The struggle to make ends meet just above SNAP thresholds

As dusk approaches sunrise, Tangaligua Ivory can usually be found at the Post Office Distribution Center, operating forklifts and other machinery to move heavy packages toward their final destinations.

Once the packages are sorted, Ivory, 34, stops briefly at her one-bedroom apartment in Millville to help her 15-year-old daughter get ready for school. After the two said their goodbyes, Ivory wasn’t finished yet. She’s on her way to her part-time job at the MLK Center — a community center that offers youth programs and a food pantry.

The schedule is grueling, but it pays the apartment’s roughly $2,200 monthly rent and helps cover electricity and gas bills.

What often gets left by the wayside is food. To fill the gap, she applied for food assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in 2017 and several times since 2020. But she was denied those benefits.

what do you know

  • Many Long Island residents receive salaries It can be sustainable in some other parts of the country but they find it difficult to put food on the table in an area with a high cost of living.
  • Some earn a lot To be eligible for Food assistance through SNAP but still face food insecurity.
  • In Suffolk County, it’s about 40% 80,000 Food-insecure residents earn above the gross income threshold for SNAP in New York, according to Feeding America, a food bank network that operates across the country.

“I work two jobs, and I can barely make it,” she said. “So, when I apply for SNAP benefits, they say, ‘Oh, you make a lot of money,’ I say, ‘How?’”

From the New York City border to its eastern reaches, many Long Island residents face a similar dilemma. They earn salaries that could be sustainable in some other parts of the country. But on Long Island, with the high cost of living, they still find it difficult to put food on the table. Their salaries sometimes exceed the income limits for SNAP food benefits.

This program, formerly known as food stamps, has been effective in staving off hunger for millions. But experts say it’s also time to make changes to make it easier to apply for the benefit and more applicable to people who live in areas with high costs of living.

Together, this equation often leaves struggling residents with a dilemma. They either rely on regular visits to the food bank, and eat cheaper and less healthy foods – or they give up.

“It’s a very difficult place to live — and the choices that families have to make to make ends meet — it’s very difficult,” said Michael Haynes of Long Island Cares-Harry Chapin Regional Food Bank, one of the largest organizations. Providing food aid in the region.

Moreover, there is a perception that food insecurity is not widespread on Long Island — a place often known for having pockets of affluence, says Vanessa Byrd Streeter, president and CEO of the Long Island Health and Welfare Board.

“People don’t really believe that food insecurity — or the need for food, really exists within suburban areas,” she said.

Food insecurity is on the rise in LI

The coronavirus pandemic and subsequent job losses have helped open a window into the spread of food insecurity nationally and on Long Island. Many who were previously able to put food on the table have found themselves in food pantries and applying for SNAP benefits.

To live on Long Island, a family of four must have an income of about $100,000 to cover “basic necessities,” according to a 2022 report from the Suffolk County Legislature’s Welfare Committee.

In contrast, SNAP benefits are guided by thresholds, which include New York’s $45,000 annual gross income limit for a family of four, according to the state’s website.

For a family with an elderly or disabled person who has dependent care expenses, the annual income limit for a family of four is $60,000.

The gap between income thresholds and the cost of living on Long Island leaves many people without enough to buy basics, according to policy experts, advocates and others.

In Suffolk County, 40% of the nearly 80,000 food-insecure residents earned income above New York’s SNAP threshold in 2021, according to feed america, Network of food banks that operate across the country. This threshold is 200% above the poverty line.

The organization said there were similar numbers in Nassau, where 39% of the roughly 60,000 food-insecure residents crossed the same threshold in the same year.

Of the approximately 140 families he serves, about 60% have applied and been denied SNAP benefits, said Sharon Shepard, founder of Sharon’s Food Pantry and assistant director of the MLK Center in Rockville Center.

“You might see someone dressed as a nurse [on] …, when you know they are working, you say to yourself: “Why are they online?” Sheppard said.

When Debbie Loesch looks at the people filling the lines leading to her mastic pantry and farmers market, she also notices the many dual-income families lining the line.

Debbie Loesch, founder of Angels of Long Island, at a food pantry in Mastic in April. Credit: James Carbone

“By the time they pay the $3,800 monthly rent, car insurance and heating oil, at the end of the month, there won’t be any money left,” Loesch said.

The food is often on the cutting board.

But the pantry, decorated with a burnt orange painted ceiling and wicker hanging baskets, hopes to bring those food options back to families. It operates as a free general store to the public, allowing its customers to choose from items such as fresh produce, dairy products, and baked goods.

When the pantry opened in January, Loesch and her employees received a stream of families in line to get in, sometimes sneaking out hours before the pantry was scheduled to open at 10 a.m. I thought that within a few months, the number of people would decrease.

It didn’t happen.

Food banks are a regular stop for some

About 15 years ago, food banks and emergency food pantries were more likely to be used, which are places one can go when faced with severe crises such as a sudden job loss or medical leave, said Jessica Rosati, Long Island’s vice president of programs and community services. . Cares about.

Their role has changed since then.

“We serve the people who need it most, but then we serve additional people who are equally in need but do not qualify for government support,” she said.

Between January and most of April, Long Island Cares’ five branch offices saw more than 17,000 visits — some of which could be the same person returning multiple times.

Only 630 visitors identified themselves as receiving SNAP benefits, she said, citing data maintained by the organization.

Since at least 2020, Nassau County has had nearly 20,000 people apply for SNAP benefits annually. More than 50% of cases were denied in each of those years, according to data from the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance.

During the same period, Suffolk County had more than 30,000 people apply each year, with a rejection rate ranging from 34% to 38%, the data showed.

A Nassau County spokesman declined to say what are the most common reasons claims are denied. Suffolk County did not immediately respond.

Hayley Hebenstreet, clinical instructor at Stony Brook University’s School of Social Welfare, Even the process of applying for SNAP benefits is often difficult and intrusive, he said.

Applying for benefits in New York is often a “black box,” as people often do not understand why they are approved or denied.

“The guidelines, the eligibility, are not meant to be understood by the average person,” she said, later noting: “That should tell you something about what’s going on.”

At the Long Island Board of Health and Welfare, staff are working to fill this black box with information.

Staff there help approximately 1,500 people each year on Long Island apply for SNAP benefits, including outreach, education, pre-screening and assistance with some applications.

Caseworkers ask carefully about their family size, income and immigration status to help determine in advance whether they are likely to receive benefits.

The parents may be ineligible because of their immigration status, but a child born in the United States may be. Or perhaps the family has a disabled person in the home, which may allow the household to receive benefits.

Sometimes, employees say, people don’t know they qualify. But they acknowledge that there are those who need help and are being denied it.

These people are often given food stamps, said Byrd-Streeter, the organization’s president and CEO, but she noted that “it won’t be on a consistent basis or forever.”

Advocates say further regionalization of federal income thresholds could enable more needy people in places like Long Island to be eligible for food stamps. Right now, they say the income thresholds are too low to make a big enough impact on food insecurity on Long Island. They want guidelines that are more reflective of regional income based on the cost of living in each area.

“This way, more Americans in need can actually access the benefits and support they need to help them, you know, meet their needs and continue living their daily lives,” said Haynes, vice president of government relations, advocacy and social affairs. Politics at Long Island Cares.

Giving up SNAP

To do this, Ivory plans meals centered around the meats in the MLK Center pantry that week. She cooks large quantities of rice, leaving the leftovers to last for several days.

After volunteering at the center, she took a coveted second job there when the opportunity to help arose.

Together they earn about $45,000 before taxes. Even with this income, there are still moments when paying for food is out of reach.

Her daughter doesn’t get free or reduced school breakfast and lunch, which can cost up to $30 a week. Sometimes her meal tab is negative.

“It is embarrassing for her to go to school every day and be told, ‘You are negative; “You have a negative balance,” Ivory said.

Children living in families who can get SNAP are among those eligible for free and reduced lunches, the state said.

She continued to apply again for SNAP benefits. She said a co-worker told her she would have a better chance of being accepted the more she applied.

SNAP applications can be submitted online, but Ivory said she also went physically to a Department of Social Services office because it’s easier to turn in the forms that way. But constantly applying, especially while working two jobs, takes an emotional and physical toll.

“Going into social services is a big thing because it’s like an ego. It’s like I can’t support myself. I actually feel less than just walking into the building,” Ivory said. “Then I’m told, ‘Oh yeah, I can’t help you.’

“It’s frustrating,” she added.

She said the system is set up to discourage people from moving forward in life because the more money you make, the less chance you have of getting SNAP benefits.

“It allows them to lean into it, but it doesn’t allow them to get out of it,” said Ivory, who is studying medical programs and going back to school.

On her day off — Fridays — Ivory returns to the MLK Center food pantry. This time she volunteered. It is both the observer and the party affected by food insecurity.

There, you see people choosing things like rice, beans and meat.

Maybe they do the same work she does – working multiple jobs, volunteering, and wanting more. They may get SNAP assistance, but not enough to make ends meet.

She understands without knowing them.

“Even if I don’t know them by first name, I know the struggle they face,” she said.

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