Monday, August 3, 2009

Extra jobless funds actually hurt some

$100 more a month from stimulus goes to unemployed woman on food stamps but wipes out $175 in aid By Bonna Johnson • THE TENNESSEAN • August 3, 2009 TRACKING THE STIMULUS: Increase in unemployment benefits ends food stamps In these tough economic times, who wouldn't want an extra $25 every week? Nashvillian C.J. Evans would rather just have her government food stamps. The jobless 52-year-old lost access to food stamps after the federal economic stimulus boosted her unemployment check by $25 a week — and bumped her above food stamp eligibility limits. The bottom line for Evans is that she's getting $75 less a month in government aid because of the very program that was supposed to help out-of-work people like her. "It really made me angry," said Evans, recalling the phone call she got in mid-July from a government worker letting her know she no longer qualified for food stamps. The $25 weekly increase in unemployment pay is one element of the federal stimulus package to directly help millions of people feeling the harshest effects of the recession. At the same time, income limits to qualify for food stamps did not increase, so the extra money pushed Evans and others like her over the cap. "I have an MBA. I'm not a deadbeat," the divorced Evans said. "I've worked my entire life, and the one time I need food stamps desperately, I can't take them." Evans can't find a steady job doing financial analysis and accounting work and has been employed here and there on short contract jobs since last year. When not working, she draws $275 a week in unemployment. She started getting $175 in monthly food stamps in March. In July, she learned she no longer qualified for food stamps because her unemployment benefits went up to $300 a week, or $100 more a month, because of the stimulus. "I would gladly give up $100 per month in exchange for $175 a month," said Evans, who has no health insurance, can't afford to fix her car and is trying to sell her house in a neighborhood dotted with foreclosed homes as a "short sale" because she no longer can afford the payments. State officials don't know how many Tennesseans are in a similar situation but don't expect the number to be high. "There's nothing the state can do about that," said Richard Dobbs, Tennessee food stamp policy director. "The income guideline is set at the federal level." Few in same situation One estimate puts the number of people in the same predicament at about 14,000 nationwide, just one-third of 1 percent of the 5.3 million people claiming unemployment benefits, according to Stacy Dean, director of food assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington, D.C., think tank. "This person is a rare example," Dean said. Very few people participate in both unemployment benefits and the food stamp program in the first place. Of those getting unemployment checks, just 8 percent also were participating in food stamps in 2007, the latest available data, Dean said. Those caught in this fluke in the law were already close to the income limit for food stamps. Because Evans is the only person in her household, her income limit is much lower than the limit for a larger family. States do have the flexibility to increase the income cutoff in their food stamp programs to help more people qualify, including people like Evans. In the past 10 years, at least 17 states, including South Carolina and Texas, have done so, and three others plan to implement changes shortly, Dean said. Tennessee has no plans to change eligibility requirements, Dobbs said. Woman plans to appeal In most cases, families on both programs won't see their food stamps decrease as a result of the increase in jobless benefits, Dean said. Indeed, nearly all households participating in food stamps and unemployment benefits got an increase in both programs through the stimulus program. "Normally, when a household's income goes up, their food stamps are adjusted downward to reflect that they have more ability to purchase food," Dean said. "But the economic recovery legislation also included a significant bump-up in food stamp benefits of about $20 per person." That's little comfort to Evans, who has been depending on the goodness of friends to get by. One has loaned her a car and another is giving her a place to stay so that she can keep utility bills low in her own home. She's tending a garden at a friend's home, freezing for later what she can't eat now and donating the rest to the Second Harvest Food Bank. "It's a way to give back," said Evans, who for the first time is taking charity from food banks and churches. She job hunts about six hours a day and plans to sell her washer and dryer to help pay a $1,000 car repair bill. She's thinking of pawning her mother's wedding ring, or selling it to someone in the family, to pay bills. "I'm waiting for a letter telling me how I can appeal," Evans said about trying to get back on the food stamp program. "I'm not sure on what grounds, but it's the principle of the thing."

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