Across America, there is a significant political movement to restrict access to food stamps and other government aid programs for the poor. Earlier this week, we asked those of you who receive public assistance to send us your stories. The results have been overwhelming.
In the past two days, we have received dozens and dozens of stories from Americans who were kind enough to share their experience of life on the receiving end of the social safety net. A selection of those stories is below. We will share more of these with you over the coming days and weeks.
Only for as long as necessary
I am a 25 year old male living in Spokane, WA. I live with my girlfriend, her almost 7 year old son, and our 8 month old daughter. The lady and I are on food stamps currently, and we get just over $500 a month in benefits. We applied for assistance once we found out that my girlfriend was pregnant. We also applied for TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) since she had just gotten fired from her job. TANF helped cover part of our rent since I was the only one working in the household (about 15-20 hours a week, at that), which was nice, but we would have felt bad if we stayed on it even though they told us we could for a while. So we got off TANF and have just been on food stamps ever since.
The $500 a month sounds like an exorbitant amount of money to give someone just because they don't meet the income requirements to sustain a comfortable lifestyle, but every penny of it has gone to good use. We are so thankful that there are programs out there that actually help people who need it. Honestly, I don't know what we would have done if food stamps weren't available to us. 98% of what we purchase with our food stamps is... well, food. Both the lady and I love to cook, so we make as much of what we eat as possible. I'm talking everything - flavored syrups for coffee, brown sugar, salsa, etc. So the money does go to good use.
The main thing that is hindering us from getting off government assistance is our housing situation/income situation. My girlfriend just got a job working part time, and while that's fantastic, we are still playing catch-up with the costs incurred from only having one part time income for a full year. Our outlook on assistance has always been that it is there for times when you really can't make it otherwise. Certain people seem to be too proud or unable to ask for assistance, so if one is going to accept assistance, only do so for as long as necessary.
Just a little aside here - I feel that I can speak about people wasting the governments money on frivolous purchases, as when I first moved out of my parents house I applied for food stamps, and was accepted. I abused that. I irresponsibly spent most of my $100 food benefits on Red Bull. Eventually I made too much to be considered for food stamps anymore and lost them. I thought it was lame I got cancelled, because I needed my Red Bull, ya know? I went for a while without them, grew up a bit, fell in love with my girlfriend, and had a kid. Now I fully understand what it means to struggle. I have always said life is too short for regrets, but looking back, I do wish that I was more responsible with things I was just given.
A convicted felon
I'm 30 a convicted felon who completed my sentence years ago and have stayed out of trouble. I volunteer to local non-profits in my spare time. But when it comes to employment ever since I got out of prison I have been unable to find employment other than fast food. As a result of getting these low wage paying jobs I put most of my income towards housing which does not leave me enough to eat, buy clothes or hygiene.
Unfortunately this forces me to take public assistance including food stamps, food boxes from food banks and occasional Goodwill vouchers for clothing. If I could find better employmentI would gladly be done with these assistance programs that barely help me survive. There is nothing but shame in taking these assistance programs. But the thing is society has me in a position where I cannot get good employment and cannot for that matter find housing (I live with family).
Some of us are in this situation not by choice but because of the way society puts people in situations that are hard to overcome.
Being poor is unhealthy
[From a 35 year-old NYC man who was laid off]: Applying for assistance was simple enough, but it was a nightmare when it came to getting it. You have to open a chase checking account with a ATM card that never came. I basically was on public assistance for 2 &1/2 months on the books but only ever received a months worth of actual assistance. I lucky had enough savings to scrape and skim by and ended up spending the summer walking to every job interview in midtown i could get. It was a very ruff few months, but i was very, very lucky, as my landlord was actually sympathetic to waiting things out with me, and I found a great new job that was the same as my old job but virtually paid double... Being on public assistance for the first time in my life only taught me that i really never want to be on public assistance again. It’s like having a sketchy boss who may or may not be paying you this week, and trying to find an actual person that you can have a face to face conversation with something about is virtually impossible. I subscribe whole heartedly to the chris rock theory of public assistance, in that good, hard working people, don’t want to live on it, and that it is truly designed as a safety net. Its great when you need it, but it’s just a net. You can’t comfortably live off it, as you have the same real world problems that one one have anywhere, rent and food. I also lost about 25 pounds over that summer of job hunting, not from stress, but because i was literally eating only the cheapest most protein filled meals i could cook at home. Being poor is truly unhealthy on multiple levels.
Mental health issues
I'm a 32 year old woman living in Oregon since 2012. I'm mentally ill. I have a college degree and was employed as an assistant editor until my last stint in the mental hospital in 2008. Since then, I haven't worked and have lived on social security disability benefits. Currently, these amount to $787 a month. This covers all expenses, including rent ($450). Yes, I have to do my laundry in the tub and yes, I've ended many a month eating only rice or chicken broth.
I have been racked with guilt since I started receiving these benefits, and I've been grateful for any assistance at all. I want to be able to work and escape the world of slumlords and paying in pennies, but my biggest obstacle has been the paucity of any kind of help for the mentally ill. Until 2012 I lived in California, where I could not afford any kind of mental health care (regular health care, of course, was an unimaginable luxury) and accrued tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills. Late last year I began coverage through Oregon's DMAP/QMB program, which means I can regularly visit with a whole team of mental health professionals. I can even afford meds. I can finally, hopefully, begin to rebuild my life and become a real person again. We'll see.
I am 46 year old college educated white male who lost his job in 2011 during the depths of the job doldrums. I went through the system for unemployment benefits, but my real experience was trying get public assistance to help repay back rent from my time unemployed.
The biggest reason, from my experience, is the entire system keeps people from finding work because they are constantly spending hours and hours waiting in HRA [Human Resources Administration] offices (or at least this my experience here in NYC) during the hours they would normally be working. I lost a full weeks pay over several months trying to meet the requirements of the system, only to have to start the process OVER when an arbitrary time limit expired. I was fortunate that my employer was flexible and allowed me time off to do this, but I cannot imagine this is the norm. People on assistance stay on assistance because the entire system is flawed, you need to be at meetings during normal business hours M-F 9-5, and trying to work around that is really difficult. So, you lose your job, and stay on benefits or lose your benefits to take a low paying job. I talked to many folks during the interminable waits at HRA who told me this was the case, and they chose to stay on benefits rather than risk losing them for a crappy job.
I was lucky, I had all the benefits of being a white man working for me, I know this. Sitting in the Boiler Room, the HRA staff's name for the waiting areas, watching people waste entire days just to keep themselves fed and sheltered, I can see why it's hard if not impossible to break the cycle of dependence.
Unable to work
I currently live in Florida and receive Food Stamps and SSI. I am a 27 year old guy and have been getting both for about 5 years now. I have to renew both every year; but due to my situation I pretty much automatically get approved every year. Back in 2007 when I was 19 I was diagnosed with Crohn's disease, which is a debilitating stomach disease. Over the years I have spent days and weeks either bedridden or in the hospital and spent hours at a time in the bathroom. I also have had surgeries to have parts of my small intestine removed two times; with more times sure to follow. This is why I am unable to work and why I receive both Food Stamps and SSI monthly.
I get about $145 a month for Food Stamps and $480.34 in SSI. Every year when I reapply these amounts can go up or down depending on things like "cost of living" or other factors in my state.
The majority of my SSI goes towards my monthly bills (rent, cell phone, ect.) and what little is left over I use to pay for the things Food Stamps wont when I go shopping.
I was moved to write to you about this because I want it known that people like me need this assistance and also that it isn't just me being "lazy". Because of my illness I am unable to work and need help to have a somewhat stable way of living.
A legal aid lawyer's view
I've worked with low income people as a legal aid attorney for over a decade. Before that I was a poor person, dating back to the early 70s.
Have I seen poor people that sold SNAP cards for cash, smokes or crack? Yes. Do I think his represents any solid reason to tighten restrictions? No. It's a poor person addicted to crack (or nicotine or other vices you can't buy on SNAP, like soap.) They aren't living a glamorous life our our expense.
That's probably the one point I'd hammer out of the million ideas and anecdotes: despite stories of lobsters and BMWs, I've never encountered anyone living a great life on public assistance. It's a hardscrabble existence more akin to Joads than Kardashians. Some people make it work. Some don't even try and live on processed crap until the next check, because they lack the skill or just gave up.
Tangential wanderings begin here: less bold than that key point, is that they are people. Anyone who says "I would buy that candy if I couldn't afford it" or "I lived on beans and rice for five years" is either lying or a freak. We all want a little treat sometimes. That means soda or twinkles or holiday treats or birthday cakes are fair game. They shouldn't be the whole of a diet, but that's an education issue and not a wasted tax dollar issue.
Related, generational poverty is a huge issue, but reliance on benefits isn't the cause, from what I've seen. An educational system that tracks poor (especially of color) students from day one is more the problem. I was a poor kid in a public school. Despite good test grades, I was left out of classes appropriate for me because I was a poor kid, until my mother raised a fuss. A system where schools serving the poor don't have basic materials is the problem. We decide that poor children don't have the drive/tools/IQ to thrive early on, then decry that they have too much food and too soft a life when they can't get blue collar jobs that don't exist after they are processed through schools. We decry that parents are preparing students for success when the parents have faced abject failure for so much of their lives that I personally would even get out of bed anymore.
And lastly, the "poor" aren't always who you think they are. We heard in the comments from any number of mid or working class folks who hit a slide. But the sloppiest, smelliest person I ever worked with, from my high school job to now? Yale Law grad. That obese woman using the cart at Walmart? Neuro disease limited her movement and steroids bloated her, but she's a PhD microbiologist. That's a bit less relevant but those are two real examples of people who I heard criticized and "I'm so glad my tax dollars support..." When both were gainfully employed.
[ Image by Jim Cooke]