Welfare- Let’s Break It Down

trees-358418_640Four weeks is just not enough to tackle all of the aspects of “welfare”. Maybe that’s why it’s so much easier to jump to snap judgements- because the real info is complex and hard to understand. It’s just so much simpler to take a look at someone and determine we know their story. It’s so much easier to believe the stories you hear again and again of how someone’s cousin’s friend uses her EBT card to take cash and spends it all on dye jobs, fake nails, and menthol cigarettes. I have been pouring over statistics, manuals and all the other information out on the web and to tell the truth, my head is spinning.

[pullquote type=”right”]When you add together MFIP (2%), SNAP (3%), and refugee benefits (less than 1%) we are discussing a total of only 6% of funding.[/pullquote]What I found most astonishing is that the numbers aren’t as large as I may have initially anticipated. For Stearns county, in particular, it is important to note that 94% of funding goes toward medical assistance. That leaves very little funding going to the so called “Welfare Queen” programs. When you add together MFIP (2%), SNAP (3%), and refugee benefits (less than 1%) we are discussing a total of only 6% of funding.  This breaks down to 773 families using MFIP, 10,722 persons using SNAP, and 70 persons using the newly arrived refugee benefits in our county in December of 2014¹.

In order to try to break this down for you I’m going to take a look at what benefits might look like for the person ahead of you in line at Walmart. I am choosing this scenario because at Walmart they accept a number of benefits including SNAP, MFIP & WIC benefits.

Let’s start with WIC. Now a number of you may be familiar with WIC having used it yourselves or have had a friend or family member who uses it. The WIC program works through a series of coupons that are determined based on income and by the number of children in the household. A family may receive WIC benefits of formula for infants while pregnant women and older children receive vouchers for cereals, milk, juice, cheese, fruits and vegetables (canned or fresh). Each item has a separate coupon and states the amount that is allowed. Now where this gets tricky is not only does each coupon need to be rung up separately (inciting numerous eye-rolls from the folks behind you in line) but they also only cover certain products of certain amounts (i.e. only select cereals or cans of a certain number of ounces). For those new to WIC or shopping at a grocery store that is poor at labeling items this can get frustrating and tricky. Most cereal boxes don’t add up to the amount allowed by WIC and while one type of canned green bean is allowed another isn’t. WIC coupons cannot be used for more than they are written, however, the user can choose not to fill all items and each coupon has a period of time it is good for. They cannot be exchanged for cash at the store and if someone would choose to sell their coupon they would be quickly caught as each recipient’s name is printed on it the members must carry and present their WIC booklet with their signature written on it and any other family members whom are allowed to use it. Even if someone would chose to sell them and find a way around that portion, the coupon could still only be used for the specific foods printed on the voucher. It is a tedious exchange at times, particularly if the clerk is not familiar with the coupons.

SNAP benefits are what people typically call “food stamps”. They now come on a debit card or EBT card. They are money-256319_640good for food benefits only. They cannot, let me repeat, CAN NOT be taken out in cash, sold or used otherwise.  In fact, you can use SNAP benefits only to buy food and plants and seeds to grow food for your household to eat. The program provides support to help stretch your household food budget. It is not intended to meet all of your household’s food needs. It is a supplement. The monthly average of benefits is $98/month¹. It is not use it to buy:

  • Any nonfood item, such as pet foods, household supplies like soap and paper products, or grooming items like toothpaste and cosmetics
  • Alcoholic beverages and tobacco
  • Vitamins and medicines
  • Any food that will be eaten in the store
  • Hot foods

Penalties are strict and can result in loss of all benefits.

The MFIP grant includes cash and food benefits. MFIP participants are encouraged and expected to work. Supports are provided to enable them to go to work, and earnings disregards ensure they are better off financially when they work. In most cases, families receiving cash benefits are limited to 60 months of assistance during their lifetime. The goals of MFIP are:

  • To encourage and enable all families to find employment.
  • To help families increase their income and move out of poverty.
  • To prevent long-term dependence on welfare as a primary source of family income.

When a family receives only the food assistance portion of MFIP in a month, that month does not count toward the family’s 60-month limit. Families who receive only a small amount of the cash portion of MFIP benefits can opt out of receiving the cash portion to preserve their 60-month limit. Every month a family receives an MFIP grant that includes a cash portion counts toward the 60-month limit.

The asset limit for MFIP applicants is $2,000. Once on MFIP, the family can accumulate a total of $5,000 in assets. Some Excluded assest are:

  • 1 vehicle up to a loan value of $15,000.
  • The home which is owned by and is the usual residence of the family, including surrounding land and buildings.
  • Household and personal goods, including pets, furniture, clothing, jewelry, appliances, and other tools and equipment used in the home.

The cash portion of benefits on an EBT card cannot be used to purchase alcohol or tobacco products. A participant found guilty of using their benefits in this way will be disqualified from the program. The monthly average of benefits is $254/month¹

But all those facts still don’t get to the heart of the issue. Every person on welfare has a story. Their own unique story. During my years of home care nursing I encountered so many families struggling. It isn’t easy to raise kids, let alone when you are needing to take multiple days off work for illnesses, specialist visits, sick nursing or PCA staff, etc. There are very, very few employers who will tolerate that sort of schedule and FLMA only covers so much. FLMA is not paid leave either. When we look at people standing in line we don’t see the sick parent or spouse they are caring for at home that has taken them down to one income. We don’t see the story of their layoff they received after 20+ years with the same company. We don’t see the lack of role models people had as children, their struggle with mental illness, the fact they are finally clean and trying to get back on their feet after battling an addiction, that they are working, working damn hard and still can’t manage it on their own.

Those are the stories that I wish I could write. Those are the only real ways for anyone to understand that there are so very few people “milking the system”. The truth is most people don’t WANT to be on welfare. It carries such a negative stigma. It chips away at their pride because we insist on it. We insist on seeing it as something to be ashamed of. Something “beneath” us. We don’t see it for what it really is- a chance to move forward. To allow people and families to dream and reach something better. To send their kids to bed with food in their belly. To maybe, just maybe get ahead.

We insist on seeing it as something to be ashamed of. Something “beneath” us. We don’t see it for what it really is- a chance to move forward. 

Knowing that there are less than 2% of welfare recipients that use the system fraudulently I feel pretty safe knowing “my money” is going to help someone less fortunate. For all I know, that one day may be me. I don’t know about you, but even in regards to that <2%, if it means my tax dollars may help to keep a child alive and send him/her to bed no longer hungry, I say ABSOLUTELY!

Is this YOUR story?

If so, let us tell it. Let us share with the community your struggles and let them know they are real and they matter. No names or faces if you don’t like. Just your story.

*This article is a guest post, written by a local member of our community.

¹ All benefit facts taken from the December 2014 report on Public Assistance available HERE for public review.