The Census Bureau’s new report on Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage is out and shows the rising poverty and income inequality levels in this country. Marcy at emptywheel did a great job reporting on her participation in a poverty simulation in conjunction with Hunger Action Week. As someone who has lived that life for far too long, it seems like a good time to talk about how that works in real life.
I live in Dupage County, Illinois, which is one of the wealthiest counties in the country with 19 out of 39 towns having an average household income over $100,000, so you rarely see the poor and would never imagine that poverty is a rising issue here. There are very few aid programs available for which I meet the qualifications, but two of them have created major problems for me this year and I’d like to focus on those because they are indicative of what millions of people go through every day while just trying to survive.
The first program is SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, aka food stamps), which is federally funded, but managed by the Illinois Department of Human Services (DHS). While it’s possible to apply for SNAP benefits online or through several organizations, their only other online capability is to check your balance and expenditures. You have to reapply regularly to keep the benefits, and while they do offer an “automated” phone system for that, they only print your answers to add to an overwhelming stack of other applications being manually entered into their system. That inefficiency consistently runs 1-2 months behind, but you are not notified of that delay and end up without food money while not knowing why (to be fair, I’m told they are trying to alleviate the processing time delay).
After making a mistake with their phone system, my benefits were cancelled with no notification, which necessitated several trips to the only DHS office in the county located more than 10 miles from my home. The problem was finally resolved through a chain of people knowing people which got me to the director of that DHS office, and even then it took another couple of weeks. The whole fiasco left me with no food money for over two months and forced me to choose between food and electricity while it was still winter here.
The second program is Access Dupage, a program whose mission is to provide access to medical services to those people in the county who lack healthcare access for economic reasons. This is where I was penalized for being honest because I admitted a friend was helping me financially and included her verification letter in my renewal application. I am without healthcare because they refused to accept her letter as proof of my income and demanded that she provide documents proving her income for the prior 90 days, even though she was not applying for benefits and had no relationship with them! Their excuse for invading a non-applicant’s privacy is that it is required by their guidelines.
Overall, it sucks to be poor and is far more challenging than any job in just getting your basic needs met. It’s an invasive degrading, demeaning and demoralizing experience with endless frustrations; and is a time-sucking monster that is more expensive than people think due to high gas prices, public transportation and childcare costs for only a few minutes time with a case worker that has too many cases. I wish there was a solution to be offered, but the agencies involved don’t want to change or compromise to help more people, nor do they want to institute the efficiencies offered by current technology.