One of the side effects of law school, in addition to stifling student loan debt, is becoming the "lawyer in the family" from the moment you sit for the LSAT. I've uttered the words "I'm not a lawyer yet" or "I can't give you legal advice" in a variety of languages to my loved ones over the past few years. This summer, fresh off of a horrible two months studying for and subsequently sitting for the New York bar exam, I got a call from a loved one about helping them apply for food stamps, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.
Rose*, a woman in her late 50s, with a lyrical laugh and proud eyes, lived in Florida. This was a state I hadn't lived in since college, but more importantly a state where I didn't know the law. So I tried to beg off the request explaining that, not only was I not a lawyer yet, but that she wouldn't need any legal assistance to apply for benefits. After a short back and forth however, she told me she didn't need my help as a lawyer, but she needed someone to help her understand it all, because she was scared. She never thought of herself as someone who would ever need SNAP but couldn't see how she could continue like this.
Ramen noodles for dinner and skipping lunch was not a sustainable long-term plan, especially not at her age.
Somehow, I thought I lived in a world where 50-year-old working women would be able to afford healthy food, but I didn't, and it made me angry. I promised I'd look into the qualifications and how she could apply and get back to her.
Immediately I noticed that I had inadvertently minimized her concerns. Though a lawyer is certainly not required to apply for SNAP or any other public benefits, the rules are so convoluted, it felt almost necessary. Florida, like many states, publishes a fact sheet to help applicants and benefit recipients alike navigate SNAP benefits. The Florida guidelines are informed by the federal guidelines provided by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service. The eligibility guidelines are nearly identical, however, there is wiggle room, particularly on eligibility calculations.
While the USDA's most recent guidelines indicate 130 percent of the Federal Poverty Levels (FPL) for both gross and net income for eligibility, Florida's state that applicants can be less than or equal to 200 percent of the FPL. Both guidelines contain "allowable" deductions of income in consideration of eligibility, including a 20 percent deduction as well as a portion of shelter costs and medical expenses. The state of Florida even has an eligibility estimation tool before application.
Despite all preparations, an intrusive online application process, followed in about two weeks by an uncomfortable phone interview, Rose was still denied SNAP benefits.
In my "recent law graduate" outrage, I wanted to find a legal answer to this problem, so I contacted her local legal aid. By my personal calculations, the agency must have made a mistake. They did not. When I reached out to legal aid and they input Rose's income into their system, they also determined that she did not qualify for indigent legal representation, she made slightly over their cut off point. The difference was that of a few dollars, earned from overtime opportunity at work two pay periods before. This was the same amount that prevented her from qualifying for SNAP benefits. "It's awful how it works out sometimes," the lawyer told me, "how the ineligible poor fall through the cracks."
With a seven percent decrease in benefits in 2013, Food assistance benefits for a qualifying household of one person are maximum benefit amount of $194. For a regular 30 day month, this comes out to about $6.47 a day, and about $2 per meal. However, that $2 a meal could make a huge difference for those who are food insecure. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, SNAP recipients spend over 85 percent of their benefits on; fruits and vegetables, grains, dairy, meat, and meat alternatives. Many who would have been previously eligible for assistance, can no longer qualify due to the 2014 Farm Bill, which disallows recipients from claiming a SNAP standard utility allowance when determining income eligibility.
Rose, like 14 percent of other Americans, is considered "food insecure," according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This means money or resources often impede her access to adequate sources of food. There was something wholly unsatisfying about this outcome. The problems remained the same, Rose wasn't making enough money to afford healthy food on a consistent, basis, and she was out of reasonable places to turn.
There is a prevalent stigma attached to needing public benefits to survive, even temporarily, but the stigma intensifies when the benefit seeker is a Black woman. We fight both our "strong Black woman" archetypes to admit that we need help, and then turn from that metamorphosis to battle against the "welfare queen" stereotype associated with anti-Blackness.
Rose waded through months of stretching and skipping meals to ask me for help. She told me she was ashamed, that she didn't want to worry me. "What did you need to worry about this old woman for? You had more important things to do," she said, referencing my studying for the bar exam.
At the end of it all, there was nothing I could do; we weren't facing a system whose purpose was to eliminate food insecurity in vulnerable populations. We were facing a behemoth of a system, which refers to benefits in terms of percentages, as to avoid attaching names and stories to the numbers of cuts, to the numbers of the food insecure, to the numbers of the starving.
It is worth it to ask ourselves, where do we go from here? How do we hold our system accountable to those that need help but don't fall in the ever narrowing guidelines of eligibility. SNAP benefits got me through my last year of college, I'm terrified to think how I would have survived if eligibility requirements were as narrow for me back then, as they are for Rose now.
*Name changed to protect identity