When I Used Food Stamps

English: Logo of the .
English: Logo of the . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just in time for Thanksgiving come the huge additional cuts to Food Stamps being considered by the U.S. House-Senate Farm Bill Conference. Many of my colleagues are joining the “Food Stamp Challenge,” attempting to limit their spending on food to the current food stamp daily allotment for an individual (in my home state of Washington this is $4.20/day). Many of my health reporter colleagues on various list-servs and social media sites are debating how to cover the issue of food stamps and food security. There’s a dismaying amount of whining from the health reporters about how much junk food people buy with food stamps. As if people with food stamps should only be able to shop for kale and arugula at Whole Foods…

This is my food stamp story:

When I was twenty I worked for a home health agency in Boston.  I worked as a home health aide for minimum wage–$3 an hour at the time with no health benefits. I had dropped out of school and was living on uncooked Ramen noodles and peanut butter.

One of my clients was a 29-year-old African-American woman who was homeless, or rather had been homeless until she was hit by a car and ended up in the hospital. When I worked with her she was recovering from a broken leg and she stayed at her aunt’s small apartment in Roxbury. It was my first experience using food stamps. She would give me her food stamps and a grocery list and I’d go down to the small corner market and trade the scrip for food. People in the store looked at me funny and seemed to wonder why a clean-cut white girl in khaki pants and a polo shirt was using food stamps. Sometimes things were so turbulent in her apartment I couldn’t get in to see her.

Food security is not just a basic human need; it is also basic human dignity. If you have an elected official who is a conferee on the House-Senate Farm Bill Conference, please send them a strong nudge to not slash Food Stamps in favor of lining the pockets of large agribusinesses. Representative Suzan DelBene of Washington state ((Legislative District 1: Apple and tulip and grape (wine) grower and Microsoft country))–please protect Food Stamps.

See: Cut in Food Stamps Forces Hard Choices for Poor by Kim Severson and Winnie Hu (NYT 11-7-13).

Home Health

Wisconsin Home Care Victory
Wisconsin Home Care Victory (Photo credit: SEIU International)

The Department of Labor is considering expanding the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to cover the estimated 2.5 million home health aids working in the US. As its name implies, the FLSA mandates minimum wage and overtime pay for employees.

Home health aids assist elderly, ill and disabled persons with shopping, cooking, housecleaning and laundry to help them stay as independent as possible in their own homes—and out of expensive and oftentimes dehumanizing long term care institutions.

Currently, home health aids are considered companionship services, like babysitters, and as such are excluded from FLSA protections. These exclusions benefit for-profit home health and hospice agencies, an $84 billion industry—and growing, thanks to our aging (and dying) population. Republican US Senator Johanns (Nebraska) is sponsoring a bill in Congress to permanently block home health aids from FLSA protection. He is also backing repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

Home health aids are dear to me. I got my start in nursing as a home health aid in the North End of Boston, tending to several elderly first generation Italian immigrants. I was jumping out of the Ivory Tower of Harvard University at the time, on my way to becoming a Harvard dropout. One of my professors of health policy recommended I work for a home health agency to gain first hand knowledge of health care needs in the community. It was hard work and didn’t pay enough to keep me working in it for long. But it was rewarding and the experience convinced me to apply to nursing school.

Home health aids are a part of my life today. My 89-year-old father with advanced congestive heart failure is able to live at home with the help of home health aids. They are skilled, dedicated, and caring workers and not some glorified passive ‘companions’—and they deserve fair labor standards.

(see Borris and Klein’s NYT Op-ed “Home-care workers aren’t just ‘companions.'” 7-1-12)