First Person

I Couldn’t Get a Bank Account. My Girlfriend Paid the Price for Helping Out.

The day I started my new job as a cashier at Tedeschi Food Shops, I went in for my training feeling more hopeful than I had in a long time. I’d had the 1998 Buick my grandmother left behind when she died for a little over four months, so I finally had a better chance at making some extra money. I was already dreaming about everything I could do: buy my textbooks at the cheapest price in advance of the semester instead of relying on my scholarship money and the campus store, and be able to contribute next year by buying a set of new utensils for the on-campus apartment I was going to be sharing with three people.

But when my manager was giving me paperwork and collecting my forms of identification, I realized this job would be yet another situation where not having a bank account would be a problem.

Tedeschi Food Shops didn’t offer paper checks as a form of my payment, like my other jobs tutoring and grooming dogs had. There were two options: Sign up for direct deposit with a bank account, or have your paycheck put on a payroll debit card, which would charge me a fee of around $5 for every ATM transaction. The use of payroll cards is on the rise, particularly among freelancers and independent contractors. In 2016, 8.7 million people received payroll cards, compared to just 5.5 million employees receiving paper checks.

I was part of the 8.4 million households who are unbanked in the U.S. as of 2017, according to a Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation survey. I didn’t have an account because of former credit and account issues, like 14 percent of unbanked people; when I was 17, my dad and I purposefully overdrew my bank account by about $400 to cover basic necessities when he lost his job for a few months. We both thought we’d be able to pay it back fairly quickly, but we couldn’t, and my account closed.

People who are unbanked (or underbanked, meaning they have some access to financial services, but not everything they need) spend an average of 10 percent of their annual income just to access basic services like check cashing or credit. I had so little already, with barely any cash saved and an hourly job that paid Massachusetts minimum wage ($8 per hour at the time). I couldn’t afford to lose a portion of my paychecks to ATM fees.

Instead, I built up the nerve to talk to my girlfriend of four years and ask her if she’d let me use her bank account to get paid.

Like many people who grow up poor, my relationship to money impacted all my other relationships. I didn’t want to be financially dependent on my girlfriend. I wanted us to be able to make the decision to share our finances someday when we lived together and both felt we were ready. But I also didn’t have many other options; my dad had been without a bank account for longer than I had, and he was my main support system after my mom passed away.

My girlfriend said yes, and I put her account details down on my direct deposit form. I started picturing how I would feel when I got the money out of the ATM after being paid the following week. It was more money and more hours than I’d made at my on-campus tutoring job. I just wished that finances didn’t have to complicate my relationship all the time. I wanted to save up to take my girlfriend to Provincetown for her birthday that summer, but I didn’t want to share every single detail of my financial situation with her yet.

Sharing a bank account required an immense level of trust. I was putting all the money I was making into her account and relying on her to take it out of the ATM and give it to me. She had access to find out exactly how much I was making per paycheck and if I decided to make an online purchase with her permission, she could see every detail in her account statement.

It made me feel extremely vulnerable. I scrutinized a lot of my own purchases — would buying this make me seem irresponsible? Then I scrutinized my relationship — what if she no longer wanted to be in a relationship because she realized what a burden it was to date someone who was poor? What if I never climbed out of poverty like I hoped I would after college, and I had to rely on her and her bank account for the rest of our lives?

I'd rarely had good fortune when it came to finances.

And then, a few weeks after I started at Tedeschi, my girlfriend also got a job there. We both needed summer jobs to save between our junior and senior years of college, and it was the perfect fit for her, within walking distance of her house. The day she went in for her training, she got frustrating news: Because her bank account was already attached to my direct deposit, she couldn’t get paid the same way. She had to use a payroll debit card and lose the $5 every time she took her paycheck out of the ATM. We talked about seeing if I could switch and let her use her own account to get paid, but she said it seemed like more trouble than it was worth.

She was essentially being punished for doing me a favor.

All relationships have their challenges, but I felt the strain of our socioeconomic differences. There was a power dynamic underlying every interaction. I felt like I had to be the “perfect” poor person: I couldn’t make any reckless decisions, couldn’t spend my income on anything frivolous, had to work as hard as humanly possible to get over the poverty line. My girlfriend never made me feel lesser because my family had less money, but I felt it all the same.

When you’re poor, all your relationships are strained by your lack of money. I’d felt it in moments where my best friend had to drive me to Walmart when my dad and I didn’t have a car so I could get school supplies. Or when my friend printed my high school papers for me because we didn’t have a printer. When I had to turn down opportunities to go out with my friends because I knew I couldn’t afford dinner and a movie. When all my friends had brand new decked-out dorm rooms and mine was decorated in hand-me-downs and DIY collages I made for less than $10.

At the end of that summer, my girlfriend and I took our trip to Provincetown. We both took work off for the long weekend and headed out in my green Buick. The hotel I’d booked as a birthday gift to her was one of the cheapest I could find that was three stars or more, and it was squarely in between all the things we wanted to do on our trip.

On our way to the hotel, we stopped at a bank branch to deposit some money into my girlfriend’s account to use during our trip. A bank associate asked me if I wanted to open my own account. I told her I thought I wouldn’t be able to because of past account issues and she encouraged me to apply anyway.

After 15 minutes, I learned I was approved. It could have been because I’d been building credit with a Discover credit card for several months, because I paid my Sprint phone bill on time, or because I’d been under 18 when I overdrew my checking account. I wasn’t sure but didn’t question why the bank was allowing me to open a new account; I’d rarely had good fortune when it came to finances and I didn’t want to jinx what was a step in the right direction. After four years, I was able to open my own account again. I could buy gifts online for my girlfriend as a surprise without worrying she’d see the cost on her statement. I could make financial decisions that were visible only to me without worrying how they might impact someone else’s life.

I could have control over my own money: How I kept it, how I spent it, where it went.


First Person

I’m Disabled. The Trump Administration’s New Rule Could Take My SNAP Anyway.

Last month, the Trump administration introduced a new rule to cut Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. The rule is geared towards so-called “able-bodied adults without dependents” who are unable to document 20 hours of work a week. When I heard the news, I double-checked my schedule, and I was in the clear: 35 hours that week. If I had missed a shift or two, then the outlook wouldn’t be so optimistic.

My fibromyalgia doesn’t care about my work schedule. It doesn’t time its flare-ups according to my current proximity to heating pads. Even more than Beamer, my service dog, fibromyalgia is the most constant presence in my life, on my mind at all hours of the day. In the morning, my joints could be so sore that I forgo my cup of coffee, because I can’t trust my grip and I don’t want to clean up another shattered mug. By the afternoon, those aches may give way to a fog that clouds my mind until any attempt at sustained concentration feels like running up a downward escalator — a lot of effort, but little payoff.

People with disabilities are supposed to be spared from the cuts. But in practice, many people with serious health conditions will be at risk of losing food assistance, because SNAP uses other government programs with an extremely limited definition of disability as proxies for disability status. So, I’m on the chopping block.

If I need to miss a shift because I woke up feeling particularly sore or because the afternoon fog rolled in early, the benefits I rely on to eat are threatened. Good day or bad, doctor’s appointment or not, I have to make sure I’m on time and ready, smiling at the customer service desk of the museum that is my work place.

Managing my condition is a full-time job, in addition to the job that actually pays me. To be able to show up for work, I have to go to three doctors’ appointments per week: two sessions of mental therapy and one session of occupational physical therapy. That doesn’t include the constant stream of other specialists who might have some new insight into my pain management: psychiatrists, rheumatologists, and pulmonologists.

Managing my condition is a full-time job.

All told, the copays add up to about $240 a month, just for the therapy sessions. That’s 12 times what I get from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. 20 bucks a month for food sounds trivial, but anyone who has ever really struggled knows that $20 can make or break you.  For me, it’s the difference between an extra visit with a specialist or suffering until the next paycheck hits.

That doesn’t mean $20 is enough — like most of the strategies I use to treat my disease, SNAP is inadequate but essential. But the administration is putting it at risk with this new rule.

All of us have limited time and energy to spend in our 24 hours. But for some of us, to make it through requires more effort than others. In the three years since my diagnosis, I’ve come to terms with the fact that fibromyalgia isn’t going away. The appointments and the meds and Beamer don’t care about my work schedule because they make my schedule possible in the first place. With this latest rule, the Trump Administration is doing the opposite — they insist that I continuously prove that I’m building a life for myself. Why can’t I just build it?

Editor’s note: To leave a comment on the proposed regulation to limit states’ ability to waive work requirements, visit



Pennsylvania Plans Vote on Cutting Assistance for Its Poorest Residents

Toothpaste, medication, and bus fare. What do these have in common? For thousands of the poorest Pennsylvanians, there soon might be no way to afford them, or other basic necessities.

Next week, the Pennsylvania state legislature is scheduled to vote on whether to continue funding a program that helps around 6,600 residents make ends meet. The program, called General Assistance, is being targeted by the majority-Republican legislature as part of its bigger plan to dismantle an array of programs that help struggling Pennsylvanians get by. If they succeed, General Assistance will be eliminated effective July 1 of this year.

While it serves a relatively small population, General Assistance is a meager but critical lifeline for its participants. The benefit amount — up to $205 per month for an individual — might not seem like much, but the majority of participants are single adults who cannot work or have no other income whatsoever. Around 90 percent have disabilities. Participants include individuals in substance use disorder treatment, survivors of domestic violence, and adults caring for nonrelative children. And, importantly, beneficiaries are often ineligible for other public benefit programs because they don’t have dependents.

Many rely on General Assistance to serve as their only income while they await determinations on applications for Social Security disability benefits, which can take months and even years to process. Recipients indicate that they use the funds for essentials including rent, transportation, toiletries, and medical co-pays.

Recognizing the unique importance of General Assistance, Gov. Tom Wolf (D-PA) wants the program to continue to be funded at its current level of about $50 million — less than 2 percent of the state’s budget — in the coming fiscal year. But, predicting that the legislature will kill the program, he is also proposing to reinvest the money into the Pennsylvania Housing Affordability and Rehabilitation Enhancement Fund, or PHARE.

PHARE provides funding to build, rehabilitate, and support affordable housing throughout the state, some of which is allocated for households earning below 50 percent of area median income. Increasing housing affordability for low-income Pennsylvanians is extremely important, but Wolf’s office acknowledges that the two programs simply do not serve the same populations or purposes.

Eliminating General Assistance and reallocating its funds to PHARE will not mean that every current General Assistance participant receives access to affordable housing. A percentage would, but it would likely be a small one, based on the allocation of just $50 million and the fact that not all PHARE housing is for the lowest-income renters. Meanwhile, many of the General Assistance participants who don’t get housing would be left with no income.

Pitting these two essential programs against each other presents a false choice between basic necessities and housing development and affordability. Instead of robbing Peter to pay Paul, both programs should be adequately funded to help people meet housing and other basic needs.

Alas, there is good reason to expect the legislature will get its way. Six years ago, the Republican-controlled state legislature acted to eliminate General Assistance, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reinstated the program on a technicality, after finding that the legislature hadn’t followed certain required procedures. This time around, the legislature has learned from its mistake and knows exactly how to legally eliminate the program.

The Wolf administration still has time to push back. And for the well-being of the lowest-income Pennsylvanians, it should take up the fight.



A Trump Proposal Could Make Selfies Dangerous for Disabled People

Posting a selfie in a cute bikini on a beach in Hawaii to Instagram or sharing protest pics on Twitter shouldn’t be grounds for being denied disability benefits, but if an expansion of social media surveillance at the Social Security Administration goes through, that’s exactly what could happen.

An Instagram story from a low-pain day or a Facebook post with an old photo might be used against an applicant for disability benefits, a change from the status quo where the agency only looks at social media in cases of suspected fraud. Thanks to a New York Times story suggesting a tiny line item in the agency’s 2019 fiscal year budget overview will turn into a real policy, the disability community is very worried.

All this for an agency with a “fraud incidence rate that is a fraction of one percent.”

The proposed expansion of social media monitoring for the nearly 20 million Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income recipients would have several negative effects, among them that disability activists who organize and build community online may be hesitant to do so. It will also feed directly into myths about Social Security fraud that have been wildly overstated in media coverage, such as a 2017 Washington Post series or a 2013 NPR feature package that made it seem as though “undeserving” people were lining up for disability benefits. (The average monthly benefits are under $1,300; being on disability is hardly a profitable endeavor.)

Proposals like this one underscore the common belief that everyone applying for disability is fake until proven otherwise. “I hate the assumption that everyone’s lying just because they need help,” said Rachel Graves, a member of the chronic illness community who receives disability and private insurance coverage, and who is already very cautious about her online presence. Graves is well aware that social media is used to police disabled people online by the government and insurance companies, as well as the general public, who are all seeking out disabled people who don’t “look sick.”

In response to the news, Mila Johns, who has Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a connective tissue disorder, deleted her Facebook account and plans to scale back on Twitter: “It seemed like too big of a risk to take by continuing to engage in social media. Because we don’t know how it’s going to be used.” Johns relies on communities found through sites like Facebook and Twitter to connect with people who share her diagnosis. “[Social media is] a lifeline for so many people,” she said, but she’s preparing an application for disability benefits, and she’s worried about what examiners might find, and judge.

The internet is valuable for outreach and advocacy, but also activism. Online organizers have used social media to fight attacks on the Affordable Care Act, organize in defense of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and engage in solidarity actions with other marginalized communities. Disabled advocates such as Imani Barbarin, creator of hashtags such as #AbledsAreWeird and #ThingsDisabledPeopleKnow, and Alice Wong, founder of the Disability Visibility Project and one of the co-partners of #CripTheVote, rely on social media for their work.

Images of disabled protesters went viral in 2017 during the fight to preserve the Affordable Care Act. Those same protesters now get to worry about whether those pictures will be used against them to deny or revoke disability benefits; if you’re well enough to occupy the halls of Congress, surely you’re not “really disabled.”

The agency already has an entire trained investigative division that focuses on preventing fraud before it even happens, in addition to following up on complaints about current beneficiaries. It also uses predictive analytics software to flag suspicious activity among both applicants for and current recipients of disability benefits. (Like other uses of predictive algorithms, this has dangerous implications, requiring applicants and recipients to submit to the surveillance state’s collection and use of their data. Algorithmic bias is also a significant concern.)

Now, in addition, the new proposal would allow thousands of front-line “disability adjudicators” all across the country to conduct their own fraud investigations using social media data. These are the staff charged with determining whether a claimant meets the agency’s stringent criteria for disability benefits.

It seemed like too big of a risk to take by continuing to engage in social media.
– Mila Johns

On average, they are not very accurate.

In 2016, disability adjudicators approved 33 percent of initial disability applications and denied the other 67 percent. Claimants whose applications are denied have the right to appeal and have their case heard by an administrative law judge. After waiting one to two years to have their appeals decided, 46 percent of claimants are ultimately found to be disabled by Social Security.

In other words, nearly half of the people whom disability adjudicators rule as not disabled are actually determined to be disabled when they have their day before a judge.

In this climate, it’s easy to understand why disabled people might be afraid, and the consequences of curtailing social media engagement can be immediate and painful. “It is so isolating being really sick, especially when you have something unusual enough that you don’t know anyone else who has it. To find someone like you can make you feel less lonely,” said Graves.

The proposal also aligns with a long history of claiming that programs like SSDI and SSI are rife with “fraud.” For those concerned about fraudulent applications, the Social Security Administration maintains a fraud hotline and encourages not only workers, but also law enforcement and members of the general public, to report suspected disability fraud, in a “see something, say something” approach that encourages people to inform on each other.

This is the dangerous crux of the proposal: It will have a silencing effect on disability advocates at a time when they have won several high-profile victories with the assistance of online organizing, such as helping to prevent the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Expanding the use of social media in disability determinations could become punitive in nature, with poorly-trained adjudicators dealing with large caseloads making snap judgments about applicants, particularly those with outspoken political leanings. Disability activists who don’t “look disabled” or have variable experiences of disability, such as part-time wheelchair users, could pay a high price for leading public lives.

The proposal can be operationalized administratively, without Congressional action, though Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Bob Casey (D-PA) have expressed concerns about it. But it will make the internet less safe — especially for people like Johns who are primarily or entirely homebound and use it as a vital tool for participating in society. And it will make organizing harder for a fractured community that’s currently relying on the internet to help with the fight against dangerous, disablist policy proposals on the state and federal level.



Food Banks Warn They Will Not Be Able to Meet Demand If Food Stamp Cuts Take Effect

On the heels of the thirty-two-day government shutdown, a proposed administrative rule change to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) once again threatens food access for people who rely on the program for basic needs — this time for an estimated 755,000 people.

For households that qualify for SNAP, February, the shortest month of the year, was a long one. During government shutdown, 40 million Americans who participate in the program experienced as many as 60 days between the issuance of their February and March SNAP benefits. The shortages in household budgets meant that food banks across the country were inundated.

“355 households on February 19,” says Kelli Hess, operations director for the Missoula Food Bank & Community Center in Missoula, Montana. Hess notes that historically, February is a slower month for the pantry — families are receiving tax returns, and the short month means SNAP benefits don’t have to stretch as far. Prior to February 19, the local food pantry’s busiest day had served 240 families. “It was absolutely fallout from the shutdown. People can’t survive without paychecks. And they can’t survive without SNAP. Which is why this proposed rule change is so scary.”

The rule change, proposed by the Trump administration, would limit states’ ability to waive work requirements during periods of high unemployment. Similar cuts to the program were rejected by the bipartisan Farm Bill passed by Congress in December 2018.

The administrative rule change would kick Miriam Bayer, a local academic, off SNAP. She is composed and deliberate in her statements as she explains the situation, sitting in a coffee shop in downtown Missoula.

She holds a master’s degree in biology from the University of Montana. During her undergraduate work at Washington Lee, which she attended on a full scholarship, she began her research on salamanders — work that earned her a first author publication before graduation. She spent a year researching in Brazil and was awarded a prestigious PhD candidacy at the University of Montana, a placement that allowed her to continue her education debt-free. However, a debilitating migraine condition forced her to pivot from the PhD candidacy to the master’s program. It also resulted in significant debt.

“Because of my medical condition, it took me longer to graduate, and I had a lot of medical bills. I would max out on my out-of-pocket every year seeking treatment. Between neurology, I was in a chronic pain program, physical therapy. That combined with the cut in income from switching from my PhD to master’s, I signed up for SNAP. I don’t remember when I started going to the food bank. And I took out student loans.” During school, Bayer’s SNAP access was not time-restrained because she was working as a teaching assistant. Upon graduation in December 2018, she was designated as an ABAWD (able-bodied adult without dependents), and the clock started ticking.

ABAWDs can only access SNAP for three months in a thirty-six month period, unless they can document 20.5 hours of work per week. Bayer, who has part-time employment as a tutor, works 14 hours per week, in addition to searching for employment in her field and working to publish her graduate research. She is in her fourth month on SNAP and is only able to continue receiving basic food assistance as a participant in a job seeker’s program through Missoula Job Services.

“I have to document 20.5 hours of qualifying activities per week. Because it’s not 20 hours per week, my job tutoring doesn’t count.” Bayer must document job-seeking activities and visit Job Services weekly to meet with her assigned jobs consultant.

“It is hard. It’s hard to spend time on my research papers, getting them out there, and working my job 14 hours per week, and applying to jobs, and trying to get additional tutoring jobs to make ends meet in the meantime so I can perhaps wait a little bit longer for a career position.”

It’s just meanness. It’s mean spirited.

“It’s just meanness. It’s mean spirited.” Sixty miles to the south in Victor, Montana, Barbara Willing is struggling to survive. At 64 years old, she says she will never be able to retire. “My story is one of someone who would have been okay, if not for the recession. I lost everything. It wiped me out.”

With decades of experience on her résumé ranging from office management and secretarial work to manufacturing, technical editing, and linguistics, Willing, who has her master’s degree in English, felt this time of hardship would be temporary. “But at my age, no one will hire you. Not for a job that earns a real wage.”

Living in a rural community away from many services makes things more challenging. “Driving to appointments, having to prove I need these programs. I don’t have the money for transportation, but there’s no way I could afford the rent in Missoula. I have to live out here.”

Willing has been on SNAP since October 2018. She describes the application process as demanding, but not impossible. She waited to apply for assistance until she was truly desperate, with zero dollars to her name and in danger of losing her housing.

“I don’t know how they expect people to make it. I know that as part of this waiver I’m on I can work for free, volunteering somewhere. But I don’t have the money to buy the gas!”

Barriers to employment differ widely from circumstance to circumstance. For Bayer, Willing, and the 755,000 people across the country in similar positions, access to basic needs like food makes the pursuit of career or gainful employment livable. After allowing hundreds of thousands of Americans to go without paychecks during the government shutdown, this administration’s proposed rule is another example of tone-deaf policies that do not reflect the realities of America’s working class.

“The charitable food system is not prepared — is not capable — of picking up the need that this rule change would create. The shutdown was heinous, but it was temporary. This would be disastrous,” says Hess.

For people like Willing, “This rule change, it leaves me out in the cold.”

Editor’s note: To leave a comment on the proposed regulation to limit states’ ability to waive work requirements, visit