By Terrika Shaw
While the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (far better known as food stamps) continues to generate political controversy, those of us at LSA know that there is no such thing as a stereotypical person on food stamps: there are veterans, hardworking people who just lost their job, people whose families look entirely normal when they dress up for church on Sunday.
The program is also pretty meager in scope, providing limited benefits that only cover certain food items. And the talking point that some poor individuals who don’t work prefer to live off the government, misses the reality that in many Alabama small towns, the full-time jobs that remain are snapped up very quickly, and the absence of strong labor laws means that an employer can fire a worker on a whim.
I am a part of LSA’s public benefits practice. Last month, I handled two cases that remind me of another food stamp reality: the rules around SNAP are pretty straightforward if the government will just play by the very rules it wrote.
One of my clients lost his benefits as part of an aggressive campaign by state officials to cut off food stamps for people classified as ABAWDS: able bodied adults between the ages of 18-49 and without dependents. Under federal law, these individuals must work or receive education or training for 80 hours a week to stay on the program.
My client is 30 years old with no children and was told that he met the ABAWD definition when his SNAP application was turned down. But the fact is that my client actually suffers from a disability, and was even in the process of applying for social security disability assistance. Under the law, the fact that my client had applied for SSI meant he could claim the disability exception to ABAWD as long as he had proper documentation of his application and impairment.
This is an element of the law that my client simply would not have known about without LSA’s assistance, and the state does not take steps on its own to identify exceptions. My client won his hearing and was awarded SNAP benefits, including back payments for the months he was wrongfully denied. He is a disabled poor person in a country whose laws provide a safety net for people like him: when he won, the system that our lawmakers wrote worked the way it is supposed to.
And those hard-on-their-luck veterans, who sometimes end up needing food stamps? One of them ended up being a client of mine too. This veteran, who was working but earning very low wages, ($1700 a month) fell outside the cutoff line based on income and size of family. The reason: his wife wasn’t being counted as a household member because she is a lawful permanent resident rather than a citizen, and there is a 5 year waiting period before a permanent resident can be eligible to receive food stamps.
But once again, the state was failing to enforce an exception; in this case, the law that for the spouse of a veteran, the 5 year waiting period does not apply.
Would America be fairer if disabled poor people didn’t merit government assistance in putting food on their table? Would America be better if a low income veteran couldn’t get help feeding his family because of where his spouse was born? I chose to do this work at LSA because I feel privileged to fight for both my clients and the version of American values that they represent.
Terrika Shaw is a Staff Attorney in our Birmingham office.