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 Melissa Connelly, a 40-year-old single mom who lives in Fremont, was barred from housing assistance last year, she was forced to make budget cuts.
Fresh fruits and veggies had to go. So did tutoring, karate classes and a YMCA membership for her son, Chance, who’s 11 years old.
“It has isolated [Chance] … He’s more aggressive because he’s cooped up,” said Connelly, who knows her son can be sweet, caring and helpful. Chance is coping with trauma, ADHD and separation from his dad, who was deported to El Salvador, and his five siblings, to whom Connelly relinquished her rights after she was arrested on a drug charge.
Because Connelly was convicted on a felony drug charge in 2014 — nearly a decade ago — she’s banned from government food assistance (SNAP, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) for life, even though, she said, she’s been through drug treatment programs and gotten sober. The financial strain from this lifetime ban is made worse for the family because she’s barred from housing assistance, called Section 8, which she was initially denied due to her drug conviction. Connelly successfully appealed the decision — only to find herself once again denied, she said, because her income level is too high. As of 2021, the maximum income for a family of two to receive Section 8 benefits is $21,100 annually.
Public benefit denials due to both drug offenses and ultra-low income cutoffs aren’t anomalies in Nebraska, where 90% of applications to Aid to Dependent Children, another public benefit, were denied in 2020. According to the Associated Press, Nebraska “took the most aggressive action anywhere in the country” in stopping emergency SNAP benefits in July 2020, a mere four months into the COVID-19 pandemic. In mid-April of this year, the Nebraska Legislature killed LB121, which would have ended Nebraska’s lifetime ban on SNAP for individuals who’ve been convicted of certain drug offenses.
“[The state] should let me show what I’ve done different to change,” said Connelly, who said she’s been through drug treatment programs and stayed away from drugs in recent years even though she’s considered selling again to provide Chance extracurricular opportunities and nourishment.
“I have to do something to feed my kid. [The ban] leads people right back to [selling drugs].”
That’s what happened to Connelly’s father.
“When my dad got out of prison, they just threw him out. They didn’t help him with SNAP. He was disqualified. That sent my dad back to selling,” she said.
Connelly said her father died from hypertension and COPD in January. She believes the stress of trying to put food on the table contributed to his death, and she struggles under the same pressure he did as she grieves his loss.
“[My dad] taught me to cook … He watched my kid. When I tried to get a job, he was always there supporting me,” said Connelly who said at age 19 she found her mother dead from a seizure.
“[He stood by me] even when I was down on myself and mad because [of how] my record affects [my ability to get a job].”
Chance is still eligible for SNAP benefits — but he only gets $20 each month, according to Connelly. That’s because SNAP is calculated based on household size and income, and even though Connelly can’t get SNAP herself, the state still factors in her income when determining how much food assistance to give the 11-year-old.
The family’s income, which is derived from disability benefits, not only prevents them from getting housing assistance but also stops Connelly, who used to be employed at Hy-Vee, from going back to work. If she works too much — and therefore makes more money than the income cutoff allows — the state will take away the benefits the family does get, Connelly said, which she needs to keep herself and her son afloat.
Megan Hamann, economic justice coordinator for Nebraska Appleseed, said she frequently sees situations like Connelly’s.
“Often income from one type of benefit disqualifies [people] from another,” Hamann said. “Or if [a person is] able to receive all the benefits, then the second they get a job … a number of those resources go away.”
Nevertheless, Connelly hopes to return to work and still make ends meet. She also aspires to earn her GED, having dropped out of high school at age 16. Like her son, Connelly struggled with behavioral issues — and she wants his future to look different from hers.
“I definitely don’t want him to drop out,” Connelly said. “I would like him to be … back in the things that he likes, [such as] karate, but funds are short [and] my income gets messed up when I go back to work.”
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).