I had originally intended to post this a couple of months ago but decided to postpone it so that I could tie it in with some stories I've contributed to on other sites and media outlets. WalletPop.com and BlogHer have both written about the increase in SNAP use on their sites this month, including some of my story, and I will be featured on News10's morning news on July 1st to talk more about how families & individuals on SNAP can begin to make healthier choices and better use of the assistance they receive. These next two posts will relate my personal experiences and opinions on this program in an effort to raise awareness about hunger, what could be changed about the SNAP program to help foster healthier choices, and that it is perfectly okay to admit you're broke and need help, no matter how hard that may be. - Kimberly
Most of you know that in January I lost the temp assignment (which was supposed to become a permanent position) at the worst possible time. I had had a very rough winter, complete with pneumonia, a sprained ankle, and acute bronchitis among other things, all of which resulted in a lot of missed work. Those of you who are also temps know that missed work = no pay, so you can imagine how much deeper my dark financial hole ended up getting. I lost my temp assignment a mere 10 days before my already backed up rent was due, and with no permanent job opportunities or even other temp assignments in sight, I began to panic. Because I'm good at what I do, I knew I'd be okay on food for a couple of weeks, but as far as shelter went, I had no idea what to do or where to turn.
Fortunately, I listened to my mom who reminded me that as a taxpaying citizen, I did have the right to apply for public assistance to help me through this roughest of rough patches. I will admit that I was hesitant to do this at first. Why? I think I was scared that I'd be denied assistance and have absolutely nowhere to turn to from there. But mostly, I felt like I'd finally reached my rock bottom, having to ask for help when the past few years of financial hell had never forced me to do so. All this time I've just dealt with it: cutting corners, missing out on things I loved, wanted, and even needed, and getting as creative and resourceful as I possibly could. I have actually received some pretty nasty emails for saying that I had to "swallow the last 4 oz. of pride that I had" when I went to apply for public assistance from people who are obviously quick to judge a complete stranger without knowing her complete story.
So here it is.
For me, it was not a case of being too "embarrassed" to ask for help, as some folks have assumed; it was a case of feeling like a personal failure because for the first time in my entire life, I found myself in a hole I couldn't crawl out of on my own. I had already cut back on anything and everything fun (just one asthma inhaler when I desperately need the other two; no more shopping for new clothes & shoes, things I do really need; no more concerts or road trips; no more new music; no more dinners out with friends). And I'd already sold everything I could sell without having to go without the bare necessities, which include my computer and my camera, things I actually do need in order to continue the one thing that has kept me going through all of this: my blog. With so many loyal fans & new readers everyday, folks who have actually written to me privately to thank me for bailing them out of one crisis or another, there was no way I could have chucked the two things that I needed to keep this thing going. I love what I do, love that I can help people. Quitting PGEW was not an option.
And so I went. I walked the few blocks to my local Department of Health & Human Services office and started the application process that I so naively thought would result in some sort of immediate assistance. After all, I'd checked out the information online and realized I did qualify for both food stamps (now called SNAP: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and General Assistance. I'd called the office before going so I wouldn't waste a trip and was told all I had to do was fill out some forms and they could help me right away if I brought my ID and Social Security card. What they don't tell you is that you get to stand in line for a good 20 minutes (if you're lucky) and receive a giant stack of forms asking you for everything but your blood type. Then you get to stand in another line for another 30 minutes so you can turn in this stack of paperwork and be rudely instructed to sit down and wait for someone to call you back into their offices. After another hour or so of waiting, you have a brief 5-7 minute meeting with a social worker who finally tells you that you won't be getting any help today and hands you another slip of paper so you can stand in ANOTHER line that will finally result in an appointment time. For one week later.
One week. 7 days of absolutely no income or even the hope of any assistance at all. My panic increased.
I dealt with it, though. I had been given a large manila envelope full of more paperwork that was quite similar to what I'd already filled out at the office. I patiently filled everything out and spent the last few dollars I had to make copies of the documents they required at my local Kinko's. I made sure everything was filled out correctly so that I couldn't be denied for some minor error. With my large packet in hand, I went to my appointment 30 minutes early, again, to make sure I couldn't be denied for some trivial reason. I checked in and was told I might wait anywhere from 30 minutes to 6 HOURS to be seen. Strange, considering I had an "appointment". I now realize they should change that to "check in time", as I literally did wait 4 1/2 hours before I was finally called back to meet with my case worker.
I was lucky to get a social worker that understood I wasn't there to milk the system, though she was brutally honest about the fact that I probably wouldn't get much in the way of GA. Again, not a good thing, considering my rent was my main concern (and all I got from that was $153. That doesn't even cover a couple nights at Motel 6, let alone real rent!). Finally, after 7 hours of waiting, picture-taking, fingerprinting, PIN selection and signatures galore, I was given the maximum amount of SNAP assistance for a single person: $200. I was shocked, considering I don't even spend that on groceries in a normal month anyway! Sadly, when I did some research later, I learned that the more people there are in a family, the less money is actually received. Here in California, the maximum amount of food stamp assistance for a 4 person family is a mere $668; nearly 17% less than what one would think it would be at the $200/single person rate. Still, it is a big help when you have absolutely nothing to fall back on.
Now if only all this came with instructions and a better set of rules...