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Location: Allentown, PA

I'm a Christian wife and a mom to three daughters and two sons. I'm a member of the board of directors of EmPoWeReD Birth. In my "spare time" I'm a doula, and a certified childbirth instructor.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Government and its role in keeping people in poverty

A while back some aquaintances of mine told me that their apartment had been broken into, and several hundred dollars stolen. Loosing this kind of money is difficult for anyone, but particularly to this couple. They suffer from mental delays, and survive on the husband's minimum wage part-time job at Walmart (where he is really abused--but Walmart's despicable treatment of employees is a whole 'nother post!), the wife's part time house cleaning job, and minimal government benefits. I have to admit, I wondered why in the world they--of all people--would have several hundred dollars stashed in a file cabinet in their apartment.

The wife later told me that they were trying to save money to buy a small house. It still didn't make sense to me why the money wasn't in a bank--I knew they had a bank account--but not wanting to pry, I didn't ask.

Some time later I figured it out--at least I think I did. They received food stamps, something they desparately needed due to their low income earning potential. But in order to get food stamps they have to have less than $2000 in assets. This includes owning a house or any type of retirement savings. So in order to save that down payment for a house (I wonder if they knew buying the house would result in loosing the food stamps?), they had to do it "under the mattress" so to speak, so that they had no assets on the books.

Now I know there is all kinds of controversy about government benefits, and people who are capable of work but sit around and collect benefits. But there are some people that really can use a helping hand. This couple was a perfect example. They work hard, but there is no way they can even make a "living" wage. These people are the result of "mainstreaming" of the mentally disabled population--30 years ago they would have been housed in a state hospital, hidden from public view. Today we try to allow them to live normal lives with a little bit of government assistance...and in the case of this couple, they found love and even have a child together. And in their attempt to live the American dream...the very government that is supposedly helping them is keeping them enslaved to poverty.

It doesn't stop there of course. My sister has a learning disability, so like this couple, she receives government benefits to help her make ends meet. Recently my husband and I moved her from the state where she and I had lived as adolescents and where she has been in an "assisted living" program for the last 12 years, to live in the state I live in--to our town so that she could live close to family.

Trying to transition her government benefits has been a nightmare, to say the least. The Public Housing Authority (PHA) in her previous home failed to tell her of forms that needed to be completed before they could transfer her case to the PHA in my town. The result of this is that her lease at her old apartment ended on October 15, but as of this past Friday, the PHA in my town still did not have all of the necessary paper work to open her case.

The really crazy thing we found out was that she could not get "permission" to move until her last month's rent was paid at her old apartment. Even if the paperwork had been promptly filed by the PHA where she used to live...she would have been unable to sign a lease for a new apartment until-at best-less than a week before her lease on her old apartment had run out. Of course this is assuming that she had a new apartment waiting in the wings despite not have "permission" to look for one yet--and that the PHA inspector would inspect it and approve of it the same day...which of course we would not expect them to do.

Fortunately my husband and I are her landlords...so we let her move into the one bedroom house we bought for her without having a signed lease. Of course this is a problem...after having been told my the PHA office where my sister used to live that there shouldn't be a problem with her renting from us, we found out less than a week before she was scheduled to move that she isn't allowed to use HUD benefits to rent a house owned by her parent, sibling, grandparent, or child. It never says anything about "in-laws" in the code, so we kind of hoped that if we just put the property in my husband's name, we could get away with that. But the "nice" lady at the local PHA office is over-interpretting the code, saying even if the property were owned by a cousin or uncle, it still wouldn't be allowed--even though the code specifically names the family relations I listed first, not a general description like "any first degree relative" or "any blood relative." Huh? They would rather she rent from some slum-lord in center city than rent a nice little house in a nice neighborhood from her family? It's not like we are making a profit off of this! Should I mention that I describe this PHA employee as "nice" only in the most sarcastic of tones, and that she had a sign on her door the day I met her that read "the witch is in." There is wording in the code about a possible exemption if the recipient of HUD benefits has a disability that the property is uniquely able to accomodate--so we are hoping to get by with that.

So anyway...my point in this whole long tirade about the Public Housing Authority is to say that this is why people who receive HUD benefits get "stuck" in substandard living conditions--they can't afford to move out because they know they will have a lag in getting their benefits transferred.

And it's not just in moving that HUD keeps people in poverty. The way HUD works is that they determine what the "fair market price" for renting a particular size unit is, and that is what they set the benefit level at. The amount that they will pay for a person's apartment is decreased by one third of their income.

Now I agree with the concept that the HUD benefit should be related to the income a person makes--a person making more should not get so much of a benefit. But one third of their income? Most people budget 25% of their income to rent, not 30%. So we are taking the poorest segment of our society, and expecting them to spend a larger percentage of their income on housing that is generally of lower quality than the rest of the population would accept. This leaves them with less money to possibly save to help dig themselves out of the rental situation.

Then there is the problem of getting employment. Most employers are not exactly jumping up and down waving to disabled people and saying "PLEASE, come work at MY company!" No...they hire disabled workers because the government gives them tax breaks for doing it. But in order to get the tax break, the employee needs to have a "job coach." Well my sister had one in the state she used to live in. She worked for a Wegmans grocery store where she used to live, and because she had good job evaluations, they told her they would have no problem giving her a job at the store in my town. We spoke with the HR manager at my local store in June about this, and he confirmed that he would give her a job.

Well on September 29 my sister and her advocate made a visit down to talk to the PHA folks and the folks at Wegmans, and we ran into a couple of snags. First of all, there was a new HR manager at Wegmans, and she knew nothing about my sister (did I mention that my sister didn't do the communications with Wegmans that she was supposed to be doing concerning her move?). She was fine with hiring her, but she explained that Cindy needed to have a job coach first so that the store would not miss out on their tax break.

Well supposedly stuff was being put in the works to transfer her job coaching needs to my state. But when I called the job coaching office following the news from Wegmans, they told me that though they had her application, because she had not put her specific new address on it, she had not yet been assigned a job coach. Giving my address and saying she was moving to my town was not enough. She hadn't put an address on the application because we still didn't have approval from the folks at HUD, so weren't sure if she was going to move into the house or not... Not only that, but they had not even contacted her existing job coach to get her files.

So anyway...the job coaching folks told me that they would "fast track" her request especially since her coaching needs are minimal--and certainly would call me soon to schedule her first meeting with a job coach. I had the impression that "soon" would be early the following week. I gave them the phone number of her existing job coach, who they said they would contact. That was Friday, October 6. The following week I played phone tag with that job coach, and when I got in touch with him (I think it was about Oct 16 before we actually spoke), he told me that no one from the office in my area had contacted him yet, so he hadn't sent out files. I played phone tag again with the local office--as did my sister's old job coach. Grrr... I finally got a call from the local office during the last week of October.

So my sister finally had an appointment on Nov 1 that we THOUGHT was with her job coach. Turned out that it was an intake interview...and they still didn't have all the necessary paperwork from her old job coach to "officially" determine that she is eligible for coaching--never mind that she has previously been approved in this state for job coaching by the exact same agency (in another city--but same agency). Oh, it could be another 4-6 weeks before she is even assigned a job coach. Keep in mind that her last day of work was October 5. So she's looking at an excess of a 2 month lag in employment. She's been putting in applications without the aid of job coaching, but so far has been unsuccessful in finding alternate employment.

The latest problematic area I have found is in Social Security Disability payments--SSD. My sister gets SSD. $611 a month. This is a very helpful part of her income. But my husband and I had hoped--as part of moving her near to us--to encourage her a bit toward independence. One of our specific goals is to get her working full time. We acknowledge that this will be difficult--and will most likely require her to work two separate jobs at barely over minimum wage.

The unfortunate snag that we have had thrown in the works of this is that we just learned that if she earns over $900 per month for 9 months (not necessarily consequetively), she looses the SSD benefit. There is no "if she earns over $900 a month she looses 50% of the amount over $900." She looses ALL of it.

Well at minimum wage, she would need to work nearly 25 hours a week to replace that $611. Oh...except that as her income goes up, her HUD payment goes down. So really, to replace that $611 plus the lost HUD benefits, she needs to earn $925 at minimum wage, which is about 35 hours a week--not even considering that by earning more money she might get put into a different tax bracket and loose more of her income to taxes. She currently works 20 hours a week--so she would need to work a combined total of 55 hours per week to have a paycheck that would equal the government benefits she is currently receiving. And keep in mind that because of her income, she relies on public transportation, so often encounters commute times of up to 2 hours one way, even for a simple cross-town commute. Given that her work shifts are often 6 hours or less, she could easily spend an additional 20 hours per week commuting.

So bottom line...is it really realistic to expect her to be able to replace that SSD payment by working? Is it any wonder that people who receive government benefits like this are "content" to just collect benefits and not work? If they do work, they loose their benefits, but it is very hard to earn more than their benefits will provide by working. So by receiving SSD she is essentially being capped at an earning potential of $10,800 per year--just $1000 over the poverty level as defined by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Which I find to be an absolutely unrealistic figure...because I remember how it was to struggle to make ends meet when I graduated from college in 1994 and was making $25,000 a year. 12 years later, less than half of that is supposed to suffice???? Granted...that $10,800 is just what she earns by working...her combined government benefits bring her highest possible total income to about $22,000--close to $25,000, right? Except that adjusting for inflation means that the $25,000 I made while single was nearly $32,000 in 2005.

Yep...she's coming out about $600 a month shy of the income that I had trouble making ends meet at--and I wasn't living an extravagant life.

Sigh. Ultimately, I think that we will encourage her to find a job that will put her over that $900 limit. Because really and truly, living independent of government "help" will be the best thing for her. But for now, we will tread carefully, and fully weigh our options before we put her in a position where she looses government benefits that she so much needs.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

5:04 PM, November 07, 2006  
Blogger Jenn said...

Okay...so when a comment to MY post is longer than the post itself...that is odd enough. I mean really, am I not verbose enough?

And the comment was really weird, and completely unrelated to anything on my blog unless you consider talking about major religions and their relations to life on other planets related to my blog...

12:05 PM, November 08, 2006  

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