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The Other Poor 

It was encouraging to learn in your March 16 story, "When Working Doesn't Work," that concerned Vermonters want to deepen their awareness of poverty here and nationwide. The story portrayed the type of people poverty usually brings to mind: single mothers with children. The elderly also receive a great deal of attention in discussions of poverty, and rightly so.

But there's another group of poor citizens who seldom get noticed. We are single, childless, non-elderly individuals who have fallen into "situational poverty" -- loss of income due to unemployment, major health catastrophes or other unexpected turns of events. Single taxpayers provide a significant source of income to both state and federal governments while drawing relatively few benefits. We have followed the rules we were taught would lead to the American dream. But the system has let us down. I hope that reading about my situation will encourage Vermont's legislators, representatives and policy makers to fix the inequities in the support system.

After attending a prestigious New England college, I earned a Master's in education. I had hoped to teach English in Europe, but when that didn't pan out, I took a job at a local college as an administrator. After working at that job for three years, I got the surprise of my life: I was diagnosed with cancer. When I returned to work from my 12-week unpaid medical leave, I discovered that many positions were being downsized, including mine.

That was June 2002. I got another job the following September that lasted until April 2004. Then I was out of work again until around Thanksgiving, when I finally landed new employment. Ninety days into the new job, I was told that my services were no longer needed. Once again, I have no means of support.

I used my last paycheck to pay my rent and as many of my other bills as it would cover. After that, my checking account was down to $50. My savings? Zero.

On a Friday I went to the Department for Children and Families (DCF) to apply for emergency food stamps and the Vermont Health Access Plan (VHAP). A courteous benefits specialist looked at the balance in my bank account and the letter from my employer verifying my dates of service, and assured me that I would receive food stamps the following Tuesday.

I left her office feeling hopeful. By Tuesday everything would be OK. My $50 could cover my $25 phone bill -- a necessity since I live alone with a history of seizures and diabetes. I spent my remaining $25 on food, confident that I could survive until Tuesday, when my food stamp credit card (EBT) would be activated. On Tuesday I went to the store. It wasn't until I got to the checkout line, with a long line of shoppers behind me, that I learned my EBT had been denied.

I went to the post office and found a letter from DCF. The kind woman who'd reviewed my application on Friday had been asked to turn my case over to another benefits supervisor. That person had determined that I was ineligible for food stamps and VHAP, based on my projected income from unemployment. But my first check wouldn't arrive for three weeks -- almost one month after I'd lost my job.

I appealed and was granted $130 in food stamps, on a one-time-only, emergency basis. With 10 days left my EBT card, my balance was down to $20. I counted my pennies carefully, budgeting no more than $10 for food. When my balance got down to $3.77, I managed to find groceries for $3.75. But it did not last long. When my unemployment check finally arrived, three days short of one month after I lost my job, there were two cents left on my card.

This is how I'm living now: My weekly unemployment check is $325. Usually I request taxes be deducted up front. I pay $550 rent -- 50 percent of my income -- for an efficiency, which does not include a private kitchen. My two prescriptions cost me $100 a month. I don't have a car, so I rely on cabs for transportation. Food is a cash expense. I pretend that I'm on food stamps, and spend only $20 a week. How do I do it? Tuna on sale is 67 cents a can, and Ramen noodles are seven for $1. Put them together and you have Ramen Noodle tuna soup -- not exactly what a nutritionist would recommend, especially for a diabetic. As for fruit and vegetables, how can I afford them?

When people find out you're out of work, they respond to you differently. My dentist refused to see me for a toothache because I had a past bill in collection. When I sought low-income housing, my application was denied. Very few of the apartments available are suited for single people. The property manager commented: "Oh, you don't work," as if to suggest that not working is my chosen lifestyle. I pointed out that I do receive an income, and reminded her that discriminating against someone who's receiving unemployment is against the law.

I have a strong work ethic and will continue to actively seek employment every day. But during this last unexpected bout of unemployment, I have noticed that I am developing a fear of the workplace. Given all the budget cuts and the state of the economy, I wonder: If I go through the tedious and mentally fatiguing process of looking for work, will the next job last? Or will there be another surprise? I wonder if any psychologist or psychiatrist has coined a phrase for this type of fearful anxiety -- one desires work so badly, but fears the unknown of a new workplace.

What should be done? Food stamps should be provided until the DCF can confirm that a client's first unemployment check has arrived. It should be possible for clients to receive food stamps and VHAP benefits throughout unemployment. Income guidelines for food stamps and VHAP should be changed for single people. We are taxed substantially when we work and then again when we're out of work. The support system doesn't meet the cost of living. By coming together constructively, we can fix the system so that no one has to live with this sort of economic strain.

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Stephanie Maull


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