It wasn’t easy interviewing Pam Robinson for this article about how The Bryan County Coalition Against Hunger (BCCAH) and the Bryan County United Way (UW) are working together. Robinson is the Director of the United Way agency.
Over the course of an hour and a half, her office phone must have rung a dozen times. Most of the calls she deferred. Those from county residents needing help she took. Right in the middle of the interview, she answered one from a woman in one of the county’ s rural communities, and her face instantly began to reflect concern and confusion.
“You can’t pay your water bill?” Robinson asked. “Well, how much is it?”
After a pause to get the answer, Robinson’s face showed astonishment.
Another pause. “Two-hundred-thirty-six dollars! That can’t be your water bill!” According to the caller’s account, she had moved to the community three months earlier and signed up for water and sewage, but had received no bill until she got the one for $236.00. She had been able to raise $140.00, but the town’s water department had taken an all-or-nothing stance and demanded the entire $236.00 or it would cut off the water the next day.
Although there is no official help for people short on utility payments, Robinson offered to help.
“I’ll put a notice out by e-mail,” she told the caller, “and see if we get somebody to donate the other $96.00.”
What Robinson says you wouldn’t believe
She says, “You wouldn’t believe the number of calls I get these days from working people who can’t get enough cash together for a bill or who can’t get enough food to feed their families.”
Only days earlier, Robinson had a call from a woman whose seriously ill husband had just been released from the hospital. Since he was extremely weak and had no appetite, his doctor put him on Ensure to give him the nutrition he needed, but she could not afford to buy it. As with the woman with the water-bill problem, Robinson sent out an e-mail seeking donations. By closing time, she had 5 or 6 cases of Ensure to deliver to the ailing man. And she’s received calls from parents needing school clothing and supplies for their children. One child had no shoes at all.
These telephone calls are representative of the focus of the most recent joint undertaking by United Way and the Hunger Coalition.
People call Robinson because they don’t know how to get help for their needs, whether it’s a water bill, cost of medication, or food for a family.
Although there is no standing fund to help people with water bills, and UW’s e-mail is, in many instances, the only way to search for help, there is overall help for many needs. Hunger is one of the needs that Bryan County has plenty of help for: There are 13 sources—food banks and nutrition sites—throughout the community. This is many more than the average community of Bryan County’s size has. Robinson says that there is enough help to feed all the county’s hungry people. The big tasks are keeping the food sources supplied and helping people in need to learn about the sites, what the qualifications are, and how to get transportation to the sites.
It is a problem getting food to many of those in need. Some people believe that, because they are on SNAP (Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program), they are not eligible to get help at food banks or to eat meals at nutrition sites. SNAP has been drastically reduced in the last couple of years and is inadequate for most family’s needs. Because of these cuts, it is not really all that difficult to qualify for aid from local food sources. Some sources are free to any County residents in need.
Helping people help themselves
One of the puzzling things about hunger all over the United States is how many eligible people do not use the numerous help programs available. It is estimated that $65 billion in benefits to low-income families goes unclaimed every year.
The best known federal program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, “food stamps”) is a striking example of the disconnect between need and availability of help: Fewer than one-half of eligible people sign up for aid, something like 46-47%. About $10 billion in food-stamp aid is unclaimed yearly.
A disparity within a disparity is the fact that the age-group that uses SNAP least is the elderly poor with only 27-28% signed up.
This puzzle exists in other federal assistance programs that include food allowances, such as WIC (Women, Infants, Children), TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families), and TEFAP (The Emergency Family Assistance Program), for example.
Applied to Bryan County, these proportions suggest that there are as many as 5,000 people who could get SNAP help but never even apply. This includes more than 600 residents aged 65 or older.
The lag in use of assistance is, indeed, puzzling. One recent research report summarizes the dilemma in this way: “No completely comprehensive account exists of why so many of those eligible do not claim benefits, but a number of factors seem to be relevant. Among the key factors: the difficulty of knowing one’s eligibility, stigma, and the enrollment process itself.” (Helping Americans Help Themselves, p. 6)
United States Department of Agriculture research provides interesting statistics related to the SNAP puzzle. Although 96% of Americans are aware of food stamps, only 43% of those who are eligible but are not signed up know they are eligible; more than half of eligible non-participants don’t even know they are eligible. In fact, about a third of these actually believe they are ineligible; two-thirds say they would sign up if they were sure of eligibility.
BCCAH and UW cooperate to help people
A new Bryan County Coalition Against Hunger and United Way project is composing a handy information sheet to guide people in need to get help. Coalitionists hope it will be just the first means of providing such guidance. The BCCAH already has a brochure listing food sources and requirements; it is available at the United Way office in the First Texoma National Bank Building on Main Street in Durant and various other spots around the County.
The new information sheet BCCAH and UW are working on will cover sources of additional kinds of help, such as transportation, clothing, medical help, and housing.
A fitting conclusion to this article is news about the caller who had only $140.00 toward her $236.00 water bill: Using her e-mail alert system, Pam got a $96.00 donation the same day before she went home.
(This is the sixth in a series of articles by the “Bryan County Coalition Against Hunger” about the extent of hunger in the county, the food sources available and their needs, and how all of us can help those in need. Future installments will feature the other sources and interviews with those who have benefited from them. For further information, please contact Marion Hill at email@example.com or 924-7715 or Joe Littlejohn at firstname.lastname@example.org or 925-2845.)