One man's story of struggling, surviving on SNAP

Thad Smith manages 26 hives in the backyard of a repurposed home on West Flournoy Street in Chicago's West Side. Every day, he opens the hives up to check on the thousand or so bees. “This hive is always a little hostile,” the 47-year-old said while carefully lifting the lid off one wooden box. “You always want to open from the back of the hive, because coming from the front makes them defensive,” he explained.

At Sweet Beginnings, a subsidiary of the North Lawndale Employment Network, a West Side nonprofit, Smith and other ex-offenders produce honey, and honey-based beauty products, courtesy of the backyard bees. The products, made onsite—such as body butter and lip balm--aren’t the sort that you would imagine the men who make them to be using.

Sweet Beginnings is designed to give work experience to those with a criminal record who find it hard to enter the job market. They gain connections to organizations willing to take on ex-offenders, as well as job references for skeptical employers. “Not in my wildest dreams could I think I’d be working with bees. I’ve had a good couple of months, I really have,” said Smith who was jailed on two fraud counts in 2011.

But Sweet Beginnings is not supposed to be a permanent employment base. In eight-week sessions it assists men transitioning back into the workforce. Eventually, Smith should transition into a business with promotion opportunities.

Since his release from prison, Smith is still making the minimum wage of $8.25 per hour.  He relies on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly referred to as food stamps, to get by. He gets a $200 food allowance each month.

More than 2 million Illinois SNAP recipients will see a drop in their food stamp benefits when a temporary boost of funding, from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, expires in November. And, this week, Congress will start debating whether to cut nearly $40 million more from the entitlement program by limiting benefits to adults with children. Single men like Smith could be cut off in the process.

Under the current regulations, Smith can continue to receive SNAP allowance until he makes more than $1,862 a month, according to the Illinois Department of Human Services. But for now, he seems content working with bees, though the $5 a day he gets as his SNAP allowance doesn’t go that far.

Grabbing lunch from his regular mini-mart, Smith charges frozen burger sliders, chips and a soda to his Link card--totaling $10. “There’s no way you can make the card last a whole month like that,” he said. “Just like jail, some days you eat, some days you don’t.”

SNAP recipients are given a Link card to use specifically on food, groceries, and seeds and plants for growing food at home. Link cards cannot be used to purchase pre-prepared food or any non-food items.

That’s the idea, at least.

Smith explained how things are usually done. Some stores accepting Link cards will let you charge other items on it, which can be helpful when someone on SNAP is running low on regular funds.

Other stores will charge you an extra few dollars for using the Link card at all; something Smith is accustomed to by now. Because the government reimburses SNAP-supporting businesses at the end of the month, not immediately, Smith reasoned “they’re doing you a favor by letting you use the card at all.” He doesn’t seem particularly bothered by the set up.

Smith has had a Link card for so long he can’t remember not having one. But it’s not always easy, “you have to have a good hustle to get by on that card,” he said. For him, that means expecting a hidden charge for using it, while hoping that a retailer will bend the rules for you. “The card helps you in one way, it hinders you in another.”

--Multimedia by Sophia Nahli Allison

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