Local News

Today's welfare is different than many think

SEBRING - The myths about welfare: minimum wage workers qualify? Sometimes.

Illegal aliens? Under a few conditions.

Senior citizens on Social Security? A few, if they have qualifying medical and housing deductions.

Interestingly, the number of men, women and children on food stamps in Highlands County declined slightly this year. In January 2008, only 7,799 received free food.

Those numbers rose to 10,443 after the Great Recession started, and continued to spike each year until 2013, when 20,058 used Electronic Benefit Transfer cards at the supermarket to put groceries on the table.

In January 2014, however, the trend line declined to 19,847, the first downturn since the economy fell apart.

Shawna Mackin isn't sure why fewer people are applying - less unemployment, fewer migrant workers, people moving out of state, or if it's just a temporary trend - but it's happening elsewhere in Florida, so the Department of Families and Children is studying the numbers.

Why did DCF switch from welfare checks to EBT cards?

First, it's not called welfare anymore, explained Mackin, policy manager for the region that includes Highlands County.

"Welfare, that's kind of an old term," she said. But President Clinton said in 1996, "We are ending welfare as we know it," and the 2008 Farm Bill, the feds mandated that Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits be distributed electronically. "It was more cost effective, and there was less theft. It was safer. And back when they had the coupons, there was the cost of printing them."

As to who qualifies these days, a single mother with children can, or a pregnant woman if a doctor certifies she is unable to work.

Food stamp benefits range from $189 per month for that single pregnant woman, $347 for a mother and child, and up to $1,421 for a family of 10.

A common myth is that illegal aliens draw welfare.

"I hear that a lot," Mackin said. "If they're in the country illegally, they're not eligible for anything. Not even Medicaid."

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule.

"There are eligible aliens," Mackin said, "if they have permission to reside in the country - and not every legal alien is eligible."

In some cases, aliens with green cards are eligible for Medicaid, she said, and legal aliens can get food stamps if they've lived in the country for five years, but only if they've reported 40 quarters of work."

As for illegal aliens, if they have children who were born in America, then the parents can accept benefits for minor children.

"It's a very complicated policy," Mackin said.

Illegal aliens who are treated in an emergency room can quality for Emergency Medical Assistance through Medicaid "to cover that emergency, because hospitals are required to treat them," she said.

Money and Bloomberg have reported that Walmart and McDonald's workers qualify for welfare.

"I would say that is true, for food stamps, if you have a family," Mackin. "For cash assistance. No."

Only 416 Highlands County men, women and children draw Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, according to DCF numbers. The reason, Mackin said, is that "a much, much lower income limit applies."

"If you're making $400 a month gross, you're over the income limit," Mackin said. "A single adult making minimum wage is over the limit for food assistance. If they're working part time, that's a different story. If they're disabled, there's a lot more (deductions) to count. We never discourage anyone from applying."

Where to apply? DCF has a service center at 209 N. Ridgewood Dr. in Sebring. The customer call center number is 866 762-2237. The website is www.myflfamilies.com, so applications can be made from home, public libraries or any computer.

DCF partners can also help with applications: Catholic Charities, migrant programs, food banks, hospitals and doctor's offices that take Medicaid.

"If you're struggling financially, go to our website and apply," Mackin said. "There's a tool to check to see if eligible."

Did welfare reforms move millions off the welfare rolls, as Clinton claimed?

"You don't see the generational welfare recipients any more," Mackin said. "You can only receive it for 48 months."