Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Poor Girl on SNAP Part I: Getting there

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...

8 comments:

  1. Kimberly - Thanks for posting this. I can only imagine how difficult the process was for you, personally and bureaucratically, but it's important for people to see that people receiving assistance are their normal, hardworking neighbors and friends, and not the so-called 'welfare queen' of Reaganspeak. This recession/depression has affected nearly everyone, and it's good to keep that in mind when contemplating which propositions and candidates to vote for, not to mention contemplating what kind of people we want to be. So thanks - and keep up the good work on PGEW!

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  2. I just wanted to thank you for posting this and humanizing the process. So many people truly believe that getting assistance is SUPER! EASY! FUN!, not humiliating or difficult or repeatedly time-consuming at all, and that only lazy people who don't feel like working would dare shop at a store with that embarrassing little SNAP debit card. I've been on and off SNAP (I'm a contract worker, and while I do work for the same company consistently, workflow varies considerably) and have three small children. SNAP is the difference between my kids eating PB&J and ramen and them eating healthy, home-cooked, well-thought-out and nutritionally balanced meals. I am incredibly grateful for the assistance I recieve and I think being open about the process and the difficulties it presents is the only way that this country is ever going to drop its horrible attitude towards people who use the welfare system to better their lives - and you, living proof of the fact that being broke doesn't mean you're living off of bologna sandwiches, are a wonderful vessel for such a valuable lesson! You rock :)

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  3. yes thank you for bloggin about this, I remember feeling much the same way you did when my husband's firm went under and I had rent and 2 small children to think of, so we applied for everything, SNAP, GA, WIC, Medi-Cal, CalWorks, the whole shebang- and by the end of the mountains of paperwork it I felt so wrung out it was like I had no pride or privacy left. In the end all we qualified for was WIC and medi-cal for the kids, but I am very thankful for it knowing I can budget it so the kids have 3 square healthy meals a day and medical coverage. I think many people don't understand how complicated it is to get any assistance and what a valuable blessing it can be when you need it most.

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  4. A friend posted your blog on Facebook and I can't believe the timing. Three years ago, my husband and I made $110,000 a year. Yep. And then, through a series of horrible economic events and health issues, a few weeks ago were were reduced to standing in line at the CalWorks office. It took a week to get an appointment and another week to go through the process.

    We finally got the last of our paperwork turned in two days ago and while I have the EBT card in hand, they haven't released any funds for us yet. We'll be receiving $517 in food stamps and $660 in cash aid.

    This entire process was so completely alien to us. I have to admit, before we had to do this, I held certain unfair opinions about people on welfare and now I see that I was wrong. While we waited (and waited and waited)for our turn to see a worker, I couldn't help but notice all of the babies in the waiting area. Infants, toddlers, children... so many children needing support. It was incredibly sad. My husband and I promised each other that we would never take our child to the welfare office; we don't even know if we'll ever tell him that we had to do this. I can't tell any of my friends or family about this becuase we're just too embarrassed and feel s horrible about the entire situation.

    Thank you for sharing your story. It's good to know that we're not alone.

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  5. You gotta do what you gotta do. Don't sweat it...you are providing a hugely valuable service to society in general with your blog. Consider that paltry amount of food money as payment for services rendered, and hold your head up! You would be surprised how many people are receiving aid these days...people like me who used to have a great job with full benefits and yearly bonuses to take the kids on fun filled vacations. In this economy, after being laid off, I have not found anything remotely as good. I work two part time jobs now and have no benefits. I live day to day and find joy in the blessings I do have. I refuse to believe that I am less than I am due to circumstances I didn't control. This has given me the opportunity to see myself and others in a deeper, truer sense than I might have if I had just been able to sail through life. I don't judge people nearly as much anymore. The first time I had to go to a food pantry, I broke down and cried on the kitchen floor for an hour, I was so ashamed. Now I look around me and I see the people there as individuals, with intelligence, talent, compassion, and pride, just like me. A dehumanizing experience has become more humanizing in my regard for others, for me. Things will get better, they always do. I'll close with one of my favorite quotes... “Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn't learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn't learn a little, at least we didn't get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn't die; so, let us all be thankful.” Buddha There is always something to be thankful for...always. Keep doin' what you do!

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  6. Go Poor Girl! You're awesome! I actually don't follow any blogs, but I look at yours because it is so practical and real.

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  7. Wow. I am just reading this for the first time.

    As a fellow blogger (who doesn't make a dime off of it), I see great blogs like yours and I think, Damn, she's got it made. Advertising, so many fans, time to write all these cool posts...

    I have so much respect for you, and even with all the coupon sites I follow and emails I receive, I think I'll be focusing more solely on yours because your food looks awesome and delicious.

    It's hard to be so protective of my cash (I have a 16-month-old boy), especially around food, without, well, just feeling down in the dumps about it. But this puts it all in perspective. I really NEED to get more creative with my budget dollars...we used to spend $1,000 on food each month, including restaurants and wine — when it was just me and my husband! And we live in the suburbs (of Chicago)! When I tell people that they are shocked. No, we were not eating filet every night. But even now, spending $100 a week, compared to what you were given, sounds like a lot.

    Thank you, you've inspired me.

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  8. Just a quick comment about your asthma medication. I'm a single mom who lost my health insurance last year when my ex quit his job and moved out-of-state to be with a woman he met online. I too have asthma and wondered how in the world I could afford my medications. I decided to research the drug companies who made the meds and they have programs to help those who can't afford to buy them. I applied and they sent them to me, which is a real blessing.

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