This story is part of a series, published in The Reader and on omahajobs.com, that spotlights the experiences of low-income, working families in Omaha. This is also part of a larger series about inequity in Omaha, titled “(Dis)Invested.”
When Melinda Jacobs learned she was disqualified from certain public benefits, the 32-year-old wanted to return to doing and selling drugs — the reason she was disqualified in the first place.
Then Jacobs thought of her five daughters, plus the baby boy in her stomach.
“[Being disqualified] was heartbreaking,” the single mother said, “but I took a step back and realized I need to be healthy and sober for this baby. And get my kids back.”
Jacobs went to prison on drug charges. As a result, she’s permanently banned from accessing Aid to Dependent Children (ADC), which offers direct cash assistance to in-need families with minor children — and from which 90% of applications are rejected, as of 2020. She’s also barred from accessing SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), which provides money to purchase food, for the rest of her life — nevermind that she’s sober now. Enacted federally in 1996 during the War on Drugs, the SNAP ban has since been dropped by some states.
“I don’t understand why [my drug felony] would affect my kids,” said Jacobs, who can get some SNAP benefits only for her 9-year-old, the sole child living with her, but no ADC.
This isn’t Jacobs’ first time not being able to get public benefits. In 2010, Jacobs said, she was a certified nursing assistant working night shifts to make $2 extra an hour. When that wasn’t enough for her and her children to scrape by, she applied for public benefits but was rejected because her $15.26/hour wages were over the income cutoff, which, for ADC, is currently $881 per month for a family of three.
“You’re searching for help, and you’re not getting it,” Jacobs said, “so you regress back to your old activities and who you used to be.”
Jacobs, who was in foster care growing up, believes her 2010 public benefit denial contributed to her selling drugs to make money. Since then, her life has been fraught with tragedy. Her child’s father was murdered, Jacobs said, the person who killed him was stalking her, and soon after that, she caught her drug charges and, she said, went to prison for five years. Jacobs is now out of prison but has only her 9-year-old daughter with her; the other girls are cared for by family in Colorado. And, to top it off, Jacobs’ youngest child, her “baby,” died.
“I get very depressed,” she said. “I just want to sleep because it feels like everything is on my shoulders. I’m trying to hold my little family together as much as possible.”
Now Jacobs doesn’t have a job. She doesn’t think she can return to being a certified nursing assistant because of her criminal record with drugs. She’s tried to get into telemarketing, something she used to do, but she’s struggling to afford the phone and minutes. And Jacobs’ doctor discourages her from labor-intensive work because her pregnancy is high risk. But Jacobs wants to work — just like other public benefits recipients, according to Megan Hamann, economic justice community organizer for the social justice nonprofit Nebraska Appleseed.
“Folks [tell me] they’d rather not be on benefits,” Hamann said, “[because it’s] not easy or comfortable. Ideally, they would have a job that would allow them to afford the things they need. Most everyone I talk to is working, [often] two jobs, [but] their income still doesn’t make the cut.”
Without a living wage, however, Nebraskans are often forced on public benefits. Hamann said there’s legislation in the works to get people like Jacobs the help they desperately need, such as LB121, which would get rid of the lifetime ban on SNAP benefits for Nebraskans with certain drug convictions and, at press time, is being considered in the Nebraska Legislature. And last year, LB108 passed, adjusting the SNAP income eligibility level so people working extra hours could take a small raise and continue to stay on the program — which would’ve helped Jacobs immensely in 2010.
But expanded eligibility, funded via the American Rescue Plan Act, expires in 2023. According to Hamann, there isn’t legislation in the works to stop the expiration.
And families like Jacobs’ continue to suffer. She said her kids hold “grudges and resentment” toward her because of her involvement with drugs and don’t trust that she won’t return to the streets. But Jacobs stays determined to maintain her sobriety and reunite with her children.
“[People like me] want to do better for ourselves,” Jacobs said, “but doing better for ourselves [necessitates] a helping hand.”
From Nov. 2020 – Aug. 2022, Leah reported on social justice, including employment equity, economic justice, educational inequality, and the experiences and history of Nebraska’s LGBTQ+ community. Although she’s now pursuing a PhD in Communication, Information and Media at Rutgers University, Leah remains a diehard Reader fan and wholeheartedly supports all things Reader. You can connect with her via Twitter (@cates_leah).