Impossible Choices: Food or Education

At the start of this summer I was geared up to start working on my documentary, “Witnesses to Hunger” a film that follows the journey of three severely impoverished women’s path out of poverty. I considered  some of the shots and the scenarios that I wanted to capture. Then there was research, which, I hadn’t really done thoroughly but I didn’t want to get caught up in numbers statistics and policies and miss great stories, besides I could always go back and fill in content.

Well, I couldn’t have anticipated what actually happened this summer. I ended up doing research after all, as I became the subject and researcher in my film and became a recipient of public assistance and the cyclic treachery of poverty.

It’s been nearly two month since I began receiving assistance and my benefits will soon be suspended as I have to choose between food or my education. Somehow the two rarely happen concurrently within the weft of the state funded public assistance programs in New York State and in many other states throughout the country.

Formalized education is apart of our economic system’s  ‘natural selection’ process as it growing nearly impossible to gain employment earning even very modest wages without it. Education, whether formal or informal can assist in breaking the cycle of mental and circumstantial poverty.

The Human Resource Administration (HRA) of New York mandates that all cash assistance and food stamps recipients participate in a back to work program that is mandatory in order to receive or to be considered for the benefit program.  The Back to Work program consists of consists of either participating in a (WEP) Work Experience Program or attending job search spending several hours in one room either waiting for a temporary work assignment or trying to gain access to a limited selection of computers in order to complete a job search. The WEP assignment places you in a position for a 40-day work week. The back to work program or WEP assignment offers no additional income. Both require working 35 hour work weeks in order to receive an allocation for food stamps, which is $200 monthly for a single person, or cash assistance maxes out at $85 bi-weekly, and if granted a living stipend of $170 the combined income equals about $3.00 hourly. However, if just receiving one benefit the daily wage equals about $.37 an hour.

Public Assistance recipients are encouraged to look for work but are often faced with limited options, under qualification due to lack of education or underemployment which continues to perpetuate the cycle of poverty as many are scraping along to make ends meet and now earn slightly more money but makes them ineligible to receive benefits.

Many find post secondary education or advanced education as a way out of the system but struggle for the right to participate in a bachelor’s degree program. HRA approves a limited number of training and degree programs. If you cannot attend your WEP assignment and are not attending a HRA approved program your benefits will be terminated. Currently, HRA does not waive the attendance of the WEP assignment for any graduate program; therefore graduate students cannot receive benefits.

Welfare rights advocacy programs such as Welfare Rights Initiative Program (WRI) aims to work to change policies that prevent individuals from attending college and receive Public Assistance. Housed at Hunter College  “WRI trains and supports students who have firsthand experience of poverty to effectively promote access to education for all.  WRI exemplifies a democratic and inclusive process in its work to create systemic changes that lead to economic stability, empowerment and dignity for all families.” Since the 1996 welfare reform Hunter as lost nearly 20,000 students because of this policy, which disproportionately affects single mothers.

The Obama Administration is currently working to identify and provide flexibility for state policies that hamper recipient’s ability to move out of the system.   “In a letter dated Wednesday and signed by Kathleen Sebelius, the Health and Human Services secretary, the agency called its proposal one that ”strengthens the law’s purpose to move people off of welfare and into jobs by utilizing state-based innovation.”

”Our goal is to accelerate job placement by moving more Americans from welfare to work, and no policy which undercuts that goal or waters down work requirements will be considered or approved by the department,” the letter read.”

As I look at my syllabi for my classes and plan assignments and projects, I think back to the first day at the Back to Work Program. I remember the intake coordinator asked how many people were in graduate school. I remember raising my hand slowly slightly embarrassed that my 11 year old degree had some how gotten me there.  Then the woman said, “Well once the summer is over I don’t think they are going to let you stay on the program so you will have to choose, which one is it going to be?”


    FOUZIA September 8, 2012 at 11:33 pm . Reply

    Hi Makia, lovely writing and thanks for bringing such an important issue to light. I empathize with you and I’ve been contemplating the same issues.

    It seems like to me this is the first generation in American history that, despite their education, is making less than their parents. My suburban community is relatively affluent compared to New York City’s, and I’ve know PhD’s, JD’s and MD’s living at home with tons of debt (not just a cultural practice, and of course degrees like these are discriminating) There’s been a lot of talk about job creation, but I’m pretty sure they’re not creating independent filmmaker jobs? We need a new New Deal, a new WPA. You shouldn’t have to choose!

    Also, I thought of this article a read a few months ago, and though it assumes that educated unemployed people are all white, it had some good points:

  2. Michelle Balon
    Michelle Balon September 9, 2012 at 5:43 am . Reply

    Hey Makia, thanks so much for writing this. The post made me think of the saying “If you give a man a fish, you’ll feed him for one night. If you teach him how to fish, you’ll feed him for life”…Or something like that.

    These programs, with added flexibility/understanding to the fact that people don’t all suffer and fall into hard times in the same exact way, can really do some good in our society. My mother, who is an immigrant and raising me & my 6-year old sister on her own and I recently dealt with a similar issue. She hadn’t been educated and we had been receiving some benefits (I’m not sure which ones) but after we hit an all-time low, she decided to get her nursing degree, which she successfully did. It was incredibly difficult and a ton of loans needed to be taken out. Eventually she found a part-time nursing job, which is when we realized we were no longer qualified for free healthcare or any type of benefits. I’m a 20 year old college student who she doesn’t make enough money to support, so my options right now are either stay in school part-time instead of full-time & drop my internship, get a job, apply for benefits… or loans. Two quite awful choices.

    In my opinion, the more education an individual is trying to pursue, the more assistance he/she should receive. This is simply so logical. It would provide people with an incentive to further their education (whether through BA/MA/PhD programs or through career-enhancement classes) as well as help out the society because you’d have far more people contributing to their communities.. It’s unfortunate politics usually isn’t logical.

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