more DHHS time-consuming confusion.

Note: As I’ve written about in my Bangor Daily News column, I don’t consider myself truly poor. I hope to use my experience with poverty to help other people (who haven’t experienced it) understand poverty better.

Today I received two envelopes from DHHS. We no longer qualify for food stamps. I’m not panicked, but I am a little worried. My financial situation has improved and my benefits have been only $14 a month for some time so on the surface it’s not a dramatic cut. However, as a food stamps recipient there are other benefits that will now cost me money. School lunches will no longer be free. I also won’t qualify for several scholarships for my children’s activities.

More than this relatively costly change, though, the mail contained what I now know is a very typical mixed and confusing kind of message from the DHHS. As you can see here, both packets contained information about our eligibility for MaineCare.

IMG_0132 IMG_0133We all qualify. Oh, no. We don’t qualify. Yes, we do! No, we don’t.

At this point, I suspect I don’t qualify but my daughters will. This means I will have the help to cover the co-pays required by their father’s health insurance plan. That makes a good difference for me (if they are actually covered).

In this report from DHHS, none of my childcare expenses are showing even though I entered them in my last recertification submission. Does this mean they no longer count? Does it mean something got dropped? I will need to call to find out, in case it makes a difference in the equation. One phone call alone is unlikely, based on my experience, to give me a helpful answer. It will also very likely take at least 15 minutes just to get someone on the phone to answer my questions, if I don’t get disconnected by their phone system several times as I’m on hold (which happened to me more than a few times).

And, finally, did you know these benefits are determined based on gross annual income? As my business grows in significant ways (yay!), my costs also grow (necessary boo). In fact, last year, more than 60% of my income went to expenses like my assistant, subcontractors, essential database subscriptions, and website maintenance, for example. My income didn’t really increase very much in the end. That doesn’t matter to DHHS as they don’t consider expenses in their calculations.

I’m not desperate, and there is no crisis right now. But, I am now in a much more precarious position. These new $20± items add up quickly. Loss of a larger client, or when (not if) my 215k-miles car breaks down for good, my financial situation will be dire. Despite this, I’m able to know that we’ll make it through okay. I know this because because of my experience as a person who comes from privilege. I know it will get better and I have the skills and support systems to get me through the scary times. Most truly poor people don’t have my advantages.

Where I am now is frightening, but I won’t lose hope. Living day-to-day without the knowledge that things will get better—while they won’t get better for most people living in real poverty—would be nearly impossible to survive.

daily luxuries. (no groceries challenge #3 ends.)

This “no groceries challenge” lasted just a month, and not even that (twice I bought fresh fruits and vegetables). Last night I went to the grocery store and bought, within reason, what I wanted. IMG_2724Like the challenges before, my perspective about what I “need” has adjusted to a more sustainable level. And, as it was before, I was full of gratitude when I had the option of going for the fresh produce. Not everyone gets to do this.

When I write about the no groceries challenges, or being “newly poor,” I write mostly for people who have backgrounds like mine. I hope to share with people who have always meant well; who embraced what I’ve always considered the liberal philosophies of helping those who need help the most. Even as I approach financial stability, I want to call on those many months where I lived with less than I’d ever known before.

I understand better why people who need the most help feel condescended to or patronized by well-meaning people. I also understand better why it seems poor people support policies that are “against their own interests.” I want to help people like me to do what they have intended to all along. There is a change in perspective that needs to happen. Instead of “helping them,” we need to “help each other.” I’ll write about it more in my newspaper column, but I’ll likely continue sharing thoughts here that are less fully formed and more personal.

(And, I expect to resist the temptation to go to the grocery store for “just a few things,” whenever the mood strikes.)

no groceries challenge 3.1 (update)

As I dumped out my tea because it was too bitter without milk, I thought about going to the market. Eggs, milk, and some fresh vegetables (maybe fruit, though I have a few apples and a grapefruit left). I have to decide how firmly committed I am to my current no groceries challenge. It’s only been 10 days. But, it’s been 10 days.

My younger daughter was vomiting last week and I got an “oral electrolyte solution,” oyster crackers, and ginger ale. It was cheating on the challenge, and I knew it. I valued my ability to make that choice. I thought of people who would find themselves unable to buy things for their sick children. Maybe they don’t have the money, maybe they don’t have a co-parent to help with transportation, or maybe their own health issues meant they needed to stay home. I felt grateful.

I’ve reached the point in this challenge where I have been looking at my pantry with more interest. While the girls are with their father, what meals can I prepare ahead and freeze? What treats for lunch boxes or after school snacks can I make now for later in the week?IMG_0101

On Friday, I picked up the final share in my “meat share,” from Wolf Pine Farm in Alfred. I paid for it over the year last year, thanks in great part to my SNAP benefits, back when I received more than $14/month. This means I’ve got more meat than I feel I know what to do with. Thank goodness for my deep freezer. Again, I feel grateful.

I have pantry space, freezer space, and I know how to use food strategically. Flinching feelings of “deprivation” or frustration only make me more aware of how much I really do have.

Limiting it to milk, eggs, and fresh produce, (and maybe some chocolate), I will go to the market today. I get to do that without serious consequences. I’m very lucky.

SNAP reduction crisis

After receiving notice that my foodstamps (SNAP benefits) have gone from $234/month to $42/month, I’ve had on my mind what this means for other people. If I had received this notice when things were at their worst, it could have had serious consequences. I was barely holding it together at that point (summer of 2011). Setting aside my beautiful daughters, the benefits I began receiving were one of the only bright spots in my life back then. I clung to what felt like a gift as it gave me the sense things could get better.

It happens that my life is much more stable and my income is beginning—only beginning—to come close to providing what I need to make ends meet. In fact, I had in my mind that in the next six months, I would be able to terminate my participation in SNAP. (The ACA health insurance options played a role in that plan, too.)

It’s not time for me, yet, to be done with SNAP. $42/month does very little relatively speaking. But, because I am no longer in a true crisis, I believe I will make it through. The stress and worry of it (I still have MaineCare) aren’t overwhelming.

The people out there who are living in crisis-mode, with constant scarcity, are surely being crushed by these reductions. It’s devastating that our political priorities put corporate (military) spending and Wall Street bailouts above these important human assistance programs.

I am very lucky. But, if this reduction had happened at a darker time in my life, it could have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. I suspect some people won’t survive the near-elimination of SNAP.

no groceries challenge revisited (2.0)

In May and June, I imposed a “no groceries” rule on myself. I was very low on cash. I wanted to find new ways to save money. I know loads about preparing, cooking, and storing good, healthy food. I also knew I wasn’t using the food I already had in an efficient way.

I wrote about it some, in these posts. On Monday, I’m going to start my personal challenge again. This time I’m in less desperate straits, but what I learned a couple months ago stuck with me. I know I’ve strayed off the path of financially healthy decisions.

There are a few significant lessons I learned from my month of not going to the grocery store—with a couple exceptions—that I didn’t share here. My first “real” trip to the supermarket after my challenge was to Whole Foods. As I learned in this personal challenge, leaning on the grocery store for prepared foods like snacks for lunches, treats, and fresh fruits is the most helpful use of my food dollars (the cases of water are not mine):IMG_3792Or, rather, when I buy whole foods and make almost everything at home, there are only some items I need to purchase pre-made.

Other lessons I learned:

  • the decrease in trash and recycling was startling. There was almost nothing in our recycling (no packaging) and the trash bags were much lighter (less discarded leftovers);
  • the impulse to buy more because “I’m about to run out” costs money and wastes food;
  • engaging my children in the mindful consumption adventure makes our return to whole foods a family value that we all enjoy;
  • keeping the refrigerator organized made using leftovers much easier and more palatable;
  • it was my cooking skills that made this challenge especially fun, rather than frightening. I am lucky I know what I’m doing in the kitchen. If I didn’t know how to cook, especially how to be creative with basic and/or surprise ingredients, this would have been a lot more difficult;
  • after the challenge “ended,” I maintained a “no groceries” perspective on our consumption. I flinch a bit when I think, “I’ll grab xyz at the market” because I know I’ll need to be careful I don’t purchase more than I need;
  • what I need is so much less than what I want.

The no-groceries challenge helped me quite a bit. It took a feeling of deprivation and made me feel stronger. I found a new source of healthy pride and energy. As I said, after the challenge “ended” I still rarely went to the grocery store. In the last month, however, I’ve slid back into finding a trip to the grocery store “for some fruit” ends with four full bags of groceries that we mostly don’t actually need, and will likely not use with efficiency.

This new no-groceries challenge reminds me a bit of people who do “cleanses” with fruit juice or whatever else people do. A re-start into the world of food consumption that aligns with our values. I’ll take the weekend to assess what we have on hand, I’ll do a run to the market for items that will make the no-groceries challenge last longer than it might otherwise (a big container of rolled oats, for example). Then, I’ll stop going to the grocery store. When I start going again, I suspect the the lessons I learned will stick with me for a longer stretch of time. In any case, I’m sure that these personal challenges, borne of real financial need, are benefitting our family in important ways that go beyond money. Yum.