Food stamp stigma keeps some from applying

A 'recruiter' in Florida faces seniors' wrenching choices, including one who fell hard during the recession.

THE WASHINGTON POSTApril 28, 2013 

SNAP outreach worker Dillie Nerios talks to a couple in her Fort Pierce, Fla., office to see if they qualify for food stamps after losing a great deal of money in stock downturns, the real estate collapse and to medical bills. "This is humiliating for us, but we have no choice," the man said.

PHOTOS BY MICHAEL S. WILLIAMSON / THE WASHINGTON POST

  • DOES IDAHO RECRUIT FOOD STAMP RECIPIENTS?

    No. The state conducts no outreach or advertising. The federal government offers grants that allows states to do outreach, but Idaho does not apply for those, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Welfare said.

    Some hunger advocate groups offer information about the food stamp program and how to apply, but they do not enroll people in the program.

FORT PIERCE, Fla. - A good recruiter needs to be liked, so Dillie Nerios filled gift bags with dog toys for the dog people and cat food for the cat people. She packed crates of cookies, croissants, vegetables and fresh fruit. She curled her hair and painted her nails fluorescent pink.

"A happy, it's-all-good look," she said.

Then she drove along the Florida coast to sign people up for food stamps.

Her destination on a recent morning was a 55-and-older community in central Florida where single-wide trailers surround a parched golf course. On the drive, Nerios, 56, reviewed techniques she had learned for connecting with some of Florida's most desperate senior citizens during two years on the job. Touch a shoulder. Hold eye contact. Listen for as long as it takes.

"Some seniors haven't had anyone to talk to in some time," one of the state-issued training manuals reads. "Make each person feel like the only one who matters."

In fact, it is Nerios' job to enroll at least 150 seniors to receive food stamps each month, a quota she usually exceeds. Her job also has a second and more controversial purpose for cash-strapped Florida, where increasing food stamp enrollment has become a means of economic growth, bringing almost $6 billion each year into the state. The money helps to sustain communities, grocery stores and food producers. It also adds to rising federal entitlement spending and the U.S. debt. Nerios prefers to think of her job in more simple terms: "Help is available," she tells hundreds of seniors each week. "You deserve it. So, yes or no?"

GROWING ENROLLMENT

In Florida and everywhere else, the answer in 2013 is almost always yes. A record 47 million Americans now rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps, available for people with annual incomes of less than $15,000 or so.

The program grew during the economic collapse because 10 million more Americans dropped into poverty. It has continued to expand four years into the recovery because state governments and their partner organizations have become active promoters, creating official "SNAP outreach plans" and hiring hundreds of recruiters like Nerios.

A decade ago, only about half of eligible Americans chose to sign up for food stamps. Now that number is 75 percent.

Rhode Island hosts SNAP-themed bingo games for the elderly. Alabama hands out fliers that read: "Be a patriot. Bring your food stamp money home."

Three states in the Midwest throw food stamp parties.On the Treasure Coast of Florida, the official outreach plan is mostly just Nerios, who works for a local food bank that is funded in part by the state. She roams four counties of sandbars and barrier islands in her Ford Escape, with an audio Bible in the CD player and a windshield sticker that reads "Faith, Hope and Love."

On this particular morning, Nerios pulled into the Spanish Lakes retirement community near Port St. Lucie, Fla., and set up a display table in front of the senior center. She advertised her visit weeks in advance, but she can never predict how many people will come.

'TAKE WHAT YOU NEED'

Nerios watched as a few golf carts and motorized scooters drove toward her on a road lined with palm trees. The first seniors grabbed giveaway boxes and went home to tell their friends, who told more friends, until a line of 40 people had formed at her table.

A husband and wife, just done with nine holes of golf, clubs still on their cart.

An 84-year-old woman on her bicycle.

A Korean War veteran on oxygen who mostly wanted to talk, so Nerios listened: 32 years in the military, a sergeant major, Germany, Iron Curtain, medals and awards. "A hell of a life," the veteran said. "So if I signed up, what would I tell my wife?"

"Tell her you're an American and this is your benefit," Nerios said, pulling him away from the crowd, so he could write the 26th name of the day on her SNAP sheet.

She distributed food and SNAP brochures for three hours. "Take what you need," she said, again and again, until the fruit she brought started to sweat and the vegetables wilted in the late-morning heat.

Just as she prepared to leave, a car pulled into the senior center and a man with a gray mustache and a tattered T-shirt opened the door. He had seen the giveaway boxes earlier in the morning but waited to return until the crowd thinned. He had just moved to Spanish Lakes. He had never taken giveaways. He looked at the boxes but stayed near his car.

"Sir, can I help?" Nerios asked. She brought over some food. She gave him her business card and a few brochures about SNAP.

"I don't want to be another person depending on the government," he said.

"How about being another person getting the help you deserve?" she said.

'WE DUG THE HOLE'

Did he deserve it, though? Lonnie Briglia, 60, drove back to his Spanish Lakes mobile home with the recruiter's pamphlets and thought about that. He wasn't so sure.

Wasn't it his fault that he had flushed 40 years of savings into a bad investment, buying a fleet of delivery trucks just as the economy crashed? Wasn't it his fault that he and his wife, Celeste, had missed mortgage payments on the house where they raised five kids, forcing the bank to foreclose? Wasn't it his fault the only place they could afford was an abandoned mobile home in Spanish Lakes?

"We made horrible mistakes," he said. "We dug the hole. We should dig ourselves out."

He walked into their mobile home. They had moved in three months before, and it had taken all of that time for them to make the place livable. A few weeks after they moved in, some of their 11 grandchildren had come over to visit. One of them, a 9-year-old girl, had looked around the mobile home and then turned to her grandparents on the verge of tears: "Grampy, this place is junky," she had said. He smiled and told her that it was OK.

Only later, alone with Celeste, had he said what he really thought: "A damn sky dive. That's our life. How does anyone fall this far, this fast?"

And now SNAP brochures were next to him on the table - one more step down, he thought, reading over the bold type on the brochure. "Applying is easy." "Eat right!"

He had known a handful of people who depended on the government: former co-workers who exaggerated injuries to get temporary disability; homeless people in the Fort Pierce park where he had taken the kids each week when they were young to hand out sandwiches, even though he suspected some of those homeless were drug addicts who spent their Social Security payments on crack.

"Makers and takers," Lonnie had told the kids then, explaining that the world divided into two categories.

Years later, one of the sons arrived for a visit and they went out to dinner. Lonnie tried to pay with a credit card, but his son wouldn't let him. Then, before leaving for home in Valdosta, Ga., the son gave his parents an air conditioner, bought for $400. Lonnie started to protest.

"Please," his son said. "You need it. It's OK to take a little help."

PATIENCE AND EMPATHY

The offer of more help came early the next morning. Nerios reached Lonnie on his cellphone to check on his interest in SNAP.

"Can I help sign you up?" she asked.

"I'm still not sure," he said. "We have a lot of frozen vegetables in the freezer."

"Don't wait until you're out," she said.

She was on her way to another outreach event, but she told Lonnie she had plenty of time to talk. She had always preferred working with what her colleagues called the Silent Generation, even though seniors were historically the least likely to enroll in SNAP. Only about 38 percent choose to participate in the program, half the rate of the general population.

In Florida, that means about 300,000 people older than 60 are not getting their benefits, and $381 million in available federal money isn't coming into the state.

To help enroll more seniors, the government has published an outreach guide that blends compassion with sales techniques, generating some protests in Congress. The guide teaches recruiters how to "overcome the word 'no,' " suggesting answers for likely hesitations.

Welfare stigma: "You worked hard and the taxes you paid helped create SNAP."

Embarrassment: "Everyone needs help now and then."

Sense of failure: "Lots of people, young and old, are having financial difficulties."

Nerios prefers a subtler touch. "It's about patience, empathy," she said. She makes a middle-class salary but knows the emotional exhaustion that comes at the end of each month.

"I'm not going to push you," she told Lonnie. "This is your decision."

"I have high blood pressure, so it's true that diet is important to us," he said, which sounded to her like a man arguing with himself.

"I can meet with you today, or tomorrow, or anytime you'd like," she said.

"I don't know," he said. "I'm really sorry."

"You don't have to be," she said. "Please, just think about it."

She hung up the phone and began setting up her giveaway table at another event. He hung up the phone and drove a few miles down the highway to his wife's small knitting store. They had stayed married 41 years because they made decisions together. She was an optimist and he was a realist; they leveled each other out.

'JUST PEACHY'

"How you doing?" he asked.

"Just peachy," she said, which meant to him that in fact she was exhausted, depressed, barely hanging on.

She opened the knitting store three years earlier, but her only customers were retirees on fixed incomes, seniors with little money to spend who just wanted an air-conditioned place to spend the day. So Celeste started giving them yarn and inviting customers to knit with her for charity in the shop. Together they had made 176 hats and scarves for poor families in the past year.

The store, meanwhile, had barely made its overhead. Lonnie wanted her to close it, but it was the last place where she could pretend her life had turned out as she'd hoped.

Lonnie joined her at that table and started to tell her about his week. He pulled the SNAP card from his pocket and showed it to Celeste. She leaned in to read the small print.

"I think we qualify," Lonnie said.

There was a pause.

"Might be a good idea," Celeste said.

"It's hard to accept," he said.

Another pause.

"We have to take help when we need it," she said.

Celeste looked down at her knitting, and Lonnie sat with her in the quiet shop and thought about what happened when he opened a barbershop a few years earlier, as another effort of last resort.

He enrolled in a local beauty school, graduated with a few dozen teenage girls, took over the lease for a shop in Port St. Lucie and named it Man Cave. He had gone to work with his scissors and his clippers every day, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays, standing on the curb and waving a handmade sign to advertise haircuts for $5. He had done a total of 11 cuts in three months.

But what tore him up inside and convinced him to close the shop - the memory that stuck with him even now - was the fact that old friends had come in to get their hair cut twice in the same week. He couldn't stand the idea of being pitied. He hated that his problems had become a burden to anyone else.

He wondered: Sixty years old, and who was he? A maker? A taker?

"I'm not ready to sign up for this yet," he said.

"Soon we might have to," she said.

He tucked Nerios' business card into his pocket.

"I know," he said. "I'm keeping it."

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