State politicians across America are trying to restrict access to welfare and other anti-poverty benefits. To put this in perspective, we’re bringing you true stories from people who receive these benefits. A taste of society’s parsimonious generosity, below.
“You’re poor so god does not love you”
I don’t know if you would be interested in my situation but I believe it might help to know what happens to the elderly poor who are usually in poor health. I’m 66 years old and requested social security early retirement when I was 62. Because my income was so low [$613 per month] I qualified for Medicaid and food stamps [$200/month]. In March 2013 I had a stroke which left me with double vision, some speech problems and diminished mental acuity. In April, 2013 due to the double vision which was never addressed in my two-week rehab stint I fell and broke my hip. The last few years have been kind of rough but I cannot imagine how much worse it would’ve been without the assistance I did receive.
I began receiving regular social security and Medicare when I turned 65. I still receive food stamps [$160/month] but they reduce the amount I receive every year when social security gives me a $5 COL adjustment. Right now I receive $636/month from social security; my rent is $323/month with $130/month utilities; $33/month for a crappy phone. I do have internet because I pay all my bills and communicate with my son online but the Comcast bill [$73/month] is a hardship so I probably won’t have it much longer. My son is in prison so I like to send him whatever is left over which is not much after I buy paper products, shampoo, laundry soap, et al. I try to go to food pantries because sometimes they will provide items food stamps won’t pay for like toilet paper and soap.
The last employment I had was a census taker and before that I did medical transcription at home. I would like to go back to doing the medical transcription but the cost to set that up are way beyond my financial ability and I don’t see that changing for me any time soon. Because of degenerative disc disease I am unable to stand for any longer than a few minutes although I can walk. When I go out I use a walker so I can sit down. I don’t own a vehicle; my sister carries me to the store or wherever I need to go. Right now I don’t see me being able to work outside the house. Another back surgery is probably in my future and after that I might be able to work part time.
As I said I’m grateful for the assistance I’ve received but I believe that in the regressive state of Indiana it is common to shame and humiliate the poor. I was born and raised here but many years ago I had the opportunity to live in California for about ten years; otherwise I’d never know how poor humans are treated in other areas of the country. I’m still not entirely sure why folks here are so ugly-hearted to the poor but it’s a fact even though your average hoosier would deny it. I think it has something to do with the religion which says “well I’m affluent so God loves me; you’re poor so God does not love you; therefore I don’t have to like much less love you.”
A military family
My family is currently on public assistance.
My spouse and I have been married for fifteen years and have three children. My husband spent 2001-2007 in the military. We technically qualified for SNAP assistance during this time, but we managed to pull through without it.
While he was in the military, he earned his undergraduate degree in civil engineering. Upon his honorable discharge, he earned the licenses and certifications he needed to manage construction sites. Initially, he managed sites for a home builder, then went into business himself during the recession, to provide repairs and maintenance upkeep on foreclosed, vacant homes.
A year and a half ago, he was in a high-speed automobile accident when a man tried to beat a red light. He didn’t beat it, but he did t-bone my husband at around 40 MPH. The accident resulted in blast fractures and herniated discs (L3-L5) in his spine. He had surgery to correct these injuries, and in spite of anticipating some time off to convalesce, we didn’t anticipate this being a life-changing event in our lives. After all, we are both educated, we’ve never been afflicted with significant illness before, we’re both young, made all the so-called “right” choices; doesn’t that mean we’re invincible?
Unfortunately, following his surgery, he suffered a compression fracture of his spine due to the instability caused by removing the portions of damaged bone and disc in his spine. It was “just one of those things.” He ended up in emergency surgery for cauda equina syndrome. Fortunately, the ability to feel his bladder and to control his sphincter returned. Unfotunately, he permanently lost the feeling in his left leg, intermittently from the calf extending to his foot (pins and needles), and completely from his foot all the way to his toes. Over a year later, he cannot get up or down on his own, cannot bend forward at the waist, cannot lift. He requires full time care. I take him to the restroom, wipe him, get him in and out of bed, bathe him, help him dress and put his shoes on. He has trouble standing or walking even short distances, as the parathesia causes him to frequently lose his balance and fall. Such falls have resulted in a Lisfranc fracture of his foot and a ruptured Achilles tendon. He cannot even sit upright for more then 10-15 minutes without severe back pain setting in. He can no longer work.
Turns out, making all those so-called “right choices” means exactly squat to the bank and utility companies when bills are due.
Initially, we had too many assets to qualify for any assistance. We were able to pay doctor bills, household bills, and so on. We were able to pay for our usual household bills (mortgage, utilities, food, insurance, phone, internet) as well as the new regular bills: copays for specialists twice a week at $50/pop, medication copays, durable medical equipment rental costs. This was a honeymoon phase: we had savings, and having never gone through the various systems before, we assumed our insurance company would take care of us and he would qualify for disability quickly. After all, we hear people abuse that stuff all the time, right? Of COURSE he won’t have any trouble, since he’s truly in need. More on that, later.
Life still happened, too. Oil needed to be changed, tires replaced, our fridge broke and we had to pay for those repairs, our oldest son knocked a tooth out when he caught an elbow during a basketball game ($3500 for an implant and cap!), etc. Without income, our bank account dwindled. We were going to have to make hard choices: Health insurance or mortgage and food? To hold out longer, we started auctioning off our dignity and valuable equipment to the “OBO”... Or Best Offer was rarely adequate for the worth of what we were selling: a 2012 F250 diesel truck and 2013 trailer for $15,000, expensive industrial lawn and yard equipment for a couple thousand, top of the line tools and building supplies going for a hundred here, fifty bucks there... please, allow our tragedy to be your good deal!
Finally, the day arrived: We were officially and literally ‘worthless’ enough to receive assistance. That is the sad truth.
It came just in time, too. At school, my 1st grader accidentally consumed something with nuts during a class party. She went into anaphylactic shock and had to be rushed from her school to the emergency room by ambulance. We also had to replace her Epi-Pens ($600 a box!); Medicaid had kicked in a mere 2 weeks prior.
Settlement offers from the auto insurance company topped out at $100,000; his lost income, emergency room bill, 2 surgery bills, ongoing doctor visits and medications, home medical equipment, physical therapy, business losses, and future medical bills amount to over two million. They’d rather take their chance with a jury then pay out 2.5 million. We have an umbrella policy and UIM coverage-well, we HAD. We have since dropped those valuable coverages because they cost too damn much. Without that, we wouldn’t even be functioning at this point; the motorist that ran the red light had 10,000/20,000 in coverage. Anyway, we’re waiting for our day in court. Disability? Denied. Appeal? Denied. Court date to see a judge? 15 months away. And he is truly, legitimately disabled; we assumed he would be taken care of. Those high premiums we paid for years, those high payroll taxes, aren’t these those “right choices” that are supposed to keep us safe from destitution? I don’t care how well you plan, I don’t care how strong those bootstraps are, when the threads unravel you are SOL. This is reality.
In the meantime, however, these benefits allow us to eat. Since my husband cannot participate in any real physical activity any longer, I am able to stave off massive weight gains (and worse health) by purchasing fish, chicken, fruits and vegetables, keeping his calorie counts low enough that he doesn’t gain a hundred pounds by being forced into a poverty diet of Ramen and Spagettios when he can do nothing to offset the calories or sodium. Our daughter is allowed the luxury of breathing as Medicaid covers her medications for asthma and allergies. Our son can see the board in his classroom, because Medicaid paid for his new eyeglass prescription. Our oldest didn’t have to have his braces repossessed by his orthodontist 6 months before they were due to come off-really, this is a “thing”. This has kept us alive, healthy and fed.
To date, the worst experience we have had was at a grocery store. We were separating our purchases: Shampoo, toilet paper, toothpaste, laundry soap from food. I told our cashier we would probably be a slower check out as I would be two transactions: debit and coupons for the toiletries, then SNAP and coupons for the food. The woman behind us made no secret that she was inconvenienced by this, first with her repeated sighs, and finally by calling out to the cashier if she could get someone to open another register because, “We can’t all stand in line all day, some of us work to pay for our food!” She didn’t stop when she moved to a new line, talking loudly to the new cashier about how SHE worked full time and had barely enough to purchase her bare minimum necessities (including Pop Tarts, wine, fried chicken from the deli, Febreze, and probably some Barkeeper’s Friend to shine up her halo). As she pushed out the exit, she waved and called out to us, “Bye now! I hope you think of me when you eat your lobster later!” (Of course, there was no lobster, but why be accurate when an opportunity to shame arises?)
We left a minute later, and saw her shutting her trunk. I shit you not: Romney/Ryan 2012 bumper sticker on one side, and a Jesus fish on the other...
Most of all, I want people to realize that we ARE them. We had savings, we never needed assistance before, and we thought we were doing everything right. In the end, you either stay lucky, or the luck ends. We never thought it would be us until it was and you won’t expect it to be you until it is.
Taking out your braids
When my daughter was in pre-school we were receiving food stamps. I was also working part time (~30 hours a week) and attending classes at the community college. The welfare office contacted me one day and told me I had to attend a mandatory half day work training session. I told them that I was already working and attending school, so I wouldn’t be able to attend this training session, but they said if I didn’t attend I would no longer be eligible to receive food stamps. I believe my daughter and I were receiving about $200 a month in food stamps at that time, which isn’t a lot, but I did all of our cooking and we could eat much healthier meals with the assistance.
When I arrived for the class it immediately became apparent that this was just a scare tactic to push people to accept ANY job they were offered. We were told that working part time wasn’t good enough. I was employed as a part time employee for the city at the county library and was earning decent money, had benefits (sick, vacation, and retirement), but I was told that I needed to find full time employment - even if it meant taking a cut in pay and benefits.
When we entered the room for our “training” we were told to pick an orange from a box of oranges. We were to examine that orange and discover it’s unique characters, because we all had unique characteristics that would help us find a job. That was the extent of the “training”. The trainer then started telling us we needed to do whatever it took in order to find a job. If that meant taking out our braids, then we needed to take out our braids! When one of us asked the trainer what we should do if we encountered racism, we were told by the trainer that racism doesn’t exist anymore. Ironically enough she stated this right after she told us we had to take out our braids! ...I have lots of stories, even though I only received assistance for a few years! Here’s one more...
When I moved to Seattle we stayed in the University District for a short time. The welfare office in that area had a huge fish tank, a play room for the children, and access to a photo-copier, and phone. The welfare worker treated me with respect and gave out flyers with information concerning obtaining free legal help and other forms of assistance.
When I found a place I could afford to rent the neighborhoods were not so great and the welfare offices reflected that fact. First I got sent to the wrong office in West Seattle. The only thing they gave out for free were clean syringes and condoms. When I was sent to the correct welfare office (Rainier Valley) they had TV’s on each side of the room and that was it. Needless to say I was treated like dirt at these offices.
Anyone who thinks people would choose to stay on welfare if they had a decent alternative must not have ever needed assistance themselves, because no one would put themselves through this humiliating, degrading, and dehumanizing experience unless they were desperate!
Older and unemployed
Our family is now on public assistance because I have not worked in almost 3 years.
I was suddenly laid off from the worst job I had ever experienced in my 40+ years of working. Not only was the job itself emotionally draining, but the management was awful as well. I naively thought I could just hop into another job with no problem.
I was laid off on the day that they let 30% of the staff go. All of the employees that were laid off that day were ones who happened to be over the age of 45 years old. In the letter they gave us, they specifcally stated they do not practice age discrimination. Uh...ok..
I am 60 years old and we do only get SNAP and Medicaid. My husband works 70 hours a week to make money to meet the bills, and we are also draining our savings.
I have sent out resumes, had interviews but nothing has come up yet. I believe there is a huge prejudice against the older worker for some unknown reason. I have friends my age who have been looking for a job for a long time with no success, due to their age as well.
The funny thing is, up to this layoff, I NEVER had any problem getting a job and I have been working steadily since I was 15 years old, and neither had any of my friends.
Jumping through hoops
In 2011 I was injured on the job and was placed on disability. I had surgery to fix the problem so disability was canceled but I couldn’t get my job back. I applied for unemployment and while I received that I was not able to apply for SNAP benefits because I “made too much”. I was forced to cash out my retirement plan. Because I had too much money in the bank when unemployment ran out I still didn’t qualify. I finally qualified when I was down to 1,000 in the bank. I was finally able to eat everyday. I enrolled in a certificate program so I could get a job after the 16 week course. The requirement in Virginia is that if you are in school you have to work at least part time to receive SNAP benefits. So since I went back to school to better my situation and try to make it without assistance, my SNAP was taken away from me. So in Virginia, if you are looking to live off the state you’ll be supported, but if you try to make yourself better, you’re punished for it. I now have a job but it’s only half of what I made before. I could probably get SNAP again but I’m done jumping through hoops to get assistance that my tax dollars should guarantee me.
I’m 25 years old and I have a master’s degree from a state university. I’ve done everything I thought I was supposed to do so far in life: went to college, worked the whole time I was there, did internships, and went to graduate school.
I am on food stamps now for the second or third time in my life, because the job market is really tough where I live. I’ve only been able to find low paying work. I try and subsidize my limited income with freelance writing and online transcription to little effect.
For awhile when I was younger, I was too embarrassed to apply for food stamps. I ate whatever I could afford after my monthly bills were paid, and sometimes dumpster dived for food as well. Food was extremely sparse. My hair fell out in clumps and I became highly anemic. I know vegetables are good for you, but they are so low in calories that when you are trying to buy food that will keep you full, vegetables often get passed over.
I found out that I was eligible for food stamps after a friend told me. Applying can be difficult due to the many cuts made to the program (for instance, in my area, the application center was a twenty minute drive away from town). As a poor person, even many caseworkers treat you like you are trying to scam the system.
Things changed so much for me when I finally got food stamps. I buy leafy green produce, and whole milk. I even bought fresh fish to help recover from my severe anemia. I feel so much better and my hair and nails became healthy again. I also meticulously control my food stamp budget down to the last penny.
Every month, I live in fear that this necessary benefit will be taken away from me. It happened once before, when I was still in graduate school and had to have a necessary major surgery. I had to take time off from work, putting me below the requisite weekly hours required for food stamps in my state. I had thousands of dollars in medical bills, less money from work, and my access to food was cut off. I cried for days, and ultimately family had to step in just so I could survive.
No one is getting rich off of food stamps, nor living a life of luxury. Food is the first step in being healthy, but in this country many resent this basic need, while also resenting subsidized healthcare. Our bodies need good, healthy food to survive and thrive.
[Image by Jim Cooke]