Access to food stamps and other government anti-poverty programs is often used as a political football. This amounts to playing with human lives. Each week, we are bringing you true stories from Americans who receive public assistance. Here are your fellow citizens speaking about their own lives.

Bootstraps aren’t enough

Here’s a snapshot of life low income with a severely disabled child. Yes,we receive benefits, Medicaid, WIC, SSI of $733, and SNAP of $351. My fiance makes just over $10 a hour at a full time job, I’m a late 30s stay at home mother of a teenager, 4 yr old, and a toddler. Yes, tubes are now tied before the gallery starts in on how I’m having kids so I’ll be rich.

My 4 yr old son has severe autism, nonverbal, fine/gross motor delays. His psychological profile shows his self help skills of a 2 month old so he needs constant supervision, spoonfeeding of purees, bottles since he refuses cups despite 3 yrs of occupational therapy, diapers, and he doesn’t sleep well. Doctors want me to use melatonin which doesn’t work since everything else is habit forming that could help regulate. Thankfully the meltdowns are few, he’s usually happy or content most days unless he’s hungry, bored, tired or whatever. So a 7 month old’s mind in a tall 4 yr old’s body with about 18 month gross motor skills for reference. Add on a toddler who is into everything, a moody teenage girl, doctor appointments, 1 car household, a widowed father who needs partial help to stay in his home, a future mother in law going blind in another state and possibly needing help, tell me how I can pull us up by the bootstraps by getting a job.

My son does have a excellent 3 days a week public school preschool program at a local school for disabled children. But special needs daycare on the other days,daycare for my youngest is not affordable. I’m on waiting lists for respite care and autism services, when I signed him up at 2 yrs old they told me he had over 9000 children ahead of him in MD for autism services. We may receive those when he’s about 10 as kids drop off due to age they tell me. We haven’t had a date since 2011 unless you count Chipotle in the car, kids asleep in their car seats while we stargazed in our driveway. No vacation since 2010 and that was a family wedding. I coupon and enter sweepstakes on my smartphone as a hobby (no benefits phone here, relative’s family plan) to help stretch our money and win things for us. Can’t get married , then benefits drop for my son and I have a honor student going to college in a few years so stepfather’s income will count towards financial aid. Under $300 a month in child support from her dad. We did receive a tax refund, bought kids beds, clothes, and banked so we can dip into for rent or expenses. I know we are lucky and things could be more dire. My fiance is hard of hearing/Deaf and wants to work, however he had a bad spot 7 years ago and quit a good federal job before we got together. We’ve struggled, we love each other and our kids and fought to get to this point from nothing. His motto is you have to go through bad to appreciate the good in our lives.

A family in need

I am not a user of public assistance, though I am very familiar of its in’s and outs since both my older brother and younger sister receive benefits. He is 54 and she is 46, and both are long time benefit receivers, for different reasons.

He is a receiver and here are his stats: 54, single, no children. Not a drug user, but an active alcoholic. He has a master’s degree in theology from Howard U. He has held very view private company jobs in his life, and those were when he was in college all those years ago. After flaming out trying to run a small church that he was appointed to, he has mostly subsisted on “welfare”. He lives in Fairfield, CA and receives about $300 dollars a month in actual money, plus another $300 in “food stamps” (these are debit cards - more on that in a moment).

He “works” to make ends meet - he is the guy who washes your window at the gas station, or serves as a human directional (those guys waving signs at passing motorists advertising pizza or cell phones (yes, that’s what they’re called). He actually makes more cleaning windshields than being a human directional. But as a human directional, he can work fewer hours and sometimes get a free meal. He is paid under the table for that job by the small business owner and/or their marketing agency. Nice, huh? In any case, he rooms with a friend and pays $300 in rent to sleep on a sofa.

He often has other needs that cannot be paid for with his food stamp debit card so he uses that card as currency. How? At the local liquor store one can exchange one’s card to about 50 cent on the dollar. And it’s not just his local liquor store - I have been in multiple stores with him in various local cities and each “proprietor” accepts the debit card in exchange for about half the amount in cash... which he then uses to buy... stuff. Shaving stuff, household cleaning stuff, cleaning solution for his windshield adventures and, of course, alcohol.

So even though the gov’t restricts what can be purchased with food stamps/debit cards, every user I have encountered laugh at those restrictions.. including small business owners, like his pizza shop friend and other fast food friends that are independent from the major chains.

He is at an age that he cannot get a “regular” job. He has lived off the grid for close to 30 years and I imagine he would maybe shake hands at Walmart, or something like that and have suggested such to him, to be met with.. he can hustle and make the same amount. I don’t really have a good response to that, at least good enough that it will spur him to action. He needs counseling but that ain’t happening, and his medical care is much better thanks to Mr. Obama (thanks, Obama). So, he is in a state that he will remain until he passes, I believe. As a tax payer.. I’m okay with it to a degree because I don’t believe he is harming anyone. I may be rationalizing it due to it being my brother, but that’s what I think/feel. I supplement his income as well by paying his mobile bill and giving him cash now and then.

My sister is a life-long drug addict, in her 3rd recovery right now “thanks” to a bacterial disease that got into her foot and almost killed her due to dirty/shared needles. She is recovering and, at the moment, scared straight. Almost 1 year scared straight. She has held jobs, mostly food server and, believe it or not, working in elder care homes! There’s no background check to see her felonies for drugs, or any type of skill requirement other than wanting to be with old people, something she loves (that’s the state of elder care, I guess).

In any case, she receives about $1k per month (she told my brother, she’s better at working the “system” that’s why she gets more than him). She is bipolar II, and that has something to do with her allotment, she says but I don’t/won’t verify.

She also receives about $300 in food stamps/debit card, and in the past used the card to trade for drugs, goods, and what have you. For now, she is living alone (her “boyfriend” is finally in prison, and this is helping her recovery, no doubt) and paying about $400 in rent in Stockton, Ca, due to the nice person who owns her building and listened to her impassioned plea to allow her to rent without a background check. As with my brother, I supplement her income by paying some small bills, like mobile, and electricity. It is my way, for both of them, to have access to them so that in case of emergency I can reach them/they can reach me.

I have been married 15 years, have a 10 year old daughter and a 21 year old step-son about to graduate collage, so I pay that, as well. And that is why, I feel some obligation/guilt and help out my siblings even though they “should” be self-sufficient.

In any case, I hope this insight helps with your future column. The welfare state, I believe, is not just about those individuals who collect the assistance, but also about their extended support network who are also impacted by our leader’s decision to help/not help those in need (yes, I do believe both of my siblings are in need).

Public benefits saved my life

I just wanted to tell you my story. I am not currently receiving food stamps or any means-tested benefits, but I do get Social Security for disability. I lived for over 2 years on just welfare, food stamps, and student loans. For welfare, I got $460 a month, and my food stamps for me and my son were about $220 a month. It went up and down. The only reason I could survive was because my family rented me a tiny apartment for $300 and month, and I took out student loans and lived on those. Most of this was waiting for Social Security. I have a severe mental illness, which includes psychosis when I get really stressed. I had planned to be a math teacher, but I was really scared that it would be too stressful and that it would be horrible if I had a breakdown in front of kids.

When it was getting close to the time for my Social Security hearing, I was so scared. I knew if I was turned down, I would be thrown off of everything, most importantly Medicaid. I knew that I would have to find someone to take my son, and that I would probably become homeless. It was so stressful that it led to a breakdown and two hospitalizations in three months.

I’m the story of how the system works. Public benefits saved my life, in every way possible. I get now $819 a month for me, and $284 a month for my son. I got married a little while ago, and actually am able to do a little work as long as it doesn’t exceed $750 a month. So I’m doing that, and I went back to school. I’m hoping to be able to work from home because I do much better when I stay in the house.

So I hope that I will be able to get off Social Security someday. The thing that’s really great about it is they help you get off it slowly. For the first year that you work, you get to keep collecting benefits, and if you stop working within a couple years, you can get back on no questions asked. Also, most importantly, you still get Medicare for 7 years (I think).

Anyway, I think I would have cost the system much more if I didn’t get SSDI. Every time I get hospitalized, it costs between $5000 and $10000 for about a week of being there. Anyway, I’m lucky, and I’m so thankful, and I want to contribute to our society, and I think that I do now.

Still fighting to crawl out

I receive public assistance and have off and on since I lost my stable employment 2010. I currently live in North Florida and relocated here from Atlanta GA 2014.

2009-2010.was on of the hardest years for me. I went thru a crippling divorce which destroyed me financially emotionally and otherwise. I was actually in a very good financial position before that, having over 6 figures in my household. Due to divorce mid 2009—after buying my own house having to start over alone as a single mother with two kids after divorce and to find out I was pregnant that same year, I was still ok until I [was] laid off from making $60k, plus no longer having my ex husband’s salary of $70k... I got laid off 4/2010 and had to file bankruptcy the following month, 5/2010, just so I pregnant with two kids wasn’t put on the street. I had to apply for food stamps with no income, a 5 bedrm house over my head, [and] no help or family to assist. No one knew... looked as if everything was fine with the manicured lawn and neighborhood I was living in but was in a bankruptcy until 2013 when I let it dismiss for the 2nd time due to never recovering from the huge blow.

I have always worked off and on..temp jobs they cut your food stamps..any money comes in they cut them. It sometimes takes 2 to 3 months most time to get them back when they are cut and only last 6 months max at a time and you have to requalify. I got a job 2011 and moved to Miami and they cut them. Off and on the past 5 years and haven’t still recovered. Now with my last child being born with a disability and has to be monitored it’s extremely difficult to work hours past daycare hours which it’s hard finding a flexible 9 to 5 with all his Dr appointments. I actually started doing insurance full time as I could do my schedule around his appts as I was always licensed in it and did it part time for years before my divorce. I came off food stamps again 2012 when things were good and started my own agency. My business took a blow end of 2013 beginning 2014 and went from 33 agents to 3. With my hours and demanding needs of my son has become extremely difficult to find a job and then one to work with my hours in addition to my child’s needs. I was still holding on in a modification to my home until I had to short sell it to avoid foreclosure 2014 and been on food stamps again since 5/2014 and moved from the house I owned scraping to hold on into a cramped 2/1 apt.

I took a job in Fla another state trying to get work cause i was getting 510 for three kids on food stamps and went to 90dollars for working each time, and sometimes none—depends [on] the income when you’re working. Food stamps is not a fair program cause they penalize you for working and expect you to get help from other agencies even though you just need a lil help to feed your kids. The amount they give is not enough most times and it’s ridiculous to put restrictions on what you can buy cause it’s hard enough with the little they give you. It’s absolutely not true everyone on food stamps is not working. It’s an income based program and I used to complain about the purpose of it until I was put in the situation I am in and still fighting to crawl out.

The rat race

I’m a 41 year old white male born in Texas & residing here. I’ve got a few mental quirks & a couple of physical limitations that make regular employment unlikely. I’ve been working since my 16th birthday, but have never held a job longer than four years. Most of my life I’ve held two or more jobs, bc I usually earn the minimum wage allowed by law. I’ve been fired & rehired multiple times by a few employers. I’m a lovable guy, but my brain & body sometimes don’t comply with an employer’s demands. Since my employment history is so sketchy, I receive $200 per month in food stamps & I’m very grateful for them. They’ve kept me from dumpster diving for food.

I earn between $200-$450 a month doing odd jobs for elderly widows. One widow lets me sleep in her extra bedroom, bc I help her a lot & she can’t pay me anything. If not for her, I’d be homeless. I work pretty consistently. I take lots of breaks and work slower than most men & earn less logically. That’s life & I don’t stress about it. I have a budget that Ben Franklin would admire. I tried really hard to run the rat race. When I hurt my back at work & became homeless, I realized I can’t rat for shit. Now, I’m more like the scientist observing the rats. I’m fascinated by y’all, but I’m not one of you.

Optimistic, not delusional

I’m 28 years old and I live in central California. You know, that place that makes almost all of America’s food but is running out of water? That one. Specifically, I live with my mom and two autistic siblings. (One of them is on SSI disability, the other isn’t, if you want to know.) I’m disabled, too, having had fibromyalgia since I was just 9 and tachycardia since I was 21, but the government seems to think that I’m not quite disabled enough to get disability benefits. I can’t work a regular job, since there’s no telling how long I can stay alert each day or how much pain I’m going to be in, but I sometimes sell handmade jewelry online. I don’t make much.

When the ACA kicked in, it was a godsend. I applied right away, since I had to stop taking my more expensive medications when I aged out of my mom’s insurance plan. That was when I found out I was eligible for SNAP. See, through California’s website, when you apply for one kind of aid, like medical, it automatically applies for anything else it determines you’re eligible for. I mostly just wanted enough money to buy my own tofu and fresh vegetables once in a while, since I’m the only vegetarian in my household, and was surprised it also covered soda...

I’ve been on SNAP for about a year now, and I get about $190 a month, the maximum amount, since I make less than $150 a month. I’d have to make $1,940 in one month to earn myself out of the program, and while obviously I would love to make that kind of money and get off assistance, maybe even move out of my mom’s house, buy things that aren’t on clearance, live a normal life, you know, how people my age are supposed to live, it currently seems unlikely. I’m optimistic, not delusional.

On the line

This is going to my family’s past. Myself and my wife are not currently on social services, though it would be nice right now.

With that said, my family didn’t get much in the way of social services. My dad got unemployment for a time, after he was laid off, and my brother and I availed ourselves to the free and reduced lunch programs at school, until budgets at our school were cut.

We did try applying for [Temporary Aid for Needy Families] several times, but were flatly denied, because my parents, even when my dad was receiving unemployment, were making too much on paper. In reality, we had a mortgage, property taxes, plus my parents had to find the money to feed four people. We never really lacked in food because my dad is sort of a food hoarder, and even though he would store stuff for years on end, and the food wasn’t great all the time, we still got by in that area.

Instead, if we got TANF, it was simply going to help us keep the lights on and the water running. The power company where we lived charged outrageously for it, even in Texas (it was a co-op in name, but the board members, IIRC, were eventually taken to court for some kind of fraud.) Summers in Texas will regularly run your bill up to $250 a month for a small house (like ours) or apartment, and we were pulling in, if I remember correctly, 300, sometimes 400. After much teeth pulling, and no help from the government, we finally worked out a deal with the power company, but it was still a struggle to keep the bills paid. Our water was shut off a time or two, I remember. Not for long, but it was the same situation. The water company was extremely expensive (it was a private water company.) The months where we had everything kept on were good months.

For the reduced lunch program, my brother and I benefited from that for a while. And it helped, a lot. But when we were going to school, Texas school districts and the state started the trend of cutting budgets. This meant that the reduced lunch program was restricted, and it was kept a fingernail’s breadth from our reach, starting when I was in high school and my brother was in middle school. We started packing our lunches when we could (which meant, when either him or I remembered to, since my parents simply didn’t have time. Eventually my dad got a night job and was barely in the house anymore, and my mom left early in the morning to commute into downtown Austin.) If we forgot, then it was peanut butter sandwiches and water for lunch. When I got my first job in high school, the two main places my income went was either cigarettes for myself, food or drugs (pot was the only way I could stay somewhat sane in this situation.)

For all this time, we were in a gray area where assistance would have helped tremendously, but we couldn’t get it because we were always just outside that line of qualifying for help. I imagine this was the experience of many families during the Clinton era, where welfare was slashed and people were forced into that awful welfare-for-work program, or just didn’t receive assistance at all anymore. I have a feeling here that the people who are able to receive assistance now, it isn’t enough to actually help (in fact, I know it isn’t.) And those who make just a bit more, but who it would really help, that small amount, don’t have access to it.

[Image by Jim Cooke]

Contact the author at