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Five Americans Who Benefited From Welfare Share Their Fears About Trump

President-elect Donald Trump, business tycoon and bureaucratic snake oil merchant, is no stranger to anti-poverty rhetoric. Bootstrap mythology makes up the very backbone of his political ideology. In his book “Time To Get Tough”, published in 2011, Trump described Bill Clinton’s abominable Welfare Reform Act of 1996 as a success, primarily because “it tied welfare to work.”

From the book:

To get your check, you had to prove that you were enrolled in job-training or trying to find work. But here’s the rub: the 1996 Welfare Reform Act only dealt with one program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), not the other seventy-six welfare programs which, today, cost taxpayers more than $900 billion annually. We need to take a page from the 1996 reform and do the same for other welfare programs. Benefits should have strings attached to them. After all, if it’s our money recipients are getting, we the people should have a say in how it’s spent.

Trump’s hardened belief that “benefits should have strings attached” is a common refrain espoused by Republicans, many of whom now make up a majority of the House and Senate. This is a terrifying reality citizens must come to terms with in order to prepare for coming battles in defense of social services, which are lifelines for those who straddle the edges of poverty.

Five Americans who use social services, or have used them in the past, spoke to Shadowproof about their fears and the stigmatization they have faced. They shared predictions regarding the impact of Trump’s administration on welfare programs.

Andrew Riley

28 years-old, community organizer

I most recently used SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) from late 2015 to mid 2016, and my family was dependent on long-term unemployment from 2003-2005. My mom was on Medicaid from 2004-2005.

I was working as a community organizer in a grant-funded gig and got laid off. I took some contract gigs after that but had trouble finding reliable work, and so I ended up unloading trucks and lugging boxes for Target for $9/hour. I was getting about 20-25 hours a week on the schedule, and so I wasn’t taking home more than $700/month.

I live in Portland, Oregon, so of course housing comes into this. I was paying $500/month for an unfinished shed with no running water in a backyard. Between that and my other bills, I couldn’t bring in enough to afford food.

For a little while, I tried to ration my money by eating nothing but TV dinners and cheap shit, but eventually even that wasn’t enough. So, I applied for SNAP, and ended up getting something like $150 a month in benefits. (I didn’t really have savings because I was an organizer and I grew up poor.)

SNAP was enormously helpful to me. I literally could not have afforded food without it. But it wasn’t enough. I still struggled to make rent, as my hours fluctuated up and down wildly, and I still had to eat cheap, processed crap to be able to afford rent and utilities.

Medicaid was also helpful to my family. My mom was diagnosed with cancer in 2004, while my dad was out of work. We had absolutely no ability to pay for treatment and then palliative care for her, and Medicaid enabled us to do that.

I’m expecting and deeply fearful that all public assistance programs are going to be cut massively.

I organize around housing issues for the most part, and we’re expecting a total disinvestment in housing services (Section 8, funding for affordable development) under Housing and Urban Development Secretary Dr. Ben “Magic Fingers” Carson, M. Fucking D.

Housing is a root cause of so much instability, poor health, poverty, and what have you, that I cannot fathom how bad it could get. I mean, look at Portland as an example. Rents are skyrocketing, and we have 4,000 people sleeping outside on the average night.

Tens of thousands of people can’t find a place to live that meets their needs. And that spills over into health & well-being in so many ways. Our black community has been forcibly uprooted several times, wholesale, to make way for new development. We have the worst rates for premature birth and low birth weight among black babies in the United States.

Beyond that, I absolutely expect assaults on every other kind of public assistance. I could imagine Medicare being turned into a block grant or voucher system, Social Security entirely privatized in time for the bursting of the next housing bubble, and SNAP being scaled back dramatically.

It’s going to make folks who are already poor even more so and drive scores more, who are barely getting by, into subsistence living. I don’t know how to describe it beyond that. I believe we could easily see an unprecedented number of people in poverty in the next few years as a result.

As for a solution, I’d expand every form of public assistance. First, make them categorically available to all individuals regardless of citizenship or documentation status.

A massive expansion of food benefits (SNAP, WIC, etc.), and I’d un-restrict what it could be spent on; folks know better than their member of Congress what they need to get by.

Obviously, adopt a single-payer health care system, providing comprehensive treatment. Return to an older model of direct welfare to people, removing the asinine “workfare” requirements imposed under Clinton. Peg unemployment benefits to a minimum wage of $15/hour and scale from there. Increase the actual minimum wage to $15-20/hour.

Colleen Smith

Recent graduate of University of Georgia, freelance editor

I’m currently one month into three guaranteed months of SNAP. I also received three months of SNAP in summer 2015. I had very little money throughout my undergrad years, but I wasn’t able to take advantage of [Electronic Benefit Transfer] and SNAP until I had graduated. Those enrolled in college aren’t permitted to apply for food stamps. It’s presumed your financial aid or parents would cover your groceries. I’m also in the process of applying for unemployment.

The SNAP funding has been adequate for me, yes, but I have under-reported my checking account balance each time. I receive $194 a month to feed myself, and I still have extra to get a few groceries for friends, who are in real need but are still in school and unable to get help.

The application system for EBT has been simplified in Georgia and was a really efficient process. All applicants apply in person now so help is available and someone is there to ensure you filled the form out completely.

When I last applied in November, a total of three days passed between applying and receiving funds on the card. For my first application in 2015, I didn’t receive the card for three months (one company manages the actual cards and accounts for multiple states). The card had an accumulated balance of $800 on it when it arrived. I bought a huge thing of olive oil, lots of tasty treats. Feast and famine mark the initial process for people still I’m sure.

I’m sure Georgia legislators are eager to slash funding to programs like [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families], SNAP etc., and I regret to think about how families will suffer. I expect to see poverty and hunger increase, but I don’t expect anyone in power to treat these like actionable problems. With more malnourished families and the military budget bloated further, I think we’re really going to see what late capitalism looks like.

Julian Epp

20 years-old, journalism student at Indiana University

I’ve used SNAP three times, around six months each time. My mom was working late hours at a restaurant an hour away from our house while having to take care of me and my two younger sisters. She had tried to go to college but stopped because she didn’t have time to work, take care of us, and get an education at the same time.

We had an EBT card. It was bright blue and pretty recognizable. Whenever I would have to use it to get food, I would be embarrassed to hand it to the cashier or to have the people in line behind me see it. People don’t just come out and say that they look down on you, and more often than not they would just give you a strange look if they saw it.

I would hear more things about poor people, and especially those on SNAP, just during everyday life when people think it is safe to say them, not knowing I was one of those people using those services. I’ve even heard my grandma say that people take advantage of food stamps and that they are freeloaders and had to remind her that my mom and I have been on them before.

People assume that money you “earn” is genuine, but money you are given because of need isn’t. I don’t know if it has increased over the years, but I know that even in middle school my peers were repeating the same lines said by most Republican officials in regards to food stamps, free lunch programs, and unemployment.

Social services myself and my family used were absolutely beneficial. We were still trying to get by, but any amount of money helped immensely.

I think getting rid of the stigma associated with these programs is the first step toward improving on them, but that will take time and education. The only thing that can change someone’s mind is showing them how much those utilizing the programs have worked or struggled, and that fraud is a non-issue.

I’m very fearful of Paul Ryan having a unified Republican government with which he can cut and repeal services fairly easily. The [Affordable Care Act] is his top priority right now, but after that I expect him to move onto other services that people’s lives depend on.

His thinking is that once people are off of food stamps they will immediately get jobs and won’t be dependent on the government anymore, which is not the case. A lot of the people using these programs are already working, and they aren’t making enough so cuts to these services are a death sentence.

Rawan Masri

19 years-old, student at University of Southern California

My family was on SNAP and TANF for about five years from when I was two years-old up to when I was seven. My parents were immigrants, who had to start all over in America as they were trying to go to college with kids as is. My dad hated his boss in Syracuse, New York and so moved us to Pomona, California, and he started working at the swap meet in order to “be his own boss.” He needed to take out loans to get his shop off the ground and so we needed the temporary help.

I spoke to my mother about the stigma she faced while using SNAP, who told me that she was deeply ashamed of it and did her best to hide it, particularly after she started wearing the hijab when I was four, literally right after 9/11.

She’s not as ashamed now of the temporary help we received, but at the time, the feeling according to her was of already feeling like you don’t belong because of the accent and the cultural difference and trying not to “give away” that you’re being helped with food because American-born people will say you’re stealing away their resources, go back to your country, etc.

My mother also felt a need to carry herself in a way to show she wasn’t like “those Arabs,” who according to her were mooching off the system, didn’t need the help, and were making us all look bad. I feel that the basic underlying premise of the stigma has remained the same, and the strength in which it shows fluctuates with the economy.

This stigma exists because large swaths of lower middle class and working class people don’t question why it is they’re working so hard and still financially struggling, and rather than blame politicians or question the system. Of course, upper middle class and rich people propagate the stigma to protect their own class interests, reinforce their narrative that they mastered our magical meritocracy, and so on and so forth. And people like my mother internalized the idea that they were doing something “wrong’ for needing help like they did, and it’s a big cycle.

We certainly found it useful to have more milk, baby food, and vitamins than we otherwise would have gotten, but it’s certainly not enough to avoid starvation. They helped us get by but my mother still referred to them as “scraps.” I frankly would allocate more resources to food stamps and make it so that it would ensure every child is being fed and healthy.

My family is no longer on food stamps, but we are still six people living on $34,000/year, and that’s not including an undocumented relative we are currently assisting through legal procedures. We are still on medical, and while Obamacare has frankly been extremely frustrating for us, it’s still scary to think about having no health insurance at all. I absolutely think it will be extremely easy for the Republican Congress to slash away at safety nets for us, people like us, and people worse off than us.

Something I ended up learning growing up was just how goddamn expensive it is to be poor. I think cuts to services will push the poor towards things like payday loans just to put food on the table or get their kid to a doctor, and all these late fees and interest pop up out of nowhere until you’re close to spiraling downward.

Kelly K.

29 years-old, currently unemployed/librarian by trade

My dad was on unemployment for over a year. The business he worked for went under in the midst of the recession in 2008, and I know he went through the regular unemployment time period and the extension they started giving out (I don’t remember if it was just a Michigan thing or not) because of the recession.

I lost my job about a month ago, and I’ll probably have to sign up for it once my severance runs out in a couple weeks.

While my dad was unemployed, we used SNAP for a little bit, but we kind of got screwed over on that one. Now, both my parents are on disability. My dad’s on permanent disability for ankylosing spondylitis and gets Medicaid, and my mom’s on temporary disability because she has end-stage renal failure and is on dialysis. I think she’s eligible for Medicaid, or she will be once she gets a kidney transplant. (I’m not sure and the way the doctors explain it is really complicated.)

I was on Medicaid when I briefly lived in Illinois and was unemployed. I actually, surprisingly, kind of felt a little ashamed and scared when I signed up for Medicaid only because the system was foreign to me (before Obamacare I just didn’t have any insurance at all). But I heard stories before of people not being able to get treatment that they needed or not being able to see certain doctors because they didn’t take Medicaid. (I’m in treatment for anxiety and depression, and I have [polycystic ovary syndrome], both which require me to see doctors on a somewhat regular basis.)

I think during the recession the use of public services became less stigmatized because everyone—in my working class area at least—was kind of in the same boat and you knew a few people who were out of work and using unemployment and getting SNAP and stuff like that. But I think it was less stigmatized because there was the thought that you weren’t going to be on it for the long haul, that things were going to get better and you would get off it.

I know my mom at least occasionally would say things about people coming into her work with $100 bills and Bridge cards (what SNAP comes on in Michigan) in their wallets and when I try to remind her that we were on it for a time she says something like, “well WE needed it!” I think a lot of it is kind of a pride thing, like you’re supposed to be able to make your own way, bootstraps etc. It’s also probably a racial thing too. Metro Detroit is still pretty segregated and the myth of the “welfare queen” lives on and all of that garbage.

Once, I really wanted to check myself into a public psychiatric hospital that happened to be less than ten minutes from my home. After looking into it, I found out that you can’t just walk in like in a private hospital. You have to be referred by the community mental health program in your county, which in my case would mean I would have to make an appointment for a screening in Detroit (a 20-25 minute drive) and then hope they deemed me crazy enough for hospitalization.

I managed to ride it out, but there’s a major dearth of public, easily accessible mental health care facilities, which I think would go a long way in helping people in need.

I definitely think that social services will be impacted under the Trump administration. but I’m a little blasé about it, since in Michigan Rick Snyder has been screwing the people over for six years now.

I do worry about Obamacare, even though I’m not the biggest fan of it. The only thing I’d want it replaced with is a single-payer system, but I know there’s no chance in hell of that happening.

A lot of things that could happen in a Trump administration could affect poor people in myriad ways, even right now before he’s president, with Planned Parenthood and all the extremely time-limited abortion bans put poor women at risk of trying to have unsafe, potentially life-threatening abortions. Or having a child they can’t afford to take care of, especially when you think about how they’ll probably screw around with welfare/TANF too, and just make all these punitive changes that’ll make people’s lives worse all around.

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Roqayah Chamseddine

Roqayah Chamseddine

Roqayah Chamseddine is a Lebanese-American writer, published poet, and journalist, whose work can be found at Roqchams.com.