A Real SNAP

Over the past few years we’ve been, shall we say, financially challenged. We were never really flush. In the couple years before I married, I was barely able to support myself, but had room for more frugality and had coasted business-wise. Marriage would have helped, but circumstances meant I had to squeeze out more money without substantial career change, in order to support more of us. It would have been a bear to apply because I was self-employed via a partnership, but my income seldom strayed far above the numbers that would just qualify for assistance. Food Stamps, now called SNAP. Just never would have thought to do it, even if I’d made less – or not juggled things to appear to make more than cash flow justified, as the case may be. I spent the first few years of marriage and kids worrying beyond worry about money and what could eventually happen, but trying not to worry my spouse. Beyond what implicit awareness there was of the smoke and mirrors juggling involved. There’s a frugality move for you: Breast feeding to save the insane cost of formula.

I digress somewhat.

Eventually, well after I should have, I applied for what is now SNAP. We qualified at the time not merely handily, but for emergency alacrity. That was suddenly almost $500 a month for groceries! Out of what they computed was at least $600 a month for a family of our size.

I was amazed that the official amount was so high! I mean, I’m old enough to think of $600 a month as practically an entire income. Which would also explain why I think a grand a month in rent is the far side of insane.

We went from, well, I think I was spending on the order of $20 a week and getting random handouts of food from relatives, to all that money. (I could be misremembering, because a lot of people online donated us a lot of cash and that is where some of it went, but I was still being beyond frugal, because there were other things it had to cover.) That opened the door to losing some of the biggest and most time consuming frugality measures. Which is another post; the sheer time and energy cost of being poor/frugal. That opened the door to convenience foods being in the house more routinely. Which is another other post, how much extra it costs if you want to be able to let the kids graze conveniently.

Eventually circumstances changed enough that we’d have qualified for considerably less in SNAP, but the agency basically jerked us around to the point where I gave up on obtaining the maybe $200 a month it would have entailed. We could manage. Of course, our income has ebbed since then, overall, and it’s been tough at times.

What’s made it tougher is having gotten used to what was more money than I might have spent on groceries when I “had money” back when, it’s harder to go back. I mean, besides the kids having become locusts. Now I can see the $470 or whatever being too little, or barely enough. I reliably would end each month with at least a month’s balance left on the card. That sure made weaning off of it easier.

I still tried to be as frugal as possible, obviously, but really felt like I was cheating. When I really miss it is when I am forced to buy things like soy milk and soy butter, and when it might help in branching into some of the other allergy options like non-dairy cheese.

I expect to be on it again at some point, with only four of us in the house and my income plus whatever child support figures in being the factors. It will help tremendously, much as I’d like to remain off or move back off of it as soon as possible. [I was a little confused, reading this after all this time, but this must have been the point when Deb was going to move out, but didn’t.]

Did I have a point here? I mean, besides that for me the SNAP benefits felt like we were rich grocery-wise and that changed habits in a way that can be hard to change back? Don’t think so. Outside factors and what is customary for you can change your perception of what is or isn’t frugal, and your adaptability. I know many people would look at that $600 figure for a family of five and be surprised anyone can do it on only that much. I suspect there are people on SNAP who wouldn’t begin to know how to save massively, which was part of the formative inspiration for a blog of this focus. Other are in the trap of too little income, but also too little time. Which is why I’d want to convey as much as I can ways around both circumstances.

Enough rambling. Speaking of being too busy. If I weren’t treating writing here as a job, trying to build something, it might not be getting done. That and the kids have become easier to work around.

Update as of September 6, 2015

What actually happened with SNAP back then, near as I can tell, was that I angered the people at the local office and they blacklisted me. I tried again over the course of as much as two years, culminating with the final time I applied, turning in needed documentation on time, in person, in the presence of the person handling my case, with the stuff I turned in stamped as to when they were received. I got turned down with a notice that was probably all ready to go by that time, and was sent out to me before they would even have had time to review what I’d provided. I gave up and we did nothing else with SNAP until Deb applied in her name while waiting for long-term disability to be approved, with no income because short-term disability had expired. They fell all over themselves to give us about $500 a month. This helped hugely. They actually bumped the amount up a tiny bit when she started getting disability. Ultimately I was spending that plus maybe $300, and that left bills all being paid comfortably, and the hope of things like dentistry.

Then at renewal time in February, they checked my pay for one of the weeks after the four they ask for stubs from. It was an anomalous $150 higher than normal, due to a two week burst of volume that happens twice each year and factors into my average pay. Rather, their newly automated system checked. It bizarrely cut us to zero but left us an active account. This kind of thing had become rampant starting in 2014, with Massachusetts using an automated system of data mining to do checks on people. Someone disabled and far more reliant than we are on SNAP would work one day as a poll worker, for instance. The system would extrapolate that to a full year’s income and shut them off. The latest thing I saw indicated that Massachusetts has a participation rate of around 1% for SNAP, down from over 6% a couple years ago, without an employment change to match. Nationally the participation is in the ballpark of what Massachusetts had been. That’s clearly not right. At the same time, they have eliminated case workers from have assigned cases, so you don’t get a person who is already familiar with your situation. The poor workers are harried and can’t be happy with the changes. They were buried in work in the first place, given the economy. They never did review our case. It had to wait for the six month renewal. We clearly qualified for something, even if the prior amount had been overkill. We’ve been spending the tax refund on groceries for months! Apart from fixing cars, that’s where most of it went, and it was down to what we needed for a car emergency and ensuring a normal Christmas. So it was time to have the help again. Of course, I am philosophically opposed to programs like it, in an ideal world, but this is the world we have. I’d be happier to have a pumped economy with a free market and adequate opportunity.

So here we are, about $1200 a month below the income cutoff for SNAP, and we again get a “benefit” of $0. But they still have us on their roles, considered eligible for benefits, so anything else that uses the same metric, like free school lunch, remains available. Say what? We’re confused. This time it is supposed to be based on information provided by Equifax. Yes, a notoriously inaccurate credit reporting agency also is in the business of qualifying you, or not, for SNAP benefits. First thought was they clearly had something wrong. Or first thought after “why did we give you all that data if something else tells you what to do?” I have started to wonder if it is the savings I maintained and gradually doled out for food and car repairs and such that triggered it. They don’t seem to ask about savings when you apply, though I could swear I remember it back when I originally did. The internet says they take it into account, though, and that you have two months to spend your tax refund (made large through EIC) before it can get you shut off. That seems counterproductive, even as I can see some logic to it. If you are responsible and don’t blow it on a vacation to Disney, but use it gradually, you are penalized. At the same time, if you were that poor, you’d probably spend it fast. Some people can spend a lump sum like that breathtakingly fast. I try to put the brakes on it, because I never again want to be unable to pay a heating and electric bill, fix a car, or cope with a moderate emergency.

So as I revive this blog, it seems we face going particularly frugal again. Most of my business income for the year, as it stands, falls during a six month or so period that’s drawing to a close. We’re in a slow time of year at work, until late November, except for a couple weeks around the first half of October. It’ll be tight. But hey, that’s part of the impetus for renewing the blogging, organizing it better, and making that a big part of each day. It’s a resource that already exists and has income potential if I put some effort into it.

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