New law, new reality for aid recipients

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New law, new reality for aid recipients

From one political season to the next, lawmakers in Washington and Georgia’s Gold Dome argue over what policies will create the kind of society most Americans and Georgians want to live in. Mostly, those battles are fought with statistics and rhetoric. But policies play out in the lives of people. Today, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution brings you one in an occasional series of stories exploring the intersection of public policy and individual lives.

Brushing her youngest daughter’s hair into a ponytail, Marie JeanLouis stands in her living room trying to remember what it felt like to wake up well rested and confident that she could provide for her family without assistance.

It’s a Monday, just before 8 a.m. She has just finished her third 12-hour shift in three days. And yet, there she is, bleary-eyed and well into this day’s first shift as the mother of four girls.

“Did you take your vitamins?” JeanLouis asks Malaika as she wraps a band around the child’s hair.

“No,” the 10-year-old says.

“Did you put lotion on your face?”

“No.”

The scent of burnt bread from another daughter’s attempt at breakfast blankets the room. JeanLouis sighs.

As a home health-care aide, from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. she feeds, bathes and watches over those in the twilight of their lives as she wonders what has become of the middle of hers.

At $9 an hour, it’s work she is grateful for. It is also a reminder of how far she’s tumbled in eight years. Back then, she’d been married, a budding Realtor and a proud Woodstock homeowner who helped buy the food she put on two dining tables in a 7-bedroom house.

Now, at 44, she is separated and the renter of a tight, two-bedroom Marietta townhouse packed with big furniture bought when the economy was huge and she thought there was nowhere to go but up.

And the meals she serves come from a food stamp benefit of $265 a month.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps, is a government entitlement JeanLouis says she is fortunate to receive. But with 47 million people on the national rolls, it’s also an entitlement many politicians believe is too generous, plagued by fraud and crippling to recipients and the nation’s work ethic.

Georgia’s 1.8 million recipients are weeks away from having to meet a new requirement to receive that aid. Last month Gov. Nathan Deal signed into law a bill that, starting July 1, could require any SNAP applicant or recipient to pass a drug test before receiving benefits. All it would take to trigger a test is a “reasonable suspicion” on the part of the state that the person is on drugs. The test could run from $17 to $40 or more. Anyone ordered to take one must pay for it out of pocket.

Some politicians have suggested SNAP use — and, by extension, government spending — could be curbed by a little more honesty and a lot more hard work on the part of recipients.

“If everybody lived within their means or got assistance from churches, we should have a lot less entitlement,” said state Rep. Greg Morris, R-Vidalia, sponsor of House Bill 772. “The primary responsibility of government is to help businesses so we can grow the economy and create good paying jobs so people can pay their bills.”

But what happens when hard work is not enough? What happens when those like JeanLouis who hold low-wage jobs — a third of the nation’s SNAP recipients — find they don’t earn enough to get by? And how will the cost of a drug test affect their struggle to stay afloat?

Living small

“Megan, what is burning?” JeanLouis calls to her 18-year-old.

From the toaster Megan pulls a scorched strudel. The pastry is part of the mix of free and government-purchased food that fills the kitchen: the mangoes on the counter; the cantaloupe and spinach in the refrigerator; the frozen turkey and chicken breasts in the freezer.

A local church food pantry has become a weekly stop. Sometimes JeanLouis goes there to help stretch the balance on her electronic benefit (EBT) card, onto which her food stamp allowance is loaded each month. Sometimes she goes because the balance on the card is zero.

Kroger and Publix have been replaced by Food Depot, where she can get 5 pounds of chicken quarters for $4.45, a big bag of rice for 62 cents, and packages of bruised tomatoes and chayote for $1. There are many things her children are learning to live without, but JeanLouis does not want consistent meals to be among them.

Without being asked, Malaika trudges upstairs to a bedroom she shares with her mother to finish grooming.

“Did you brush your teeth?” JeanLouis calls to her.

The time has long passed when each girl could have her own room. JeanLouis misses the spacious Woodstock house. It represented the good life she’d dreamt of ever since she was 16, when she emigrated from Haiti to live with relatives in Florida. She became a U.S. citizen in 1998, when the national unemployment rate was 4.5 percent and the opportunity she’d come for felt within reach.

On the impoverished Caribbean island, JeanLouis had been raised by her grandparents, relatively prosperous farmers.

“My grandmother didn’t know how to write or read,” JeanLouis said, “but somehow she knew a $10 from a $20.”

Her grandparents made a life through endless work. JeanLouis’ generation was told to couple that with an education.

Following the playbook

Through her first marriage, through her pregnancies, she obeyed the mandate. In South Florida’s job market her fluent Creole, French and passable Spanish gave her a leg up. A hospital with a large Haitian client base hired her as a patient advocate.

She hustled from that day job to a night job as a home-health aide. She parented from the driver’s seat of her car, shuttling her kids back and forth to school and to relatives. Sleep was intermittent. Time to herself was measured in the minutes it took to drive from one job to another.

The extra $10s and $20s she earned built a nest egg. There were dance lessons for daughter Maritsa, now 15, talk of college for the oldest, Michelle, now 23.

But the official, good-life playbook said bachelors’ and masters’ degrees were the keys to better positions and real wealth. So, JeanLouis took out a $20,000 loan to complete her bachelor’s degree in business administration at Northwood University in West Palm Beach.

She also sank some of her savings into three rental properties, which brought good returns.

Even now — her forehead furrowed, her once curvy figure round with extra pounds — JeanLouis says she sees what came next as more an act of fate than an example of fault.

“It was just bad timing,” she says. “I don’t blame anybody.”

And yet, every day she wonders how much longer she’ll need help to turn things around.

“Ah, I have this headache,” JeanLouis says, sitting down on the edge of the couch to wait for Malaika. “If I could just sleep.”

The new public assistance law says a “recipient’s demeanor” is enough to prompt a drug test. At this moment JeanLouis’ eyes are red from exhaustion, her movements sluggish from fatigue. How would a caseworker read those signals?

Off the cliff

For JeanLouis, the road to SNAP began after her first marriage ended, the second one began and the family relocated to Georgia in 2005.

She had already switched careers to become a wholesale rep, a job that gave her greater flexibility to be with her children. The Florida properties had been sold to buy the Woodstock house, and, thinking she could cash in on a white-hot housing market, she got her Realtor’s license. In 2006, in her first six months as an agent, she says, she made $37,000.

But from that point, her trajectory tracks the tremors of the Great Recession like a seismic chart: The wholesale market dried up as people stopped buying non-essentials; real estate collapsed; she burned through her 401(k); spent her savings; took out an even bigger student loan to get an MBA, thinking it would give her a leg up in a down market; lost the house; lost her grip on a middle-class life.

And now, for the Marietta townhouse, which smells a little like mold, has poor heating and windows that are stuck shut, she pays rent of $775 a month. She works 36 hours a week through a temporary agency. Her blood pressure is high, health insurance non-existent. Bill collectors call every day about her student loan debt.

At $9 an hour, her take-home pay is roughly $515 every two weeks. That is $1.75 more per hour, she says, than her 18-year-old, Megan, makes working after school at a nearby fast-food restaurant.

It has been more than a year since she separated from her second husband. Although he sometimes pitches in, she says, there has been no regular child support. Child care is costly. So to make sure the younger girls aren’t left home alone, she must ask the eldest, Michelle — who has her own place and is studying to become a physical therapist — to take time to watch them.

Still, with all that she’s given up, there’s one thing JeanLouis clings to: the storage unit she rents for $256 a month to keep what is left of the furniture from the old house. As long as it’s there, it serves as evidence of the life she once led and dreams of having again.

The EBT card, which she jokingly calls her “credit card,” has become one bridge for her financial gaps. It’s also a nagging reminder that she did what she was told, got her MBA, but still wound up short. She applied for jobs in and out of her field, but never got call-backs. After a while, she stopped looking.

Applying for aid was not an easy choice.

“I like to do things myself,” she said.

Protecting the taxpayer

When she signed up for food stamps, there were already 916,944 cases in the state’s pipeline. Nationally, the 47 million recipients are the most in more than 20 years.

Although job growth is slowly rebounding, wages still lag. As a result, the Congressional Budget Office estimates it will take another decade for SNAP participation to fall to pre-recession levels of 26 million people. By then JeanLouis’ youngest child will be 20.

As the number of recipients surged during the Great Recession, conservative lawmakers intensified efforts to root out fraud and protect taxpayer dollars. The program has been contentious from its beginnings in 1939 — lauded as lifeline, criticized as crutch.

JeanLouis understands why. “I’m a taxpayer,” she says.

Come July 1 she is prepared to take a drug test, if asked. She doesn’t have a problem with the new law.

“For people like me who need the help, it’s not right that you get the same help and go out and buy alcohol or find a way to buy drugs,” she said. “Every little bit of help I get I appreciate. They don’t owe it to me.”

She wonders, though, about the people who make the laws.

“They don’t tend to understand what people like myself are going through because they’ve never been there,” she said. “Chances are, they never will be.”

At the end of her shift the other day, her employer noticed a nail in one of her front tires. He put air in it and she drove past new tire stores to a dusty garage on Canton Road. For $35, roughly what a drug test might cost her, she got a used tire with worn tread.

She didn’t care that she didn’t have a matching pair of tires on the 14-year-old minivan. All she knew was that she was now $35 short on an overdue utility bill.

‘She’s got my back’

“Girls,” JeanLouis calls to her daughters, “it’s time. You are going to be late for school.”

The morning sky sparkles as Megan and Malaika pile into the minivan. The odometer is closing in on 220,000 miles and it’s overdue for a tune-up. The car is one of the fragile threads in the family’s lifeline. It’s what ferries the children to and from school, their mother to work and Megan to her fast-food job. It takes them twice a week to church and once a week to the food pantry. And it costs $70 to fill up.

“Megan, you need to talk to those people at work and tell them to stop scheduling you right after school,” JeanLouis says as she drives. “You need to study after school.”

“I did, but they keep doing it,” Megan says.

“Tell them,” her mother replies. “Don’t make me come up there and do it.”

“OK.”

Sometimes Megan works one day a week, sometimes more. A high-school senior, she says she is proud to kick in money to help pay the family bills. JeanLouis says it makes her feel “terrible” to accept help from her child. Even if it’s $100, JeanLouis must report it to the state Division of Family and Children Services. If their combined income were to exceed the maximum allowed for a household of four, her benefits would be cut.

JeanLouis likes to say that the only way to teach kids values is to give them responsibilities. Now she wonders if the last several years have been more cautionary tale to her daughters than inspiration.

But Megan says her mom need not worry.

“I know she’s not going to let anything bad happen to us,” Megan says. “I don’t have to worry about the lights being cut off, anything like that. No. She will sacrifice everything for us. She taught us not to be ashamed of anything.”

After dropping off the girls, JeanLouis will go home and try to sleep.

Within the week she will get a letter from the temporary agency, telling her she is doing such a good job that they are increasing her pay.

Her raise: 50 cents an hour.

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