Barriers to Access (Part 2): Trying to Get Through
Briana (not her real name) has a story to share. A story she knows matters and that needs to be told. She has a job, she is married, she has two boys, she volunteers in her community and at her kid’s school. She leads educational panels in schools about free and reduced meals. She talks to other parents and encourages them to cut themselves some slack. She tries to help other parents get past their feelings of shame about being on public assistance programs. She is working on that herself. This is a story she shared with me and that I am re-sharing with her permission. Part of Headwater’s mission is to make spaces for people with lived experience to share their stories, to help lift up the work organizations are doing to remove barriers to access, and to highlight issues that are impacting the health and wellbeing of our communities throughout Montana.
Briana got the paperwork to renew her benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in the mail in February. This happens routinely every six months so that she can stay on SNAP. Up at the top she saw the notice that she had to have an interview to renew her benefits.
She submitted all her required documents online and then called in to schedule an interview. Calling in leads you down two paths. You can wait on hold or schedule a call back. She opted to schedule a call back and got called back within two days and was going through the renewal interview but got disconnected halfway through. She immediately tried to call back. She waited on hold for two hours before she had to hang up. She scheduled another call back for the next week. Her phone rang once, she picked it up and was disconnected. She called back, scheduled another call back, and the same thing happened. She kept trying throughout the end of February. She never got through to a human.
As she got closer to the time when her SNAP account would normally have been re charged, she got more anxious. She was trying to make sure she had all her bases covered leading up to spring break when her kids would be out of school and not have access to school meals. She scheduled more call backs. She waited on hold, one day for four hours, another day for five and a half. She called the SNAP balance hotline to hear: “You have zero dollars and zero cents left in your SNAP account.”
Finally, she went in to speak to someone in person. This meant she had to take a day off work – a day of lost pay – but she was feeling desperate and out of options. When she finally got to speak to someone, she was told they did not do onsite renewal interviews at their office in person anymore. She was told she had to call the same number she had been trying to get through on for weeks. The other option was to schedule an interview in person for March 28, more time she would have to take off work, and weeks after her family’s SNAP account had been at zero.
“I didn’t feel like I was being taken seriously,” she shared. One person told her there was no record of her calls, another thought there was but wasn’t sure. But SHE has a record of her calls, her wait times, all the records of what she has done to try to gain access. She explained, “I grew up on these programs and my mom always taught me you have to keep your own records of everything. Every call, every time stamp, everything.”
“It’s disheartening,” she says. “Trust me, if I didn’t need this I wouldn’t be here. This is the make or break for some of the bills we have.” She has been using money that normally would have gone towards bills to buy food this month. Inflation has only made things worse. She knows this is just getting her further into debt.
And it is not just SNAP access. She can barely afford childcare. She makes $20 too much to qualify for some programs. That is the penalty for her having taken a new job. “We are on the razor’s edge,” she explains. Having a job she feels passionate about and that will help others may end up hurting her family because it will make them ineligible for some benefits, yet she and her partner still do not make enough money not to need them. The benefits cliff is a real issue for many utilizing public assistance programs. She tells me, “I would love to get off these programs and to know that my kids and I are secure enough not to need them. It’s daunting.” She is making more than she has ever made in her entire life and it still is not enough.
“I feel like a circus dog, jumping through all these hoops. I did everything right. I did everything I was told to do when I was younger when people talked about how to get off public assistance. I went to school. I have a degree. I have a family. I work a government job, and I’m still on these programs.”
She wonders how many other families are experiencing these same problems.
When we talked about why she wanted to share her story and why she felt so strongly about getting people with lived experience engaged in sharing their own stories, she explained, “It feels like I’m yelling over the edge of cliff sometimes. Why am I doing this? Because I want to make changes. I don’t want other kids to experience what I did. I don’t want my kids to have to deal with this. That’s why I’m sharing my story.”
Briana’s story is not unique. People throughout our state are facing major barriers to access. But Headwaters believes that by sharing these stories and by working to connect people with lived experience to organizations working to change systems and advance equity, that we can ensure that all people living in our state have access to the services and resources they need to live their healthiest lives. Some incredible organizations connecting people to resources and the policy process include Montana Women Vote, the Montana Foodbank Network, Western Native Voice, the Montana Primary Care Association, and there are many others. Please consider sharing your story and getting involved in an organization that is working to improve access and change our systems for the better.