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Selling Food Stamps for Kid’s Shoes

Submitted by News Desk on Fri, 02/26/2010 - 4:30pm

Unable to find jobs, kicked off welfare, women in Connecticut are forced to sell food assistance to buy basic necessities. Research support was provided by The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute. Additional research by Juell Stewart.
Food StampsSince she was 16, Eva Hernández has worked a string of low-wage jobs. She’s prepared chicken at KFC, run the register at Dunkin Donuts, packed and sealed boxes at a produce company, and held other similar jobs in Hartford, Connecticut, where she was born and raised. These jobs haven’t paid enough for Eva, now 28, to support herself and her two young daughters. So for almost three years in the last decade, she’s relied on welfare to supplement her income. Most of the time, though, she’s simply found another low-wage job, a task that in this economy is proving almost impossible.

In March 2009, in the midst of the worst job crisis in at least a generation, Eva opened the last welfare check she will ever receive. She is one of a growing number of people in the United States who can’t find work in this recession but don’t qualify for government cash assistance, no matter how poor they are or how bad the economy gets.

Without the help of welfare, Eva doesn’t have enough money left at the end of each month to feed her daughters full meals. It is the first time in her life, she said, that she hasn’t had enough money for food.

Now, with no other source of income, Eva breaks the law, selling her food stamps to pay for the rent, phone bill, detergent and tampons.

On the first day of each month, when her food stamps arrive, she walks to the convenience store up the street, buys food for her family with her food stamp card and uses it to pay off the debt she accumulated the previous month after she ran out of money. She then trades in the remaining balance for cash. Although the bodega is more expensive than larger chain grocery stores nearby, she’s locked into shopping here because places like Wal-Mart won’t let her keep a tab—or exchange her food stamps for desperately needed cash.

About 6 million people receiving food stamps report they have no other income, according to an analysis of government data collected by The New York Times.

Nine other women interviewed across Hartford said that they, too, have had to trade their food stamps to make up for the lack of work or income assistance. Service providers in Hartford, including the director of a food assistance organization and a case manager at a social service organization, confirmed the practice.

When Congress overhauled welfare in 1996, it created the Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) program that placed time limits on aid and made cash assistance contingent on finding a job. Connecticut adopted the shortest time limit in the country—just 21 months—and nationwide the number of families on TANF dropped from 4.8 million before welfare overhaul to about 1.7 million families in 2008.
Most people who left the rolls were pushed into insecure and low-wage work. At the time in 1996, there was no national debate about what would happen to families if an economic crisis struck.

Now, with a national recession that many analysts recognize as a depression in poor communities of color, even those low-wage jobs are few and far between, and the crisis that’s hit middle-class Americans hard has left families like Eva’s teetering one small step away from a tumble to homelessness and despair.

What follows is Eva’s story. It’s a life in the economic recession without work or income assistance. Her name and those of her family members have been changed because of fears that they would lose their food stamp assistance if known. This is an account of a typical month in her life, pieced together based on multiple visits with her and her family over a three-month period this winter.

Week One: Selling Food Stamps for Shoes
The air was cold and damp on a gray January afternoon. It had rained a lot this winter, and the sidewalk was covered in wet, decaying leaves from the fall, the curb lined with pieces of trash, a broken Hennessy bottle, a discarded sock. Eva, a short Puerto Rican woman with round, tired eyes, walked with her 5-year-old daughter, Emily, the quarter mile from the elementary school to their apartment. Emily skipped a couple paces ahead of her and then turned around to wait for her mother.

Dressed in a New York Yankees jacket and a matching winter hat, Eva took Emily’s hand and gestured across the street with her chin to a small convenience store in the corner of a yellow–paneled, two-story house. “That’s my store. They help me out,” she said. 

It’s here that Eva performs her monthly ritual: buying food and then trading her remaining food stamps.

The store itself is a tight room and a gathering spot. During one trip, two men, their faces creased with the deep lines of their age, were tilting their necks to watch the Mexican telenovelas playing on the dusty television screen perched above a soda case. A teenage boy was peering into the soda case, while behind a candy-lined sheet of plexiglass, a woman in her late 20s sat at the register and painted her fingernails red. Read More