Conservatives like to complain about how people on “welfare” (government assistance programs) are living on taxpayer money without having to give an ounce of effort. Some of the programs typically targeted include food stamps, government-sponsored healthcare (Medicare/Medicaid), and unemployment insurance. I’m going to take a look at what those programs actually comprise in my home state of Oklahoma.  (This post will not cover the complex issue of government-sponsored housing options, which in my area have pretty reasonable income guidelines but also incredibly long wait periods due to a lack of available properties.)

•     SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), a.k.a. foodstamps

Eligibility: An individual is ineligible if their gross income (before taxes) exceeds $1,180 (in context, a full-time minimum wage job earns a gross monthly income of $1,160).  A family of three (two parents and a dependent child) is ineligible if their gross income exceeds $2,008/month (roughly $24k/year).

Benefits provided: SNAP benefits are issued on a sliding scale based on gross monthly income.  An individual with $0 gross monthly income will receive $200 in monthly benefits.  An unemployed family of three will receive $526 in monthly benefits.  When our gross monthly income (for a family of three) was $1700, we received $125 in monthly benefits.  That’s roughly $10 per person per week for food.

Conditions:  Any increase in income must be reported to OKDHS within ten days to avoid loss of benefits.  A decrease in income does not need to be immediately reported, but failure to report a decrease in income could result in failing to acquire benefits for which the beneficiary would be eligible.  SNAP benefits do not apply retroactively.

Limitations:  SNAP benefits are issued on a debit card and automatically refilled on the same day of every month.  SNAP benefits cannot be used to purchase alcoholic beverages (including low-point beer) or hot meals (including restaurant meals, delivery pizza, and gas-station hot dogs), and stores may pose additional limits on eligibility of certain items (for example, a local convenience store does not permit purchase of energy drinks with SNAP benefits).  SNAP benefits can be used to purchase groceries at the Farmer’s Market.  SNAP purchases are tax-exempt.

•     SoonerCare (Oklahoma’s Medicaid program)

Eligibility: Non-disabled adults will find it very difficult to obtain health insurance.  An individual is ineligible if their gross income exceeds $3,492/year ($291/month).  The parents of a family of three are ineligible if the family’s gross income exceeds $5,652/year or $471/month.  However, expecting mothers and minors have much more lenient guidelines.  Single pregnant women are eligible if their gross income is less than $20,665 annually ($1,723/month).  In a family of three with an expecting mother, the child and mother are both eligible if the family’s gross income is less than $35,317 or $2,944/month.  These more lenient guidelines also apply to SoonerPlan, Oklahoma’s state insurance program that exclusively covers family planning (including birth control information and supplies, pregnancy tests, and vasectomies).  A separate state-sponsored program, InsureOklahoma, is available to self-employed individuals and to employees of companies that partner with InsureOklahoma.

Benefits provided:  Medically necessary and emergency services are covered with little to no copay (services that do require a copay charge $3 or less; prescription drugs are covered with no more than $3.50 copay for up to 6 prescriptions per month).

Conditions:  The Oklahoma Health Care Authority must be notified within ten days of any change in income, family size, or health insurance status.

Limitations:  Most adults of majority age who are employed will be financially ineligible for SoonerCare.  65 hours per month earning minimum wage is enough to disqualify a family of three, but is not enough to even pay for the rent and utilities on most one-bedroom apartments in the Tulsa area.

•     Unemployment Insurance

Eligibility:  Any employee legally authorized to work in the U.S., who has lost their job through no fault of their own (quitting and being fired for misconduct disqualify an individual from receiving this benefit), and who has earned at least $1500 from an insured employer in the five calendar quarters preceding their filing, and whose total wages during that 15-month period are at least 1.5 times the amount they earned in their highest-earning calendar quarter.  (Yeah, it looks complicated; basically, if a person has worked a steady job and their hours and pay rate didn’t change dramatically over the six months during which they made the most money, they’re probably fine.)  Hundreds of employers in Oklahoma are insured; the easiest way to find out whether a specific employer was insured is to apply for unemployment insurance and see if that employer is on their list.

Benefits provided:  More complicated math yielding a little over half of your average weekly earnings for the last full year worked, but no less than $16 or more than $392 per week.  Benefits are provided weekly, but cumulative benefit amount cannot exceed the lesser of: 26 times the weekly benefit amount, 25% of the person’s average annual wage from their previous job, or 50% of the total amount earned at their previous job.

Conditions:  Every week, in order to receive benefits, the claimant must file a claim online or over the phone stating that they did not receive any wages, bonus, holiday, severance, or other pay.  If they did receive payment from any of these sources, the exact amount of gross income earned that week (even if the paycheck doesn’t arrive until later) must be reported.  Claimant must also certify that they were willing and able to work that week, that they did not turn down any reasonable job offer, and that they made at least two new job search contacts.  The first week for which the claimant is eligible for benefits is considered a waiting period, and they will not receive benefits for that week.

Limitations:  If the claimant fails to file the claim for a week within fifteen days from the beginning of that week, or if they fail to contact at least two NEW potential employers in that week, they will not receive benefits for that week.  Even when they do receive benefits, the income will only be slightly more than half what they made at their previous job, and any additional income they acquire will further diminish that amount.  Total benefits will not amount to more than a quarter of what they made annually at their previous job, and if they have not received the maximum benefit amount they qualify for within one year of applying (whether because of other income/employment or because of failing to meet eligibility criteria), the remainder will expire.  Benefits are not retroactive; the benefit period begins on the date the initial claim is filed, not the date of job loss.

•     Summary

Foodstamps, or SNAP, is precisely what the acronym describes — a supplemental assistance program to ensure low-income families don’t go hungry.  Though it cannot be used to purchase alcohol or hot meals, SNAP customers must be careful in their use of benefits; if they want to spend their entire month’s supply on cheese puffs and soda, they are at liberty to do so, but may suffer the consequences of their decision long before the next month’s benefit kicks in.  However, SNAP provides information and recommendations on eating healthy, and encourages wise use of the program.  The emphasis is on educationally and financially equipping individuals and families to make wise decisions in providing food for their household.

SoonerCare, Oklahoma’s Medicaid, only covers children, pregnant women, the disabled, and the very poor.  SoonerPlan, the state insurance program that covers family planning, offers wider coverage, but really only covers a very small segment of medical practice, and is primarily aimed at helping make sure people who want to limit their family size for financial reasons have affordable access to options that will help them to do that. SoonerPlan does not cover abortions.

Unemployment insurance is not a viable form of income, providing up to a quarter of one year’s salary at about half the previous earning rate.  It’s not income that someone can “coast on”, either; without making serious effort to procure another job, no money will come.  It’s good for helping a person scrape by between jobs, but one would have to be more foolish than “entitled” to try to live solely on unemployment.

“Welfare”, at least in Oklahoma, is not something a “selfish”, “entitled”, or “lazy” person (or family) can live on without making an honest effort to improve their ability to take care of their lives.  These programs are intended to help individuals and families in harsh, often extreme predicaments, and mostly help to cushion the blow of difficult circumstances and encourage them to pursue a more amenable situation.