Held Back By The Social Support System

Photos by Per Nordgren

Miss Joyce Monty is a model citizen in many ways. She is diligent, hardworking, disciplined, and resilient, with the sensible demeanor that comes from having to pick herself up and push through life’s challenges. On a typical day, she attends a digital literacy class through her jobs program at the Louisville Urban League. After a long day, she enjoys working on her Tunisian crochet projects and watching Disney cartoons she bought for a “steal” at the local Goodwill.

Despite her warm spirit and can-do attitude, Joyce has experienced numerous setbacks, missed opportunities, and a lack of the chances she deserves. She was born in Boston and later moved to a farm in rural Minnesota with her mother and stepfather. At the age of 12, after her parents’ divorce, she relocated to Louisville. Joyce loved the cold, rural farm in Minnesota because of the wide-open spaces and animals. Moving to hot and humid Kentucky was a significant change for her. The family faced financial insecurity after their relocation, as Joyce’s mother had her food stamp benefits revoked for doing small jobs to support the family. This eventually led to them losing their housing. Joyce vividly remembers running away from the trailer park in the middle of the night because her mother couldn’t afford the rent.

Despite her financially unstable upbringing, Joyce started providing for herself at a young age, contributing to the household as soon as she was able. “My mother didn’t spend money on me. I’d get my paycheck, and I’d spend money on gas, on toilet paper, on toothpaste, on dishwashing liquid, the laundry soap”, Joyce says, noting that she made sure to make ends meet. However, Joyce knew that she needed a career and a stable salary. After graduating from high school, she sought local opportunities to pursue a degree. Aside from her cousins in Boston, who were fortunate enough to have access to well-funded assistance programs, Joyce was the only person in her family to attend college. Joyce received impressive test scores and qualified for scholarships—unfortunately, her preferred nursing program at the University of Louisville had been cut, and she was left with a less prestigious and more expensive option. Joyce found the program to be disappointing, referring to it as a “joke,” remembering “the other students goofin’ off in class, smoking, talking during lessons.” During this time, she was also working part-time, making payments on a house, paying for school, books, and bills. Feeling that the education she was receiving wasn’t worth the financial sacrifice, Joyce decided to put her education on hold.

As the years went by, Joyce continued to provide for herself by working various jobs, such as catering, data entry, and nanny positions. As she grew older, she became the main provider for her mother, who relied solely on disability income. Despite her determination to provide, Joyce faced another setback when she and her mother were involved in a severe car accident. She was unable to work for two years, and the accident also cost her the home she had been making payments on while she recovered in the hospital from her injuries. Joyce tried to catch up on the payments using the insurance money from the accident, but the bank wouldn’t accept it. After years of hard work, it seemed that the system was designed to hold Joyce back. She was left badly injured, without a vehicle, and homeless. Eventually, she signed up for housing assistance through Louisville Metro Housing and received Medicaid and food stamp assistance. However, even with this support, Joyce struggled to find peace of mind.

As prudent and meticulous as Joyce was through all her medical issues and life events, she couldn’t anticipate the complexities of the benefits system. When she received assistance, she entered a complicated and opaque system with various income limitations and qualifications. Those receiving benefits must make sure they have enough income to pay their bills, but not so much income that they lose their benefits. The impending disqualifications based on income for someone receiving benefits is called the benefit cliff. The National Conference of State Legislators defines a benefit cliff or the “cliff effect” as “the sudden and often unexpected decrease in public benefits that can occur with a small increase in earnings.” For people like Joyce, the risk of being left suddenly and completely without housing, food, or medical care benefits can come with as little as a $5 or $10 difference in earnings. Joyce, always the planner, would call multiple offices and receive different limits for income or qualifications. For housing benefits, income limits may vary from building to building. Joyce made sure that at age 62, she wasn’t going to put her much-needed benefits in jeopardy, but the rules and restrictions that come with benefits can feel impossible to navigate alone.

Just before the COVID-19 pandemic, Joyce was offered a position that would have jeopardized her benefits due to the income limit. She shared, “They offered to hire me and from my understanding… the people offering it weren’t aware of the idea of a benefits cliff. I was just doing some quick mental math, and this was really just not adding up. When you get down to $100 this way or that way… I had to tell them no.” This issue highlights the fear that many like Joyce have—the fear of earning too much and losing the support they rely on. One potential solution arose when the Louisville Urban League partnered with Leap Fund, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping workers who are receiving public benefits. Leap Fund provides tools, such as the Leap Fund calculator, to calculate the exact wage and number of hours a person can work while still qualifying for benefits. This tool gave Joyce a sense of justification and peace of mind. However, she still expressed the difficulties of being restrained by benefits, such as the challenge of having to say no to her boss when asked to take on additional projects. This tool also provides a sense of empowerment by providing the clarity needed to advocate with employers for better pay or benefits that support a vulnerable workforce desperately trying to bridge into better opportunities when the inevitable benefit cliff does appear. What once was a scary and unknown situation, can now be navigated with confidence.

Joyce’s story is just one of many that highlight the painful irony faced by those receiving benefits. To meet their basic needs, they must forgo better career opportunities and higher earnings. Many, like Joyce, have to make difficult decisions and decline offers not because they are unwilling to work, but because they need to survive. Organizations like Leap Fund advocate for transparency and education, enabling workers to make informed decisions based on their unique circumstances. However, the choice between benefits and opportunities remains a cruel reality embedded in the social support system, which seems to hold back and even punish those who rely on it the most. 


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Access Ventures

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