Jennifer Santos considers herself determined, independent and leery of the idea of being on welfare.
“I don’t want their help for me,” said the Honduran immigrant, referring to Medicaid and the $367 she receives each month in federal food stamps. “I want it for my son.”
When she was 8 years old, Santos, now 26, immigrated to the United States. She attended P.S. 157, Alexander Berger Junior High and three high schools, all in the Bronx, before dropping out and receiving her GED. Santos started receiving government assistance more than a year ago, when she lost her job.
For the past eight months, she has worked part time serving food at a law-firm cafeteria. While Santos spoke sitting on her bed, her son, Josiah, 2, played with a cup and stood on a stool in the kitchen, one of the few pieces of furniture in the house. A half-eaten pot of Oodles of Noodles swelled on the stove.
She was recently fired (she said she doesn’t know why), but it hardly matters.
The money she made at the cafeteria was not enough to even pay her rent, let alone the numerous other expenses for both her and Josiah to live in New York City.
The Bronx resident would drop her son off with her mother and travel an hour on the 5 train to make $10 an hour. Working 20 hours a week, she made $200 before taxes. Santos often ran out of food stamps before the month was over and was frequently strapped for basic needs, such as her phone bill. She is several months past due on the $800 monthly rent for her largely empty one-bedroom Grand Concourse apartment. She’s not sure if her landlord will kick her out and she is several months pregnant. “ I don’t know what’s going on,” she said. “But I’m still in my apartment.”
The number of people like Santos, or the working poor—those who work but live below the federal poverty level—is rising. According to the 2009 Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of working poor in the total workforce increased from 6.1 percent in 2006 to 7.9 percent in 2009.
Indeed, approximately 35 million Americans—a quarter of the workforce population—work full-time jobs but fail to meet their families’ needs, according to research by Beth Shulman, a fellow at Demos, a national advocacy organization headquartered in New York.
In the Bronx, 28.3 percent of people live below the poverty level, while the number of people on the welfare rolls is at the lowest point since 1963. The use of food stamps, which are federally issued, has continued to rise.
With work and food stamps, Santos made approximately $15,000—near the federal poverty level of WHATTK for a family of two. The federal poverty level, however, does not take into account where people live or even basic standards of living. In New York City, for example, the cost of living can be several times that of rural areas.
The National Center for Children in Poverty, a public policy organization geared toward children’s issues, estimates that a family of two living in New York City would need $52,913 a year to meet its basic needs. To correct for what Santos receives in food stamps and Medicaid, she would need to make $36,749. This number makes corrections to the original number to account for child care and Medicaid, which Santos gets for free: $52,913 total basic needs – $13,555 child care – $2,609 health insurance = $36,749.
Her situation is a common one, said Marc Ramirez, a benefits adviser at the Bronx Defenders who helps legal aid clients with Medicaid and food stamp applications. “Even people who are in very low-income neighborhoods are having trouble making ends meet,” he said, referring to the fact that housing is cheaper in those neighborhoods.
Ramirez noted that prices are much higher in the city than in other areas for ordinary goods.
“It’s not like they have a lot of luxuries, but people still have lives, vehicles, gas, insurance—it takes a big bite out of what they have,” he said. “Food stamps don’t make the stuff at the grocery store any less expensive.”
Even when Santos was employed, she wasn’t making enough. “I’m looking for help at this moment,” the 26-year-old mother had said at the time, referring to cash assistance in addition to her Medicaid and food stamps, “because my job doesn’t really cover all my bills.”
The maximum allotment from the federal government’s cash assistance program is at most $600 a month for five years. If Santos applied, she would receive significantly less due to her small family size.
As a single mother, working 20 hours a week exempted Santos from having to attend classes 35 hours a week at the Highbridge Back-to-Work Program to receive government benefits. She’s still determined to work instead of attending the program.
She is currently applying to numerous jobs using Craigslist, which she sarcastically refers to as her “favorite website.”
“Whatever job is available, I’ll take,” she said. “I’m not picky: anything that pays.”
She just hopes it will pay the rent.