’s not an easy life.
Welfare, past and present
I grew up with my family getting welfare in the 80’s. I remember waiting in the car with my brothers in the parking lot while my mother was inside doing paperwork and/or regular reassessment interviews.
I can remember the colorful Food Stamps that looked like Monopoly money that came in booklets like little tear off note pads. I also remember that it was something we children didn’t talk about with any of our friends, unless we knew that the got Welfare also. I grew up poor in a pretty well off area, so I never talked about it. When I was a teen my mother got a better job with benefits and everything, mainly because we kids were old enough so she didn’t have to structure her work day around making sure an adult was around to watch us. I felt so strange that day, the first time we did the grocery shopping for the monthly staples, and only paid cash. We still used coupons, but I seemed to feel much less of the eye rolls I had been on the receiving end of when we combined food stamps and coupons before. I guess the delay of the cashier having to do the multiple codes for Food Stamps and coupons was just too much for some people. Suddenly they weren’t impatient with us using so much of their precious time, In fact when I took over the grocery shopping for my mother I got compliments on being so prudent with my money that I was using coupons. Being the teen-aged smart alec I was I still replied “How else am I going to pay for my cigarettes? “
Then when the recession hit hard back in 2008, My husband and I and our kids had to go on on Cash Aid, and SNAP while waiting for his unemployment to be processed The whole package really, we had already been on MediCal since none of his jobs had ever offered health plans, and my being a freelance research assistant to fill in some of the gaps didn’t have a health plan either. We have four children, and any money I would get for a job wouldn’t even really put a dent in childcare costs.
The process was actually really easy to apply for, and the workers were friendly, I found out that almost half of the staff were actually former recipients themselves that had used their time to get a certificate training them to be social workers. An actual degree isn’t necessary for an entry level position in my county.
The worst part of my experience was the mandatory job training that you have to attend, or you, the adult will be cut from the benefit, We sat in a conference room and listened to lectures about how to behave in an interview, how to find a job, how to dress for an interview, and even lectures on personal hygiene. Then we were given resume worksheets and turned loose in a computer lab, to write our resumes and then do a job search on the approved job search sites. Sometimes we couldn’t do the online application because they had the websites so tightly restricted to keep people from just surfing the web. Apparently if you can’t quantify your self employment to their standards it doesn’t count as a job.
With the EBT cards that people use today, I experienced none of the disapproval that I remember from my childhood. I never bought luxury food, but would buy the steaks sometimes that were the ones that were advertised as the loss leaders in the ads, you know, the front page above the fold ads that were meant to catch you attention and hope to snare your cash for the stuff you buy since you are already in the store. Only $1.99 a pound for London Broil? Sold. Volunteered for snack day in your first graders class and the rules are no home baked treats so the school isn’t liable for hidden food allergens? Yes I admit to buying cookies at Safeway with food stamps. Nobody blinked an eye.
I think that the Republicans who are going for all the new restrictions should try just a few days of what it’s like before they do it, but I doubt they will.
From a mother in a shelter
I receive monthly benefits for myself and my twin boys. I live in NYC in a family shelter and I’m 41 years old. I receive $850 a month in Social Security Disability Benefits for myself and $600 for my boys. I also receive WIC and SNAP ($274). So, for 3 people, I receive about $2000 a month. It’s not bad and we get by (mostly because my boys are finicky eaters).
I usually spend about $500 a month on food, even with WIC. Breakfast, lunch and dinner isn’t cheap and the boys still drink at least 16oz. of milk a day. My vice, sweet cigarettes, are about $150 a month (bootleggers sell cartons for $75 apiece). The boys don’t eat much but somehow that hasn’t stunted their growth. Every time I turn around, they need new pants or shirts or shoes. So for their gear, I’d say I spend another c-note at least. Transportation, toiletries, household items…but the killer? Fucking DIAPERS! I buy them buy the case. Two boys, two cases at $50 a pop. Don’t forget the wipes! Laundry! Cell phone! Internet! If I’m lucky, I make it through the month.
The real story is how I came to need and receive these benefits. I worked for many years. Most recently, I was a web developer. I even interviewed with you a couple of years ago. I couldn’t take the job at the time because I already had a full-time job. I had an apartment, a husband, cable, an Xbox. I lived in a decent neighborhood (for the Bronx) that was close to shopping and the 4 that I took every day to and from my job.
I suffer from bi-polar disorder. When I take my medication, it keeps me on an even level where I can function like everyone else. Sometimes, things got overwhelming and I’d end up in the hospital. A quick two week stay, recalibration of my medication and I was usually good to go.
Then I got pregnant. I was one of those women that didn’t just suffer morning sickness…it was an all day and all night sickness. I couldn’t eat or sleep or stop being sick. I was hospitalized several times for dehydration. I had to leave my job because I couldn’t function. No job, no rent money. I was evicted. My husband, prince that he is, left me high and dry and pregnant. I ended up at a homeless shelter. I’ve been here ever since.
I still consider myself one of the lucky ones. The shelter I’m in is not bad (for the Bronx). Actually, it’s better maintained than my last apartment. The boys have Medicaid and Health Plus and see a wonderful doctor at Montefiore. They go to Early Head Start. They are happy boys.
So why am I still in the shelter? I don’t get enough money to afford an apartment on my own (even in the Bronx—I hate the Bronx!) but I get too much money to qualify for the very few programs that are available. I see a caseworker here at the shelter once a week who recently said that we MAY qualify now for public housing since we have been here for over a year. Yeah! 10 to 1 it will be here, in the fucking Bronx. (look, I’m from Queens, born and raised. I’ve also lived in Brooklyn and Manhattan. I would love to go back to Brooklyn or Queens but the rents are so damn high, even for working folks.)
The only thing stopping me now from getting back to work is the fact I haven’t worked in nearly 3 years. I have experience and am actively looking. I’ve gone on a few interviews, even 2nd interviews but no takers yet. So, in the meantime, I will raise my boys and try to keep them happy and productive.
A special needs budget
I‘m [name], a 33 year old woman living in O’Fallon, IL. I have one dependent, my 8 year old daughter, who is considered special needs because she was born with Hydrocephalus. We have received some form of state aid on and off since I lost a well-paying job in 2008. Since then, it has really depended on my employment as to whether we receive benefits or not. We have received Medicaid since Winter 2013. Until I got a better paying job ($13.00 per hour from 8.45 per hour) in June of 2014, I received 362 per month in SNAP benefits as well as Medicaid. I don’t know how much our healthcare is worth per month, but I would estimate around a few hundred dollars. Once I started making the “big money”, the state completely cut our SNAP benefits. The reason we receive medical benefits are because my daughter has special needs considered to be “mortal without care” and my company offers healthcare that would eat about 25% of my take home pay.
After I’m taxed I bring a home a little over 1600 per month. Occasionally, my daughter’s father will pay child support, but I don’t count on that money. I pay 550 per month in mortgage on a lovely, tiny home that I share with a roommate and my daughter. We split utilities and my half averages 200 per month. Thankfully, my daughter is old enough to be in school so I only pay 160 per month in school “after care” fees. However, school lunch is 50 month and this tends to be less expensive than sending her with her own lunch. I pay 150 per month on a credit card I had to use for a dental emergency. I have no other credit cards. My cell phone bill is 100.00 per month and internet runs me 60.00. I’m required to have internet and a cell phone because I work from home as a client services representative and virtual executive assistant. I spend very little on fuel for my car (maybe 40.00 per month) and I drive a 1992 Oldsmobile Cutlass that I got for 1200 dollars a few years ago. Car insurance is 30 per month. The thing is ugly as sin, but I don’t have a car payment and it runs like a top. I pay 10-20 dollars per month on medical bills that we have run up over the years during times we didn’t have insurance. These bills total around 4,000.
I am a full time student at UMSL in Missouri and after my pell grant and scholarships, I’m generally responsible for around 1000-1500 per semester. Though it’s not due yet, I pay 50 per month toward my small student loan. This leaves me with 200 left over per month to use for groceries, clothing, shoes, oil changes/mechanical work, house maintenance, larger payments toward bills and savings. A lot of my savings eventually go to fund the pursuit of my degree. I am majoring in Anthropology with an estimated graduation of Spring 2016. I’ll also be receiving my certificate in Archaeology (just a benefit of the classes I happened to choose). After that, I’m going right into a Masters Plus program in Education. Hopefully, I’ll be able to teach middle school while I pursue my Ph. D. As a full time student it is incredibly difficult to maintain employment. Companies don’t like to hire full time employees who need flexibility. I end up losing a job about once a year or taking jobs that pay the bare minimum. I have always notified prospective employers of the need for flexibility. I’m actually considering quitting my job this Fall to become a server in a restaurant. My current employer will not let me have one day off to attend two required day time courses that are only available in the Fall. If I don’t quit my job, I have to put off my degree for another year.
A lawyer’s view of the system
I am a lawyer in a town in what is mostly-rural Iowa. I do a lot of criminal and juvenile (delinquent children and CINAs (i.e. children in need of assistance (i.e. child abuse or endangerment cases) law, that is to say, I come into contact with a bunch of slugs: the kind of people who you would suspect of, or even expect to be, “gaming the system” to maximize their “handouts”. And on the other hand, I come into contact with a bunch of people who are the kind of people that you would think need to be receiving all kinds of government aid. To give away my thesis, I do not see either situation playing out at all. It’s frankly shocking to me that so many people who are genuinely in need have no idea that there is aid and support available to them. I haven’t been a lawyer in this arena long enough to say whether this might be a function of cut-backs (which we have experienced in our state over the past approx. 4 years, having just (embarrassingly) re-elected our republican governor to a second term).
As an example, I have a CINA, mom of 2 children, no support from the father, mom is a recovering meth addict who became my client after her boyfriend beat up her kids. Prior to Court intervention, mom was working 2 jobs part-time. Based on her mental health status, she was probably eligible for some amount of social security or other disability aid—she had no idea. Based on income and number of kids, she was probably eligible for food stamps—she had no idea. She didn’t know she could get free help with her addiction issues or free help for the trauma she experienced as a result of abuse in her household. She had no idea aid was available to help pay for childcare. As far as I know, the only assistance she was getting was for her kids’ healthcare (through the state) and, since the ACA, she was getting subsidized healthcare for herself as well. Now, since there has been Court intervention, she gets all kinds of public support and aid, and, at least for now, she is able to be a parent to her children—which is the goal.
This is just one example, but this has overwhelmingly been my experience: most people don’t even know what aid is available, let alone to take advantage of. Would they game the system if they knew about all this aid? They (by and large) probably wouldn’t be able to figure out how (I know how awful that sounds, but I’m just saying this based on my experience—not based on everyone in the country). And frankly, the kind of people who I come in contact with have so much shit going on in their lives that they do not have time to scheme the government—they’re just trying to get through the day.
This is why I get so confused when I hear about aid in terms of “handouts,” and these supposed “schemers” who are trying to take advantage of taxpayers’ dollars. I haven’t seen that at all. I’m sure it happens—there are a lot of shitty people out there—but I can’t imagine it happens much. From my point of view and experience there are A LOT of people who need A LOT of support. But it’s not like the government is handing them lobster, a Coach bag, and an Audi. We’re talking about aid that affords people some basic semblance of dignity. And if we could guarantee that all people in need of aid could live with dignity, I sure as hell can’t say I’d complain about a tax increase, and anyone that does is just kind of an asshole.
Life in Detroit
I am a 38 year old male married male with four children living in the Metro-Detroit region. My family and I have been receiving public assistance in the way of food stamps (called the bridge card) W.I.C. (women, infants, children) and state provided health care for the past three and a half to four years. Our food benefits total around $500 a month; this can vary through the year due to a sporadic review process. We do not receive any form of cash benefits, our benefits are strictly food and healthcare related.
My wife is a stay at home mom, this may seem like a luxury, but with three of our four children below school age, day care is cost prohibitive. My wife and I have degrees, she has an associates, I have an associates and a bachelors. We both made the mistake of getting our degrees in 2009, right when the economy went in the tank and jobs dried up; the Metro-Detroit region was hit exceptionally hard. The first job I could land after graduating was working the deli counter in a local grocery store. This was after four months of sending out resumes and receiving zero replies. After a year of slicing meat I managed to get a job working midnight security, the pay was marginally better and it was at least a job in my degree field (criminal justice). That was almost five years ago. I currently make just under $24,000 a year. Before taxes. It’s enough to survive on our own if we don’t want to eat. My average paycheck is in the neighborhood of $740 every two weeks. Subtract car insurance, mortgage payment, gas, electric (these have been really bad the last two winters), water and phone bills and we are left with around $150 for gasoline for the month. We don’t have cable, we don’t eat out, and we try to make or grow as much as we can to cut down on costs. Were it not for assistance we would either be eating in a cold dark house or just straight up homeless.
Assistance is a stop gap measure. Believe me, if I were in a position to not take assistance I would. It’s a humiliating experience to pull out the bridge card to pay for your food and have the people behind you in line begin to assess what you have. The condescending looks, the snide comments, it’s the death of your dignity by a thousand cuts.I don’t want this so come off as a long drawn out sob story, the position I am in financially is just as much my own making as it is the state of the economy. I chose a degree field that is not the most lucrative to begin with; add to that the fact that I have absolutely no desire to be a police officer and the job field narrows even further. I have a resume that has demonstrated longevity (I stick with a job once I get it), but no consistency (retail, food service, legal). I have focused my job hunting efforts, instead of sending out ten to twelve resumes a week on focus on only one or two that seem the most promising, but the job market is still rough.
What choices do you have?
I read your story on public assistance cutbacks and decided to share with you my story. I am 33, married with two kids, and live in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. I currently receive public assistance in the form of Food Stamps, for $120 a month.
In 2010, I was essentially laid off. I worked as a District Manager for a restaurant franchise group, who decided to exit the Dallas market. The new ownership group chose not to retain any middle management. Originally I saw the change as a great opportunity for me: the new group would need someone to run the restaurants, we had 13 of them. I expected a promotion, as I was 28, made relatively affordable compared to other District Managers in the industry, and was successful at every level of management. Instead, I was offered a demotion to a restaurant manager with a well more than 60% cut in pay and expected to work six days a week. It was less than I made as an assistant manager when I started at 19 years old. I know some people will say that in no way was I “laid off,” that I quit voluntarily. But when you go from making a salary of 60K, a car allowance, and monthly bonuses to making $10 an hour, it was clear what their intentions were. There was no way I was going to take such a huge step back in my career at such a young age, so after talking to my wife and parents, I decided to hit the reset button and go back to school. I knew without a college degree, this could happen again, and next time I wouldn’t be 28. At least with a degree I could have a better shot at landing a job if I’m not just banking on experience. But, I don’t want to manage restaurants anymore. So I’m getting a BA in Biology and plan on teaching. I should also note that I found out on December 23rd that my company was being sold, and Christmas Eve that I met with the new ownership group. That was not a good Christmas.
I’ve been luckier than many. My parents let us move in when it was clear we were going to lose the house. My wife’s parents have always been great with the kids, and they stepped it up by starting to pay for things like clothes and little league. We survived on my wife’s salary, plus me working part time for my dad for 3 years. This semester, in order to finish school, I’m taking 18 hours, and unable to work. My wife makes $2,000 a month after insurance, taxes, and 401k contribution. Even with the help of our parents, our bills are $2200, with the big ones being one car payment and $700 a month in child care.
We held out as long as we could without applying for assistance, but when you make less than you owe, what choices do you have? We started last month getting roughly a week’s worth of groceries from food stamps, and we are unbelievably grateful that our country has these types of programs to help people who are down on their luck. Our reliance on public assistance is small, and won’t last long. But when we had nowhere else to turn, our government was there for us. It’s something I’ll never forget.
[Image by Jim Cooke]