Living on Nothing Because You’re Supposed To

by Bill on February 12, 2014

Authors Note: this is an unpaid op/ed piece I wrote for the Ithaca Times newspaper which appeared on February 12, 2014.

I’m a newly minted public assistance escapee. In other words, I gave up playing their game and decided it was best trying to work out life myself. Why? Because the hoops and barrels you jump through make you want to puke.

According to the state’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, public assistance is defined as temporary help for those who can’t find work, can’t find enough work, or whose jobs don’t pay enough. Simple enough right?
Now comes the reality. It’s not that simple. For those thinking that being on welfare isn’t stressful, try it for a year and get back to me.

I had the opinion that public assistance is meant to be temporary and help out those who need to maintain some semblance of life. If you think the application process is too easy, think again. The forms alone are around twenty pages and they ask for everything but your shoe size and how many pennies you have. Yes that was a joke; what’s not a joke is the amount of financial information they require. Don’t forget to bring the whole list of documentation proving who you are; and don’t get annoyed when they figure your income using the gross amount before taxes or other deduction; I still don’t fully understand why they do that to be honest.

Get a receipt for any documentation you drop off. Make sure it has your name, the documentation, date and time on it. I’ve had stuff get lost; you will have to resubmit lost items, but at least with the receipt you can prove you tried to turn it in.

As for the amount of assistance you can receive, I almost wonder if it’s better to beg off the street; actually, by the time you get done with the initial interview with the worker you almost feel ashamed of needing help in the first place. No, it’s not the workers fault, not by a long shot; it’s the list of things they must ask for, the requirements you need to get aid, and the mess that the public welfare system is in this state.

I fell under the Safety Net Assistance program. Again, the original requirements for SNA are simple; you are either: a single adult; a childless couple; a child living apart from any adult relative; family of someone found to be abusing drugs or alcohol; family of someone refusing drug/alcohol screening, assessment or treatment; or a person who has exceeded the 60 month time frame for other assistance.

Yes there is a time limit. But there’s also a catch. If any member of any household has used up their allotted 60 month time span, the entire household becomes ineligible for aid because the entire household that uses the time frame, not just one person. The public assistance office  states that “cash Temporary Assistance in New York State is limited to a cumulative period of 60 months for any adult. No cash assistance (FA or SNA) benefit is granted to a family that contains an adult who has received a combined total of 60-month benefits under FA or cash SNA.” In other words, everybody else is caught in a catch-22.

In the year I spent dealing with the system, I was allowed the following: $189 for food, $350 rent, and they paid for the heat and electric. Oh, and I was required to sign over the heating assistance that comes along with the food stamps should it arrive when I am still on assistance. So the state is paying the state for my heat. Interesting concept. There was a bi-weekly cash allowance of $16.50 after I had finished off an “overpayment” which wasn’t even caused by me. Before this I received no cash. Returning cans and bottles to scrape up money for toilet paper is fun. You quickly learn what neighbors have the recycling bins that can generate income. So, that’s what those people are doing digging around the containers early in the morning.

In the meanwhile, I was required to attend “Employment Training” classes. Now, I have had my share of jobs over four decades of life. This training class consisted of how to fill out an application, how to make a resume, and how to do an interview, along with a few life skills. In other words, nothing I didn’t already know. I understand these classes are meant for those who may have little skills or have been out of work for awhile; but they make everyone take this class regardless of their ability or experience. Then there is the “Work Experience Program”, which is a nice name for free labor for the county. Please tell me how cleaning, lawn care, and trash pickup are useful for a resume. Yet this is a requirement over a seven day period. They told me it was to help get people back into the habit of working and maintaining a schedule. Did it help get a job? Nope. Again, I don’t blame the people at the assistance office. The politics of welfare did more to harm than help.

There’s a catch here too with the “Work Experience” program, you can’t miss any days. So if you’re attending to children, trying to go part-time to school (under 20 hours), or can’t get transportation you’re screwed. The SNA benefits come with this stipulation “..recipients of SNA, who are determined to be able to work must also comply with work requirements to receive SNA benefits.” And trust me, they try very hard to prove you can work any job. I remember one worker who wrote down ‘willing to take any job offered’, without ever trying to determine what I was capable of doing.

One last thing you will encounter. The welfare office loves to ask you to “explore” the use of “community resources” around you. In other words beg, borrow and use friends, family and your church to support yourself. What’s funny is you end up doing that anyway to fill in what welfare doesn’t provide. What’s even funnier is that this is a requirement to obtain assistance; and they’ll gladly point you to all the free stuff they know of and guilt you into trying those before accepting you.

I don’t want to scare people who are going to be needing public assistance. I know the numbers are on the rise. The caseworkers will tell you that much. Just don’t go in expecting too much; and don’t complain when they seem to ask for a pound of flesh as well. The system is set up to push people through the initial entry phase like a turnstyle; but then, once inside the system, getting caught up in the gears is too damn easy if you’re not prepared.

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