Sunday, January 19, 2014

Part One - The face of poverty. The face of SNAP.

This is a two part series on SNAP. This first part highlights the raw data in a way that everyone can see and understand the specifics. It is not driven by ulterior motives, not influenced by politics, religion, or corporate viewpoints or opinions. The tail end includes some of SOLE of Buffalo's board member's experiences, including my most recent application process.

Part two will walk people through the SNAP application process specifically for New York State's Erie County. What to avoid, how to make it fast and painless, what questions to expect, what papers to have when you are ready to file, other social services that can be applied for at the same time.

This is the face of poverty, food, health, and housing insecurity. (Clockwise Military Families and Veterans, Homeless and Housing Insecure, Rural Households, Single Parent Households (Adrienne Flowers), Nursing Home Patients, the Disabled, and the Elderly)

SNAP focuses on the most vulnerable. More than three-fourths of recipients are children or elderly or disabled.

SNAP eligibility is strict. You cannot earn more than 130% of the federal poverty guideline. Most SNAP households are at or below 100% of the poverty guideline. Depending on the state, that comes to approximately $19,530 for a family of 3 as of last year, 2013.

The average (accounting for all SNAP households across the United States) recipient has a gross monthly income (before taxes) of $744, with deductions for child care, medical expenses, shelter costs, and up to $2000 in assets (so you can have a vehicle and a smartphone).

According to the USDA, “Over 30 percent of SNAP households had earnings in 2011 and 41 percent of all SNAP participants lived in a household with earnings.” 

Four percent of recipients receive $16 a month. The average household of three receives $281 a month. The average individual receives $133 a month. According to the USDA, many states report that beneficiary cards show that most recipients purchase foods such as breads and cereals; fruits and vegetables; meats, fish and poultry; and dairy products. 

SNAP recipients can purchase seeds and plants which produce food to eat. In some cities like Los Angeles and New York City, restaurants can be authorized to accept SNAP benefits from qualified homeless, elderly. or disabled people in exchange for low-cost meals.

Households MAY NOT and CANNOT use food stamps to buy beer, wine, liquor, cigarettes or tobacco; pet foods; soaps, paper products; household supplies; vitamins and medicines; or food that will be eaten in the store; including hot foods.

I recently applied for SNAP for my family when my husband was laid off. I am a mother of two with degenerative disk disease. My six year review for SSI and SSDI continuance is in year two of review, which means I have recieved no disability support payments since the February before last. I work as a special education substitute teacher for Buffalo Public Schools. I work when I am able and when positions become available. The position does not pay for holidays, snow days, or during the summer but is not considered seasonal nor temporary, two conditions that would allow for immediate SNAP and other social services coverage. I filled online, December 19th. I received a notice of interview for certification for January 3rd. When the case worker called, she called an hour later than the time indicated but was quick and pleasant. We would need to supply a lot of copies of different kinds of documents and pay information before January 13th. I copied everything needed and took the large envelope to the post office and waited. It was returned to us late on the 13th with an insufficient postage notice on it. Never mind that I had a clerk at the local office affix the stamp themselves, it was now too late!

I immediately called the case worker's number and left a message as to what happened and that I would deliver it to her office in the morning. The next day was a two hour nightmare that had me standing in three lines on three floors. In the end, I had a receipt that acknowledged that the post office had stamped the envelope on the 6th as well as a list of it's contents. I have called our worker four times since the night of the 13th with no response, and the last message on her voicemail recording states that she won't be back in the office for another week. Right now our SNAP application is in the limbo of neither denied nor accepted, so all we can do is patiently wait. We've been buying small bags of groceries every few days, just what is needed and delving into food we harvested and preserved this past summer and fall. Hopefully we will get an acceptance letter this week so we can not feel the pinch so severely while my husband looks for full time work.

One of SOLE of Buffalo's board members, who did not feel comfortable publicly sharing her identity, recalls that even though her family struggled financially, she never remembers experiencing food insecurity or hunger as a child. While they certainly ate their fair share of things like hot dogs, pasta, and off-brand cereals, they also had a large vegetable garden, fruit trees, grape vines, wild raspberries, and other foods that they grew, collected, canned, and froze so that they lasted as long as possible. Having local farmers to buy beef from and family that hunted also provided a lot of food. Neighbors and family canned different items, shared excess produce, and more. She believes that a healthy and thriving food community is very important to helping combat food insecurity, that no one can do everything themselves, and that only through community support can everyone benefit and not suffer from hunger.

Kelly Schubert shared, "When my husband was unable to work any longer due to health reasons and disability had not kicked in yet, we were in need of assistance. I had lost my job just a few mths prior and took a job making less than half of what I had been. Now we lost his income too. We had two small children. Living in southern Erie county I had never been to the county building and was scared. Thankfully there was a lady who actually came out to meet me at our town hall. She helped me with all of the paperwork on line, explained what I would need as far as paperwork and was a main point of contact for me. Thus avoiding the entire trip downtown and hours in line. The entire process of needing assistance is a bit overwhelming and hard to deal with as far as one's pride. Thankfully, this woman showed me compassion and understanding and helped me obtain the benefits to provide for my family without making me feel belittled."

Sara Vernon offered, "Here's my small bit on experiences with the SNAP program.

I grew up well, not rich but never hungry. In 2011, I joined a program that paid about $800 a month for a year long work commitment to a non-profit. I was fresh out of college, removed from the nest, and I could, of course, do it all alone and better than anyone else.

Knowing how little I would be paid, I applied for the SNAP Program for the first time. During my application my house was robbed, then my rent money was stolen, then my bike was stolen, and, having had enough, I moved. Knowing that I had to provide proof of address to my caseworker and update her with any changes in my living situation, I tried desperately to get in contact with her. Every day I would leave two or more messages on her personal line. I tried to call the general food stamps line, a useless phone line that, to this day, has never once allowed me to access a real live human being. I had just started my first professional job and, due to restrictions in my contract, could not take a personal day during my first three months of employment, which realistically meant that I could not take an entire day off to trek to the Rath Building to personally meet with my caseworker to process a change of address. For something as important as my ability to eat I'm sure my employer would not make an exception, but to further complicate things I was ashamed to admit that I needed the help. Because I could not reach my caseworker during the application process to provide her proof of my living situation my application was rejected.

After receiving the rejection letter I applied for a fair hearing. In a fair hearing procedure the caseworker and client argue their respective cases--the caseworker stating why a benefit is low or an application is denied, and a client stating why they feel that decision is wrong. It is intimidating to say the least. I argued that my caseworker was unreachable, my caseworker argued that I didn't provide verification of address, and it was decided that I was correct. I was awarded food stamps from that moment on, plus back pay for the three months I had to go without.

In the the months of waiting, between applying and having a fair hearing, it was common for me to run out of food. I often had to make the decision which was more important, rent or food. When I could afford food I would buy the biggest bag of rice I could. Generally, all I could afford to eat was plain white rice with stolen condiments from my workplace's cafeteria. I looked forward to dates with my significant other, as he would usually take me out to eat. I specifically requested restaurants with enormous portions so that I could make the most of the meal. I am not proud of this. I stupidly refused to seek assistance from food pantries, due to a mixture of shame and guilt. I couldn't bear to call my mother to admit that my first foray into independence was fraught with difficulty. And so, I just shut up, rejected calls from bill collectors, and ate my plain rice. I lost over ten pounds. To this day, I find it exceptionally difficult to turn down free food, even if I'm not hungry. Food insecurity, no matter how temporary, changes you.

I am a single white woman with no children, and English is my first language. I can't imagine how I would manage under different, more difficult circumstances. How could I have survived this ordeal with a baby? What if I hadn't gone to college and didn't have the ability to speak well enough to my issues at my fair hearing? What if I didn't speak English at all? Through this experience I have become grateful for the advantages I have in life, and, through continued work in nonprofits, try to make sure that those who don't have it as easy are able to have a fair chance at life."

No comments:

Post a Comment