Jennifer Wilson is exactly like a lot of people in Orange County. At 26 years old — with a 2-and-a-half—year-old son — she's a single mother surviving paycheck to paycheck. She has an associate's degree in film production technology from Valencia Community College, where she minored in theater, and works as a freelance lighting technician. She's barely keeping up with the bills in Orlando's service-based economy.
In June, Wilson's gynecologist diagnosed her with toxemia due to a burst ovarian cyst, a condition that led to costly doctor's office and hospital visits, medications and ultimately a positive test for cancer cells in her cervix. As a freelancer, she has no health insurance.
"I found myself in a position where I couldn't get any help," she says. "I've been struggling."
Help doesn't come easily, especially for people existing just above the federal poverty line. Wilson isn't poor enough to meet the income standards established by Florida's Department of Children and Families to assist those in need, a fact she's discovered in recent months while being unable to work. She currently receives $218 a week from unemployment. Her two attempts to qualify for the state's food-stamp program were denied, and efforts to get help from Medicaid's medically needy program to pay for a biopsy were met with a prohibitive "shared cost" of $1,247. At this rate, Wilson suspects, she'd have to be on her deathbed before the state would take notice.
Hers is a common story.
The federal poverty level in 2007 for a family of two is $13,690 a year. According to a 2005 American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 445,037 families in Florida living beneath the poverty level, and 7.6 million families below that line nationwide. In Florida, there are 87,757 single women living below that level with children under 5.
But those numbers don't tell the whole story. A study by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2006 found that there are 1.22 million Florida families with incomes below 200 percent of the poverty level. Florida's representation is disproportionate to the rest of the nation in the gray area of poor-but-not-impoverished, the area where Wilson finds herself.
She puts her gross monthly income at $1,157, or roughly $14,000 a year. Her rent is $910 — almost $11,000 annually — for a house she moved into after Hurricane Charley destroyed her west Orlando residence in 2004. She used to share the cost with a roommate, but the roommate moved out because of Wilson's son. Day care costs about $135 a week. The child's father is under a court order to pay $500 monthly in child support, money Wilson says she gets about half the time. On paper the child support bumps up her annual income by $6,000, whether it actually comes in or not.
According to DCF guidelines, the monthly gross income limit for a family of two to apply for food stamps is $1,430 (the net income limit is $1,100), based on a figure representing 130 percent of the federal poverty line.
The DCF's ACCESS program — Automated Community Connection to Economic Self-Sufficiency — exists basically to administer the federal food stamp program, says DCF's central region director, John Cooper, although there is some leeway to provide temporary assistance to needy families. Cooper acknowledges that before ACCESS, DCF used to be less than accommodating.
"It was the same for 20 years," he says. "Clients would come to the service center and wait in line for hours."
There are changes afoot that should help streamline things, he says. Instead of a single office that processes applications, there are now 470 community "partners" that can help do the paperwork, including the Orange County Health Department. There is a website to speed things along, and funds can now be distributed via debit cards instead of exclusively by checks.
In this year's legislative session, both houses of Florida's Congress approved a wholesale restructuring of DCF into circuits that match the judicial circuits to improve communications and client representation; as of July 1 there are 20 circuits instead of 15 districts.
But it still isn't easy, says Jeanne Alshouse, the DCF operations manager for the ninth judicial circuit, covering Orange and Osceola counties. "The caseload has grown, but the staff has not," Alshouse says.
There are only 204 on-the-line staff that handle application eligibility and case reviews for Orange, Osceola, Brevard and Seminole counties. In July, they oversaw the distribution of $11 million in food stamps to more than 63,000 families, $1.2 million in temporary assistance for needy families to 4,658 families, and 136,680 Medicaid claims.
"It's a very complex system," says Alshouse. "It's really amazing that people in the public don't recognize the need out there."
Supplementary programs, like Women, Infants and Children at the Orange County Health Department, deal with similar caseloads, although WIC's ultimate purpose lies in nutritional and breast-feeding counseling, and some staple food distribution. Wilson used WIC (along with Medicaid) during and after her pregnancy, when her child was allergic to both milk and soy, but quit when her son got better and she started working again.
The income parameters with WIC are less prohibitive than those of the DCF; the cutoff is 185 percent of federal poverty level. A family of four must earn below $38,203 a year to be eligible; a family of two, $25,327. WIC includes child support — when it's mailed to the home — as a part of a client's income.
WIC coordinator for Orange County Debbie Amoedo says she regularly sees the plight of those living their lives lost in the system. "A lot of people out there are caught in that mix," she says. "It's sad. It's very sad."
For Wilson, it's more than sad; it's real. If she misses a bill and her lights or water are turned off, DCF could take her child. She doesn't want to be a drag on the system — "I'm a single parent. I'm on birth control," she says — and says she doesn't want a free ride. She wants the people in charge to know that something has to change.
"People in my tax bracket are able to stand on their own two feet but there are times when we have to make a choice between food and electricity," she wrote in a letter to Gov. Crist. "A change needs to happen. Our government needs to be willing to help everyone based on individual need. When the lower middle class can't get help because they are told they make a few dollars too much, this creates a downward spiral. First the electricity gets turned off, and then the gas, eventually eviction could happen and it takes a very long time to recover."
"Now the lower middle class citizen becomes another destitute class of people forced to live off government money when a month or two of a little help could have prevented that individual from losing everything they worked hard for," she wrote. "People lose jobs, they get sick, life happens." She e-mails the letter to the governor firstname.lastname@example.org