This is the final story in a series, published in The Reader and on omahajobs.com, that spotlights the experiences of low-income, working families in Omaha. Leah Cates, who has written the “Omaha Jobs” columns since July 2021, is headed to graduate school, and Arjav Rawal is set to take the reins. But before she leaves, Leah is working on a deep dive into Nebraska’s handling of public benefits for low-income families, which will round out the series. Keep an eye out for her story in July 2022. (Update, Aug. 2022: You can read Leah’s deep dive here.)
In April, Reader reporter Leah Cates profiled Melinda Jacobs, a 32-year-old single mother who was incarcerated on drug charges and as a result banned from receiving some public benefits. After that piece was published, we received an email from a single mother who had applied for public benefits but was told her income was too high and didn’t know where to turn. That’s when we knew what the next “Omaha Jobs” column would be.
This month, we profile just two of the many community resources that fill the void left by restrictions placed on receiving benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps) and the Child Care Subsidy Program.
Early Childhood Education: Kids Can
Many for-profit child care centers limit the number of kids whose child care is subsidized by the state because of the administrative and revenue challenges associated with accepting kids on subsidies. That leaves low-income families in a bind.
But Kids Can Community Center, an Omaha-based nonprofit that provides early childhood education for kids ages 18 months to 5 years old, does not place any limits on how many families enrolled receive a child care subsidy.
Kids Can CEO Robert Patterson said that’s because the requirements for receiving the child care subsidy leave many families earning too much to qualify for assistance but struggling to afford child care without it.
“Even a slight change in income can disqualify their eligibility for subsidies,” he said, “and push them off the ‘cliff’ of self-sustainability.”
Patterson said the situation motivated him and Kids Can to launch the “Bridge the Cliff” project, which works to provide child care no matter what financial barriers a family may encounter. As a result, Patterson said, Kids Can helped 68% of families in their early childhood education program secure subsidies, scholarships or both. The organization also provided 87 children with more than $120,000 in scholarships to offset the out-of-pocket expense in the event they did not qualify for subsidies.
Patterson has testified in front of the Nebraska Legislature in favor of bills that would increase the eligibility rate for child care subsidies, and last year he and other child care advocates notched a small victory: LB485, which increases the income eligibility limit from 130% of the federal poverty level to 185%. But that increase is temporary, slated to end in September 2023. Until there’s a permanent solution, Patterson said, Kids Can is committed to ensuring children get consistent care, regardless of their parents’ income: “We don’t want the kids to feel a difference.”
Visit kidscan.org/early-childhood to view their rates and payment plans. To enroll, call 402-731-6988.
Food Bank Resource Hotline
The people who staff the Food Bank for the Heartland hotline understand all too well why SNAP applications get denied, and it’s not only due to ultra-low income cutoffs or past felony drug convictions. Cindy Doerr, Nebraska SNAP manager for the food bank, said denials often occur because of missing documents or applicants not showing up for their interviews.
That’s why the food bank created a resource hotline that people can call for assistance, either with applying for SNAP or finding an alternative. When someone calls and asks about applying for SNAP, a staff member pre-screens the caller to capture as much information as possible upfront. If there are clear indicators that someone is not eligible for SNAP benefits, the hotline helps them locate pantry and meal providers in their vicinity and assists them in finding rental assistance.
Each week, staff members set aside time to follow up with the callers they helped apply for SNAP. During the follow-up call, which takes place after two weeks, they make sure the client has submitted proper documentation and completed an interview. If everything is in order, they check on the status of the application with the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. Doerr said that helps increase an application’s chances of approval.
It’s the pre-screening, as well as the follow-up calls, that Doerr said make the hotline successful — 81% of the applications their staff helped clients submit in the last year were approved, according to the food bank’s website.
Food Bank for the Heartland has lobbied to expand SNAP access, with some success; last year, the Nebraska Legislature voted to override a veto from Gov. Pete Ricketts and expand SNAP eligibility. But just a few months later, a bill to remove the lifetime ban on receiving SNAP for people with certain prior drug convictions stalled. The hotline isn’t going anywhere though, Doerr said, and will continue its commitment to helping community members find the nutrition they deserve.
The resource hotline can be reached at 855-444-5556 from 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Note this hotline is for Nebraska residents only.
And remember: Other resources are available, including the Heart Ministry Center, the Siena Francis House and many more. You can also dial the United Way’s community assistance hotline at 211, which will connect you to a variety of resources, including those that aren’t affiliated with the government.
Leah Cates provided additional reporting for this piece.