Friday, December 12, 2014

Getting public assistance is a hazing ritual

Our family receives a small amount of SNAP (food stamps) each month, as we only have one person working right now and it's helpful to make ends meet. We are quite grateful for the program being available to help us and others in our community. As I've talked about before, it's worth it to apply even if you won't get a very large benefit, because you can get tons of discounts on utilities and admission to cultural institutions.

However, every time we have to reapply, I can't help but thinking how ridiculous and complicated the process is, and how much harder it has to be for someone who hasn't worked in accounting in the past like I have. The policies seem like they're aimed at making sure no one gets food stamps. Some things that my family and friends of mine have run into:

1)* If the Department of Transitional Assistance matches your wages against the Department of Revenue, they require you to provide detailed records on any income. No, not just job income, but income that the IRS doesn't consider income. Such as a $150 check for a public-speaking gig related to a hobby on which one spends more than one makes. Or $200 for reselling a no-longer-needed item that happened to be purchased by somewhere that cut a business check. It isn't enough for DTA for you to say "yes, those people paid me $150 once, go ahead and count it as income." They want the check stub. They also want a letter from the "employer" stating that you no longer "work" there. They don't seem to understand that people don't generally have contact information for someone off of craigslist who they met once. Or that the IRS doesn't require people to keep data on hobbies that don't result in a profit.

2) If wages are paid on a per-diem basis, as in, the applicant works whenever there is work and the amount is random, DTA doesn't seem to understand how to average this. Several of the workers think that if you worked one week out of the month, they use that figure for the weekly average. One of them even thought that multiplying it times 4.33 would get the weekly average, and came back telling a family making about $10K a year that they had made $50K per year. DTA also doesn't seem to understand that one wouldn't have paystubs for weeks there was no work. They demand letters from one's employer explaining this. They don't understand that one can look at the year-to-date figures on paystubs and determine whether pay was issued between the two checks. If you have a check from January for $500 with YTD $500, and then one from March for $200 with YTD $700, there are no paystubs missing. But DTA doesn't seem to understand this.

3) They send denial letters instead of sending requests for more information. The applicant then has to call and say that they were denied, at which point they are told that that happens automatically, and it will be reopened once the "missing" documents arrived and are processed. How many people do you think don't realize they should call and complain, don't have the time, don't have the skills, and so forth?

*Before anyone says anything about how people should be keeping records and reporting every cent of income if they want "government benefits," no, that's not how it works. All of you middle-income and upper-income folks are getting "government benefits" in the form of tax credits on your yearly tax returns, and for the most part only need to document and report things that you want to use to increase your refund. Middle-class people claiming the mortgage interest deduction (a government benefit) are not asked to provide proof that a guitar they sold on craigslist was their own used guitar, or that the couple hundred dollars they were paid to display their model train set somewhere did not result in profit over what they spent on the trains over the years. The IRS expects that normal everyday people make transactions with already-taxed income and doesn't get into things. Even when people are audited by the IRS, their standards for record-keeping are quite reasonable, and it is usually sufficient to show a few receipts and operate off the assumption that you had similar expenses, or show a photo of an item as reasonable proof that you purchased it. DTA though requires complete and proper documentation and likes to spend a lot of resources scrutinizing people with limited incomes over tiny amounts of money.

The penalties seem disparate too; the food stamps application has a long page of penalties for providing incorrect information, including jail time and being barred permanently from the program. For tax oversights however, unless they can prove massive amounts of malicious behavior, the penalties are pretty much that you have to pay the taxes you owe. Once again, the results of political pressure to make sure that people living in poverty don't get a single can of food they didn't earn, but considering it completely acceptable for wealthier folks to have routine errors in the thousands of dollars.

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