On being newly poor: The humiliation, relief of public assistance

By Heather Denkmire, Special to the BDN
Posted Oct. 29, 2012, at 1:58 p.m.

In addition to facing dozens of prostitution charges, has anyone noticed that the Zumba instructor from Wells also has been charged with deception in connection with allegedly collecting public assistance from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families at the princely sum of a couple hundred dollars a month?

I sure could use a couple hundred dollars more a month. Some of us, though, are also painfully aware of how little that really is. It’s certainly not rent. It’s not food for me and my two children. It’s not a crown in my broken tooth. And it’s not a car repair on my 2001 Subaru.

Recently, an attorney who bills at $150 an hour suggested with good intention that I probably want to set a goal to get myself off of food stamps. I know he meant well. But, he also obviously has no clue.

Yes, receiving food stamps felt at first almost entirely humiliating. I’m still not comfortable knowing that the government — my taxes, the taxes of my friends and family, and the taxes of people who have never met me — is supporting me. My pride makes it difficult for me to accept a friend’s offer to pay for a cup of coffee, let alone have someone else buy my groceries.

Now, though, I understand the importance of the minuscule boost my $325 in food stamps gives us each month.

That same lawyer also didn’t understand when I said that the absurdly low income required to receive any benefits meant there was an incentive to not earn more money. “Why is that an incentive?” he asked. Well, it wasn’t the time then to answer. Here’s the answer:

Living without enough money is like an endless brutal life in uncrossable terrain — like the desert, swamp or ocean. Government assistance gets me out of the misery and up onto the edge of a cliff. Where there should be a bridge across the chasm, there isn’t.

Gratefully standing on the edge of the cliff, I know falling means death. I also know, from experience, going backwards means something almost worse than death. The only way to reach dependable food and shelter, and a sense of stability in life, is to get across the gorge to the other side, where the land flows with milk and honey. Financial security.

Assistance (food stamps and MaineCare in my case) means I get up on to that ledge, out of the impassable desert or swamp or ocean. Getting across to the other side isn’t something that government support provides. It’s my responsibility to find a way to live not only within my means but to also build a savings and the kind of financial security that means I don’t have to suffer from stress-borne illnesses because my car is due to die any day and my tooth really is shattered.

Setting a goal to get off food stamps sounds like a good idea. For sure. I shocked myself to find I agree with Gov. Paul LePage that people stay on government assistance long after it seems like they should need to. Now that I live it, though, I get it. The solution to getting people “off welfare” isn’t “cracking down on fraud.” The solution is raising substantially the income levels that allow for support.

If I could be free to really bring in as much money as I can without risking that support, I would without a doubt cancel my food stamps (and even MaineCare) as soon as I had enough savings to build a bridge to the other side. Now, I’m in a precarious position. I will continue to work to increase my income, of course. But knowing my extra tiny little boost from the government assistance could be taken away brings in so much fear, it can be paralyzing.

Giving up that tiny glimpse of security, the fraction of a possibility that things really will get better, is not just terrifying. It’s a very real risk of my tenuous foothold. Can I risk jumping? If I lose the government assistance, I don’t just risk falling but am forced back in the desert or swamp or ocean. I want to maintain and grow my financial stability so I can, at the very least, be on this ledge. On this ledge I can envision the time when I will successfully take that brave, though risky, leap across the gorge.

Heather Denkmire is a writer and artist who lives in Portland with her two young daughters. After a few challenging years, she is growing her small business, where her team helps nonprofit organizations win grants. She can be reached at heather@grantwinners.net.

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/10/29/opinion/on-being-newly-poor-the-humiliation-relief-of-public-assistance/ printed on August 23, 2014