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Aug 22, 2018 | Stories of Change

Living with a disability on public assistance, advocating for change.

What’s it like to live in poverty in the Southern Tier? To stifle your pride and accept help to make ends meet? To feed yourself on $6 a day?

Wendy can tell you. She is a food pantry client and a graduate of the Food Bank’s Speakers Bureau. Wendy is also a Food Bank advocate and she wants to clear up some stereotypes about people who need food assistance to get by

Wendy was a 23-year-old college student when she sustained a traumatic brain injury at work. She was left with debilitating headaches from spinal fluid pooling in her brain. Despite chronic pain and nausea, Wendy completed a bachelor’s degree in Human and Community Services and began working with a women and children’s program. But multiple brain surgeries kept her from pursuing that passion. Wendy will require surgeries for the rest of her life to control her condition.

Wendy, now 50, lives on $825 per month from Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and $192 from SNAP, formerly called Food Stamps. Wendy is frustrated by the stereotype that people who need government assistance don’t want to work, and that recipients are living easy, leisurely lives.

“I’d give up benefits in a minute if I could be healthy and earn $1,000 a month working,” she says. “Anyone who’s on SNAP would give it up if they could have a job that met their needs.”

Wendy’s full-time job is maintaining her health; she has at least three doctors appointments a week. Every surgery leaves Wendy with less ability to focus, organize and concentrate. She struggles with anxiety, depression and intense fatigue.

Wendy’s story is common among people relying on SNAP and other social assistance programs. Nearly 3 million New Yorkers use SNAP. Nearly 90 percent of SNAP recipients in New York state are children, elderly or disabled.

Most SNAP recipients who can work do so. Among SNAP households with at least one working-age, non-disabled adult, more than half work while receiving SNAP. According to census data, more than half of able adults receive SNAP for less than two years.

Federal assistance programs cover Wendy’s rent in low-income housing, utilities and groceries. Medicaid covers her medical needs; her former employer does not, although she was hurt on the job. Wendy has learned to live very simply, and she budgets every dollar carefully.

“I’m a bit of a counter,” Wendy shares. She knows exactly how long a bottle of shampoo is likely to last and how many rolls of toilet paper she’ll need in a month. She knows the best prices on milk and dairy products, and the price differential between buying or making her own yogurt and cottage cheese.

Wendy also relies on local pantries and low-cost farm shares. She prepares and freezes vegetables to get through the winter.

After her bills are paid and basic needs met, Wendy has about $25 left over per week for unexpected expenses and an occasional splurge, like lunch out with a friend or a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. Sometimes, she’ll budget $7 for a pound of shrimp that she can use in four meals.

It’s important to Wendy that people know she wouldn’t survive without the vital support she receives, and that she doesn’t take it for granted. “If there’s a way to live easy on benefits, I must be doing it wrong. Because I don’t have extra of anything,” Wendy says. “Most people who receive help wonder all the time about how anyone could get rich off the system. Most of this ‘free money’ goes right to my landlord and utility bills.”

A reduction in SNAP benefits this year would mean more visits to food pantries, less nutritious food, and being a little hungry sometimes. As things are, Wendy maintains, “My needs are met and my wants are few.”