My essay “Where We Store Shame” was recently published in Oregon Humanities. This essay represents the first time I have written deeply and personally about my parents, some of the ways we experienced poverty, and how I’ve tried to make sense of it all. It is, perhaps, the best of my writing. Or perhaps I just really needed to write it. You can read the essay here.
Like many first-generation college students, I believed education would alter the future so much it would erase any lingering trace of the past. So while my dad collected experiences and my mom collected stuff, I collected knowledge.
-Larina Warnock, Where We Store Shame
I want to take a moment to thank Ben Waterhouse and Sarah Currin-Moles from Oregon Humanities for their work with this essay. I cannot think of any editor I’ve worked with in the past that not only helped me make the piece better, but also thoroughly protected the spirit of the piece and demonstrated compassion for what the piece meant to me as an author. I also want to thank the illustrator, Madeline Martinez. Her work beautifully complemented the essay. I cried when I saw it. You can find more of her work here.
Contrary to popular belief, cash benefits (called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families or TANF) from the welfare office are not a common entitlement for poor families. In fact, in contrast to food stamps where one can earn up to 200% of the federal poverty threshold and qualify, the eligibility criteria for cash benefits is around 50% of the federal poverty threshold in most states. This is calculated monthly and all forms of income count against eligibility including unemployment compensation, disability income, court-mandated child support (regardless of whether or not it is received), wages, and even one-time payments like a tax return or life insurance payment. Only families with children are eligible for this benefit.
There are also asset limits that vary by state. The typical asset limit is $2,000. Usually (but not always), the family’s primary vehicle doesn’t count as an asset and their primary home doesn’t count as an asset. Any kind of savings account owned by any member of the household counts against eligibility, even if the savings is specially designated (such as a college savings fund).
Finally, the amount of time that a family can receive cash benefits is limited, usually to two years, and can only be received if non-disabled, adult heads of household are actively seeking employment or are working through a state-sponsored program.
The maximum monthly amount of money a single parent with two dependents receives on welfare is $170-770 depending on the state in which the family lives.
Curious and want to an even deeper look into this program? Congressional report here.
The Problem with the TANF Approach
There are many problems with the TANF approach to poverty, but I’ll focus on the big 3. First, a TANF check is never enough to pay for all the basic needs of a family, even when combined with food stamps, but the asset limits and monthly earning limits mean that a family literally cannot get enough money for those needs in any other way except through other social service programs that are excluded from the calculations. The system creates more dependence on the system rather than working toward helping families out of poverty.
Second, while it is acceptable under eligibility guidelines to work for a state-sponsored program while receiving cash benefits, families receive ONLY cash benefits as their “wage.” These programs require roughly 20 hours per week of work. Remember that in the lowest-paying state, the maximum monthly benefit for a single parent with two children is $170 per month. That equates to approximately $2.13 per hour. While these programs are supposed to be helping families develop long-term job skills for productive employment, the program jobs are typically menial labor, retail sales, or low-skill secretarial jobs that continue to keep people in poverty.
If an able-bodied adult member of the household wanted to go to college to improve their long-term employment options, they would be disqualified from the program unless they also worked those 20 hours. 20 hours of work study count as financial aid, not employment.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the TANF approach is that families cannot save for college, trade school, or other training that would help their children break the poverty cycle. A college savings account for their child—something that would have a long-term impact and equalizing effect on their future—counts against the family’s ability to meet that child’s right now needs.
This doesn’t even take into consideration the way the inability to save for emergencies puts some families into a cycle of employment followed by reliance on the system.
Few TANF programs come anywhere close to being equalizing, deliberate, or to show an expectation for future success. In fact, they don’t consider the future at all.
What Can We Do?
Our current welfare system is based on Elizabethan-era assumptions and policies. It is also designed in such a way that it assumes all poverty looks, feels, and behaves the same. Because of these foundational assumptions, some efforts to “fix” the welfare system—such as Clinton’s welfare reform of the 90s—have actually increased the risk of long-term impoverishment and made it more difficult for social mobility to occur.
The first thing we need to do as citizens is educate ourselves about what poverty is really like. I can’t count the number of times I have heard people say things like, “They don’t work because they can just rely on welfare.” The truth is that no family can successfully and healthily rely on cash benefits or any other form of welfare. Imagine trying to live as a single parent with two children on $170 per month in Alabama or even the $770 per month they could receive in New York. Yes, they probably also have food stamps, but food stamps will not pay the rent or the electricity or medical bills or anything else (and as mentioned in Part 1, they don’t even cover all of the food a family needs).
Then we need to dedicate time and energy to working with others and developing innovative solutions that meet both the right-now need and the long-term future needs of a family. In simple mathematical terms, if we invest in getting families out of poverty, the amount of money needed to help people in poverty will decrease over time. If TANF programs don’t work to improve a family’s long-term socioeconomic status, we need to revamp them.
One of the most important things we as individuals can do is demand from our political representatives that people in poverty are included in conversations about how to fix poverty. Offer to drive a group of people to a public hearing or run a free class that shows people how to provide written input. There are significant barriers for people in poverty to participate in the political establishment that sets requirements for their needs, but we can help them.
A lot of the reason our welfare programs don’t work is because they are all designed to do for families instead of with them. Behavioral sciences tell us that this is a poor way to lead and an ineffective way to create change. So why are we still doing it?
SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) is commonly known as “food stamps.” It is virtually impossible to find nonpartisan information about the food stamp program. Here are a few things you may or may not know:
While food stamps is a Federal program, states may increase eligibility requirements. Federal eligibility requirements can be found here. States may not invalidate any Federal eligibility requirement (for example, they cannot decide to provide food stamps to undocumented workers who are ineligible Federally).
The food stamp budget is part of the Farm Bill which also subsidizes agriculture in the U.S. This complicates the process of managing the food stamp program through legislation.
There are specific guidelines for what can and cannot be purchased using food stamps. These guidelines are determined by a food/non-food designation rather than a nutrition designation.
Most people who receive food stamps who are able to work do work within one year of receiving benefits.
Most SNAP recipients are white. Only about 1% of food stamp benefits are traded for cash. Great report on these misconceptions can be found here.
Every state has its own application form and process.
From My Perspective
When I was a kid, food stamps came in stapled booklets and were their own kind of currency. Trading food stamps for cash was fairly common not so much because people were too lazy to work, but because cash assistance was harder to get, harder to keep, and food stamps wouldn’t pay for things like rent, electricity, water, or even important personal hygiene products. While it’s true that some people I knew would trade food stamps for cigarettes or alcohol, most were just trying to make ends meet the only way they knew how. When you’re poor, there are no good choices, and the “Do I pay my rent or electric bill?” vs. “Do I buy food?” choice is a shining example of that.
Today, food stamps are paid out on a debit-like card called an EBT card. There is less stigma when you go to the grocery store and food stamps are harder to trade. Cash benefits are still harder to get and keep and food stamps still don’t pay for rent, electricity, water, or personal hygiene products. The value of food stamps hasn’t kept up with inflation and we use an outdated poverty line to determine eligibility.
The average appointment time for a food stamp application or renewal for my family was 2 hours. That’s 2 hours away from work or looking for work. 2 hours of child care if you don’t bring your kids with you and probably an added half an hour of appointment time if you do. If you have transportation issues like many people in poverty, you can tack on another hour at least for getting to and from the appointment.
Complicating all this, the use of food stamps is still determined by a food/non-food guideline and the amount of food stamps you get is deliberately less than the amount of the cost of food (as an incentive for working instead of relying on benefits). What this means is that no matter how many coupons you clip and how many stores you go to for sales, you are still relying heavily on processed, unhealthy foods for no other reason than they are cheaper than unhealthy foods. In some cases, fresh produce isn’t even available to people in poverty because they live in what is called a “food desert.” In other cases, convenience foods are the norm because people in poverty often work in jobs where they don’t get to be at home at meal time to cook for their kids. Kids have to cook for themselves, and if parents don’t have time to teach kids how to cook, convenience foods become the only way those kids will get any food. Again, there are no good choices.
Today, food stamps can be used to purchase seeds and plants that produce food, which is awesome and helps with the lack of produce available to some. However, apartment-dwelling folks may not have anywhere to put these plants and may lack the know-how to grow them (or, sadly, to cook them and maintain their nutrition). Food stamps still cannot be used to purchase vitamins and Medicaid/Medicare also does not cover vitamins unless they are prescription-strength.
While some people are complaining about what people on food stamps are buying, people on food stamps are complaining that they can’t buy the things that will keep their families healthy.
So What Do We Do?
Food is a right-now need, but it has long-term consequences. Undernutrition has significant long-term consequences that can keep someone from moving out of poverty due to chronic health conditions, increased stress on both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, mental health strain (your body is consistently in fight-or-flight mode), cognitive impairment, and other factors. In the U.S., it is also a problem because many people, including physicians, don’t recognize it as a problem. At the height of my physical impairment, I was low on Vitamin D, Vitamin B12, magnesium, and potassium–years after I ceased being “poor.” My early childhood years were relatively stable where food was concerned, but the years that weren’t stable had a long impact. Even now, my body does not process vitamins the way it should.
Here are a few things that you can do to help:
Support your local food bank. Food banks often not only provide food boxes, but also provide nutrition education.
If you donate food to a food drive, be conscious of the nutritional value of the food you donate.
For every 3 food items you donate, donate 1 non-food item (toilet paper, feminine hygiene products, deodorant, toothpaste, etc).
Donations come in fast around Christmas time, but people are hungry year-round. Summers are especially difficult for families because children who might usually get free or reduced lunch at school aren’t getting it. Fall is a hard time of year because families have just paid for school supplies. Add a date to your calendar in the late spring, mid-summer, and early fall to donate.
Volunteer for a gleaning organization. Gleaners pick up leftover crops from fields so that people have fresh produce. People with disabilities and many senior citizens rely on volunteers in order for them to participate in these activities.
If you have some garden-able land that you aren’t using, consider allowing some families to set up a community garden on it.
Have other ideas? Email them to me at larinamichelle(at)gmail.com and I will add them to the list.