Amid a nationwide push to restrict access to government anti-poverty programs, we are bringing you true stories from people who receive public assistance. Tight budgets, enraging bureaucracy, and real hunger, below.

One family’s budget

I am not sure if my story would interest you since I am no longer receiving assistance. But about 5 years ago I was. I was married with 1 kid, we found out I was pregnant the same month my husbands company shut down. We live in Melbourne FL. I was 23 at the time, he was 25.

We received food stamps and then WIC after our 2nd son was born. We did not qualify for anything else with just my income, which was 20800 annually (after taxes and health insurance take home was roughly $ 1390 per month) . We got around $ 350.00 per month in food stamps and $ 300.00ish from WIC.

We received benefits for about 2 years.

At the time I was making 10 bucks an hour, employed full time (with unpaid maternity leave in the near future)

Our monthly budget before baby number 2 was

1390.00 total income

- 550.00 rent (tiny 2 bedroom, BAD neighborhood)

- 350.00 utilities (water, gas and electric - long story short it should have been less but our drug dealer neighbor was stealing water)

-120.00 gas for our shared vehicle

-65.00 shared cell phone

-120.00 daycare for our 2 year old (to receive benefits while not working you have to physically report to a job seeking site daily)

Which left roughly $ 104.00 for pull ups, and household goods like toilet paper and food without our benefits. The $350 in food stamps was really all we had for food. And we stretched it as thin as we could (with a son who is sensitive to artificial colors, flavors & preservatives and me with severe food allergies). My husband had a really hard time getting back into the work force. He had most of his experience in sales, and hated it. And since we couldn’t afford health insurance for him when he got sick, we couldn’t do much about it. WIC was an incredible help too. I breast fed so our checks were for food and 1 can of supplemental formula.

Eventually my husband found a steady job and we were cut from the program. Which sucked initially because we lost more in benefits than what he earned. I was fortunate to find a better job right after though. And although we are not rich, we get by... The thing that always stood out to me about the public assistance program in this state is the way it is set up is it is almost impossible to escape. When you first apply there are so many appointments and requirements that you have to fulfill it is hard to do so while employed. And then the income caps for certain programs literally make no sense.

We earned like $ 200 too much per year to qualify for childcare assistance. So we weren’t eligible for what would have been $ 6240.00 per year. The same go for the food programs, if you make $ 20 bucks too much per month they take away $400 in aid. Why would anyone attempt to better themselves? No one (who is on benefits is likely to get a raise that will take them above the amount they stand to lose for food) You are better off unemployed than earning minimum wage.

I worked with a single mother who was on assistance as well. She got a .75 cent or so raise per hour and they took away her benefits. The woman she spoke to told her the only thing she could do to get them back would be get pregnant. To feed her kid, they told her to get knocked up.

Brown rice

I am a 59 year old disabled woman.

I receive 760.00 a month in SS Disability , 180 in food stamps. I rent a room in a condo for reduced rent as I provide unpaid caregiver services for the condo owner who is mentally ill/ disabled . He is violent. I also now am a client of the city domestic violence shelter. I can find no other housing which I can afford. In my NE State…it’s not unusual for 100,000 people to apply to *win* a spot on a Section 8 Housing Subsidy Wait list. I’ve been trying to “ win spots” for 14 years. Once you “ win a spot” on a wait list ? Your average wait time is ten years. In my state, no priority is given for the disabled or women who are battered. Every Christmas when I’m in my room with a trunk in front of my door ( my housemate gets very depressed and rages on the holidays ) I think of my elected Representatives. “ TRUTH”. We no longer care for the most vulnerable among us. My foodstamps last for 3 weeks out of the month. The last week I sustain myself on brown rice. I have $150 left after paying my rent every month. That goes to servicing the debt on my CC which covers necessities, like vet bills for my service dog , that I do not have funds to provide.

I have been living this way for 6 years. I have been homeless. I cannot endure that again so onward, I go.

A single mother

Where do you live? SE Tennessee

How old are you? 37 will be 38 on May 11th

What benefits do you receive? SNAP (Only my two kids receive) & Medicaid (TennCare)

How much are they worth per month? My two kids receive $187 in SNAP benefits

How long have you received these benefits? Six years

What is your basic monthly budget like? We live off of my son’s SSI and scrape by

Why do you receive these benefits? Became a single mom after getting out of an abusive marriage (of almost 10 years). Because my kids were small when we started over, I chose to go to college, mostly online through my local community college since working would have been a backwards step for us. Childcare was unreliable at the time besides expensive. I even gave up custody of my youngest so he would have a better life with his dad and step mom. My ex-husband (father of my oldest two) does not pay child support, though he does provide medical and dental insurance to them.

What is stopping you from earning enough money to no longer need public assistance? Cannot get a job for the life of me. I’ve applied mostly out of my “field” as well as what I studied in college. I have a binder full of job application acknowledgements as well as rejection letters. If I had to guess how many jobs I’ve applied to since 2010 it would be around the 150+ range. I have a Bachelors degree in Psychology and Sociology(2010) and a Masters in Human Services (2013). I’m starting Nursing school in August.

Taking a loss

My husband (56), our daughter (19) and I (53) live in south Texas about 25 miles from the Mexican border.

We are originally from Long Island NY. In 2004 we had an opportunity to relocate to south Texas because of my husband’s job. His company bought a plant in Mexico and had a position for him so we made the move. With my husband’s nice big NY salary we were doing fine. We put a down payment on a new house in a nice neighborhood and all went well until July of 2012 when my husband was let go.

He was given a severance package and unemployment, also we had some savings, and he had a 401K so we were ok for the time being. We always wanted to have our own business so we took the severance money and opened up a store selling men’s and women’s clothes. We actually managed pretty well. We didn’t make tons of money but the store paid for itself so we weren’t taking out of pocket for it’s expenses. Eventually our savings and 401K money dried up so we had to sell our house. Since we had to do it quickly we had to take a fairly low offer and ended up taking a loss. We sold practically all of our possessions, our furniture, beds, my husband’s and my guitars and other instruments, and moved into an old tiny house that’s in an RV park. The whole place is about the size of our bedroom in our old house, a real downgrade in quality and very depressing.

We had the small bit of money we got for the house so we were ok for a few months. The first thing we couldn’t afford anymore was our health care at $750 a month. We haven’t had any health care since August 2014. Once our bank account was down to the approved amount, we were able to apply for food stamps. We also applied for other things like housing assistance and health care. All but the food stamps were denied. We started getting them in December 2014. You have to jump through hoops to get it. They ask for endless proof of income and expenses with receipts, bank statements, and copies to be sent to them at least every other month. We get $357 a month for 3 people. There have been times when the cupboards are quite bare and we’re hungry, but you deal with it. You learn how to make really cheap things like lentils and rice.

We moved our store to a much cheaper location. We slashed our overhead by 65% and have started making a profit. We earned enough in the last 3 months to pay our rent where we live and our personal bills. My husband is also looking for work as a musician. I sincerely hope we grow our business’s to the point that we don’t need foodstamps anymore but it’s a constant struggle every month. Our store is open 7 days a week, so no one can accuse us of not trying. We eat, sleep and breath work, failure is not an option.

This can happen to anyone

I receive food stamps. $194 a month. I haven’t been able to work for years because I’ve been sick. My mother works, but barely makes enough to make ends meet. It’s not easy to feed two people on $194 a month. I’m on the mend and should be able to start working again within the next few months.

Please let people know that this can happen to anyone. My dad had been making over $100,000 a year since the early 80s but had to sign up for food stamps once he lost his job in ‘08. Thankfully, he’s now retired and collecting $60,000 a year from his pension and Social Security.

The farmer

My family lives in a little blue oasis in a very, very red state. My husband is 28, I’m 25, and we have a toddler and a second child due next month. We receive $385/mo in food stamps, WIC benefits totaling probably $30/mo, and Medicaid for our kiddo. We’ve been using Medicaid for our son since he was born, and I used it as secondary insurance when I was pregnant, but we didn’t receive the other benefits until February of this year. We felt like we didn’t “need” them because we were getting by, and I didn’t think we qualified because we both work full-time. When we looked at our budget, we realized that it was irresponsible of us as parents not to use these programs (even though we weren’t starving without them) to get better food for our family and enable us to build a small amount of savings and have less financial insecurity.

My husband is a full-time organic farmer. He spends some of that time working for $9/hr and the rest as collateral for renting land to grow produce for his own CSAs and for our family. I work between 18-35 hours per week. (I can’t say what my job is because my employer is very unique in the region.) My schedule fluctuates around my husband’s schedule and the growing season because we don’t use daycare—one of us is always with our son. I get paid time off, a 401k, and life insurance as long as I average 30hr/wk. We live very frugally. We have a teeny rented house, a car payment, utilities, health insurance for myself and my husband, and we’re actually able to eat off our food stamps by growing so much produce and buying everything else in bulk. Our health insurance is super expensive because our home state declined to expand medicaid and we make too little for a subsidy. Our food stamps essentially pay our health insurance, budget-wise. We buy nearly everything secondhand and are very thrifty. We’re saving to put a down payment on a piece of property to start our own farm, and we’ll be building a cob and straw bale house ourselves. We could be making more money at other jobs, but this time in our lives is very temporary. My husband is learning and making a ton of important connections right now. We aren’t planning on having any more children, so I’ll be able to work more again soon. When our savings get a little bigger and we find the right piece of land, my husband will be earning a lot more and we’ll be spending a lot less. Our mortgage will probably be about half our rent. My husband will also save a tremendous amount of time and gas money not driving to and from our rented land, and he’ll be “home” with the kids even when he’s working.

Personally, I feel zero shame at getting the assistance we do. My husband and I work really, really hard and our work is both meaningful for us and does good in our community. I imagine we’ll probably continue to receive benefits until the first growing season after we’ve bought our land and built the house—probably another two years, maybe three.

Turned down for benefits

My story is actually about my inability to receive benefits. I am 32 years old, and live in South Carolina with my wife. Currently, she is the only one working, and she is also in beauty school, set to graduate in the fall.

I received unemployment benefits for a few months after I was fired from a job as a therapy aide in North Carolina. The company then appealed the decision, and I spent about a year paying it back. Ever since then, unemployment has rejected me soundly from every claim. When I had seasonal work during the holidays of 2012-2013, they rejected the claim. When I was laid off from seasonal work at a surf shop after the summer of 2013, they rejected the claim.

So I move from Myrtle Beach to Columbia, assuming there are more opportunities, and I pretty quickly get a job as a phlebotomist (blood draw) in a large hospital. Benefits are generally good, though the hospital refuses to change my part-time status to full-time status, despite me working 40 hours a week, and benefits being half as expensive for full-timers.

In July, my mother is diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. Needless to say, spending time up on an oncology ward, watching people deteriorate and pass away while their loved ones fall takes a toll. Add to that, my employers say I need to spend more time with her, but whenever I have to take time off (usually because of a particularly bad downward spike in her health) I get a lot of grief over it. By the end of September, it’s too much. I hand in my two weeks notice. The next day I see my therapist, who suggests that my actions might have been rash, and I should try to just ask for a month off. She writes me an excuse, which my boss takes, and then she informs me that they’ve already filled my position. Hm.

So I go to unemployment, fill out the usual stuff bla bla. Now usually when I get rejected (which I don’t expect to happen since I genuinely have a really good reason for not working) there’s a note that says when your ineligibility period ends. Usually about 3 or 4 months. A pain in the ass, but it’s sort of to see if you can find something in that time. Usually, I do, so the unemployment denials aren’t a huge deal. This time there is no eligibility date. I’m rejected for a year...

This is why when people get mad about “entitlements” I usually get mad back. I paid into a system for all the years that I did work, and the system is supposed to serve as a crutch for people who need to stay on their feet until they’re strong enough to get back to work. In my case, it was literally about something to help me pay the bills, while I got my shit back together both emotionally and from a practical standpoint.

[Image by Jim Cooke. If you’d like to share your own story, email me.]