By Alexa Epitropoulos | email@example.com
Carra Wall is conscious of the looks she gets when she uses her EBT card at the nearby Winn-Dixie.
When she walks in the door with her five small children, she embodies every stereotype of a food stamp recipient. She has, however, grown accustomed to the looks. She no longer pauses to worry about the customers behind her who carefully examine her purchases. She admitted to others—and herself—that she needed help years ago.
“If I need help, I need help, plain and simple. I’m not shy about it anymore,” Wall said. “If we need to go to food banks to last of us to the end of the month, that is what we do.”
It wasn’t an easy admission for Wall, who readily admits she is stubborn. She had her first child as a teenager and separated from her children’s father in 2008. At first, she stayed at her father’s home in St. Augustine, but soon faced the possibility of living on the streets.
“We were ready to be homeless. My step-mother told us it was time to go, that we had to find something and get out,” Wall said.
Wall turned to transitional housing as a last resort and an attempt to provide stability for her children. In the year Wall has lived in transitional housing, however, her food stamps have steadily decreased.
Since September, Wall’s food stamps have gone from $600 to $350 a month. The decrease has required Wall to pay many of her grocery bills out of pocket.
“When I was getting $600 a month, I always had a little bit left over until the next month,” Wall said. “Now, my freezer is bare.”
The money Wall pays out-of-pocket for groceries takes away from bills and rent. It also makes it difficult to keep her growing family fed.
“It’s not even that the money is being taken away from me. The money is being taken away from my kids,” Wall said.
Lack of access
Wall’s struggles to feed herself and her family reflect those of countless Americans across the U.S. And as demands to restrict food stamps grow, the need for them only increases.
While more and more families are turning to benefits from SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, to afford groceries, fewer are able to access the help they need.
According to Terry Skulavik, a case manager at the Homeless Coalition, which operates transitional housing in St. Augustine, food stamps in St. Johns County have increased by 15 to 20 percent in the last few years alone.
In Florida, about 18 percent of the total population, an estimated 3,552,000 residents, will receive food stamps in 2014. In comparison, 2,603,185 enrolled in the program in 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Although some understand how to apply for food stamps on their own, many lack the knowledge and the resources.
“They’re coming from Bunnell, Elkton, Hastings and Palatka because there’s not other agencies that are helping them in certain areas,” Skulavik said. “We constantly get bombarded.”
Skulavik is tasked with helping residents navigate the increasingly difficult system every Monday and Wednesday. She helps with everything from filling out paperwork to scheduling their follow-up phone interview with the Department of Children and Families.
Although the Department of Children and Families once maintained a sub station in the area, it closed its doors years ago. Now, residents rely on nonprofit organizations like the Homeless Coalition to provide them with guidance.
Skulavik helps residents with more than just food stamps. She acts as a life coach for individuals she helps into transitional housing. Although Skulavik sees many residents abuse food stamps, she is quick to praise residents, like Wall, who have succeeded against all odds.
“She is one of our most promising residents,” Skulavik said. “She perseveres and makes sure her life and her children’s lives are constantly improving.”
Fear to come forward
Although many families could use the benefits to improve their circumstances, some are simply afraid to access the resources available.
The stigma surrounding food stamps has discouraged many from coming forward and seeking help, according to Casey Welch, Ph.D., associate professor of sociology and criminology at Flagler College.
Welch said the stigma impacts how food stamp recipients see themselves, but, more importantly, how others treat them in day-to-day life.
“Regardless of how you feel about yourself, other people are going to treat you differently,” Welch said. “Someone might be less likely to hire you, someone might be less likely to rent to you.”
Welch, who studied food stamps in the early to mid 1990s, said food stamp and welfare recipients are subject to the greater attitude towards poverty in the U.S. Instead of structural flaws, like lack of educational opportunities, poverty is largely blamed on individual shortcomings.
“Intellectually, it’s easier to say ‘you’re poor, it’s your fault’ as opposed to ‘you’re poor and something that exists 300 miles away in Tallahassee is partially to blame for your poverty’,” Welch said. “People tend to use the individual level of analysis and, therefore, it’s easy to stigmatize you and say that you are less worthy.”
The stigma leads to many individuals opting out of food stamps, which can lead to malnutrition.
“When somebody is avoiding food stamps and decides to eat Ramen noodles instead, it might be good for pride, but it’s not going to be good for health,” Welch said.
The growing resentment towards welfare and food stamps has played a major role in heightening the stigma. Conservative politicians have recently called for more restrictions on food stamp recipients, including drug tests. Food stamps were also cut by five percent across the board in November. The 2014 Farm Bill worsened the problem, slashing food stamps by $8.6 billion.
The decreases in foods stamps reflect a national trend that began in the 1980s. Negative portrayals of welfare recipients, such as “welfare queens”, turned national sentiment against means-based assistance.
Growing dissatisfaction culminated with President Bill Clinton’s introduction of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, in 1996, which instituted time limits on benefits and work requirements for welfare recipients.
While TANF intended to lift individuals out of poverty, it also made it more difficult for families to apply and receive adequate assistance. TANF has also repeatedly failed to break the cycle of poverty within families.
A generational problem
Chelsea Bellere, a 22-year-old single mother, has experienced the difficulties of applying for and receiving adequate benefits.
Bellere, who has only been on food stamps since Jan. 2013, is the second generation in her family to rely on food stamps. Her family has depended on the benefits since her father lost his job more than six years ago.
Bellere made the decision to apply for food stamps on her own when she was pregnant with her now 8-month-old son, Elijah. While WIC, the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Children and Infants, paid for her medical expenses and food during her pregnancy, the program did not pay her expenses after her birth.
“I wasn’t working that many hours. I was pregnant and moving out on my own. I had to feed myself,” Bellere said.
Bellere currently receives $246 for herself and her son, but is still left paying an additional $100 out of pocket each month. For Bellere, who works full-time at Publix in addition to her internship and coursework at Florida Technical College, the additional money can seem like an insurmountable burden. In all, Bellere works about 85 to 90 hours per week.
Her father and mother, although still on food stamps, also struggle to provide for their five-person household, including Bellere’s 14-year-old sister. Their food expenses far surpass the $300 in food stamps they receive each month. Because both are currently disabled, there is little that either can do to increase their income.
“We have been on food stamps for about seven years and it has always been a hassle for my mom with the insurance and the food stamps and finding the correct paperwork,” Bellere said. “My mom has struggled with it this whole time.”
Although Bellere had prior experience with food stamps, filling out the paperwork with the Department of Children and Families was also problematic.
“I had done the paperwork for my mom, but the first time I signed up it was aggravating,” Bellere said. “Every time I have to renew them, there is always a problem.”
Bellere hopes to graduate from her medical assistant program within a year and gain a job that will eliminate the need to be on food stamps. Affording rent and utilities while paying for some groceries out of pocket, however, continues to be a challenge for her.
Despite the benefits they receive, Bellere’s family is part of a growing amount of individuals who are food insecure, which is defined as a lack of access to adequate food needed to live a healthy lifestyle according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Bellere is, however, one of the fortunate few able to apply for and receive food stamps.
St. Johns County has a 12.6 percent food insecurity rate, according to Feeding America. Sandwiched between Duval County, with a 19.2 food insecurity rate, and Flagler County, with a 17 percent rate, St. Johns County can appear to be less poverty stricken. Families like Bellere’s and Wall’s, however, prove poverty in the county is still prevalent.
Wall knows that she has a long road ahead of her, especially when it comes to lifting her own household out of
She has made the first few steps towards moving out of transitional housing by paying bills on time and building her credit. For the moment, however, basic needs sometimes come before her bills.
“I make sure everything is paid on time. That’s a big thing with me. If I know I’m going to have to spend that extra money on food, I’ll put it aside, make sure my bills are paid,” Wall said. “Sometimes you can’t help it—a bill has to be late so you can buy food.”
She faces a potentially difficult process, but Wall is dedicated to achieving her goals, for herself and, most importantly, for her children. She thinks about her 14-year-old son, Caleb, who has aspirations of being a police officer. She worries about her youngest son, Charlie, who will lose WIC benefits after his fifth birthday in May.
When she looks back at herself, she can see the mistakes she made. She encourages her children to learn from her past.
“I always tell them ‘you don’t want to go down the road I did. You don’t want to struggle’,” Wall said. “Are there things I could have done better? Yes. Did I do better? No.”
She has high hopes for her children and is intent on seeing them succeed.
“I want to see each and every one of them graduate from high school. I want to see each one of them go to college and do better than what I’ve done growing up,” Wall said.
Wall sees a life beyond food stamps and transitional housing for her family. In the next few months, she hopes to increase her credit to the point where she can begin the process of applying for a house of her own through Habitat for Humanity.
Once she increases her credit, she can move onto the next step: putting a down payment on the house and completing “sweat equity” hours by helping others construct homes of their own. She hopes her family will be able to move into the house by December.
In the future, Wall also hopes to further her own education by returning to school to study medical billing and coding. It’s a path she couldn’t have imagined herself just one year ago.
“I want to go back to school. That’s my main focus. I don’t want to stand behind a desk for the rest of my life,” Wall said. “I’m only 31. I have so many years in front of me.”
Succeeding, at this point, is not just for her own pride and well-being. She hopes to set a positive example and improve her condition on her own. The benefits she does receive she uses to move herself forward.
When Wall goes to the grocery store, she relishes the small things—the look on her son’s face when he is able to buy a Lunchables. The sale on chicken cutlets she will use to prepare for dinner. The way her $300 grocery bill diminishes as she applies the coupons she brought from home.
Soon, she hopes to be able to afford groceries on her own. For the time being, however, she is thankful for what she does receive.
“I’m trying to get everything situated to where I can do it. Right now it’s hard,” Wall said. “It hasn’t fallen into place yet, but next year I want to be in our house. I want to be stable.”