The Story of Rebecka and Jourie

The piece detailing “EBT day” in Woonsocket in the Washington Post this Sunday was sad and frustrating all at once. That’s what made it a good piece. It showed how Woonsocket has come to rely on 12 days a year for its economic health: the first day of each month when SNAP EBT cards are “re-stocked” with money. It focused on a store owner who organized his business around the beginning of each month. It also focused on a young couple who relied on SNAP. This is part of the sad:

Rebecka and Jourie Ortiz usually ran out of milk first, after about three weeks. Next went juice, fresh produce, cereal, meat and eggs. By the 27th or 28th, Rebecka, 21, was often making a dish she referred to in front of the kids as “rice-a-roni,” even though she and Jourie called it “rice-a-whatever.” It was boiled noodles with canned vegetables and beans. “Enough salt and hot sauce can make anything good,” she said.
Late on Feb. 28, Rebecka came home to their two-bedroom apartment to make a snack for her daughters, ages 1 and 3. The kitchen was the biggest room in their apartment, with a stove that doubled as a heater and a floral wall hanging bought at the dollar store that read: “All things are possible if you believe!” She opened the refrigerator. Its top shelf had been duct-taped and its cracked bottom shelf had been covered with a towel. Only a few jars of jelly, iced tea, rotten vegetables and some string cheese remained in between.

Quickly followed by the frustrating:

For the past three years, the Ortizes’ lives had unfolded in a series of exhausting, fractional decisions. Was it better to eat the string cheese now or to save it? To buy milk for $3.80 nearby or for $3.10 across town? Was it better to pay down the $600 they owed the landlord, or the $110 they owed for their cellphones, or the $75 they owed the tattoo parlor, or the $840 they owed the electric company?
They had been living together since Rebecka became pregnant during their senior year of high school…

They made some of the all too typical mistakes: teen pregnancy, move in together, have another child on their already low income and all exacerbated by a recession where the low-skilled are first and worst hit. Their economic ignorance and inability to prioritize is displayed by their $110 cell phone bill and tatoo parlor debt. That won’t help earn them much sympathy.
Yet, while they don’t seem to really “get it”–and I don’t want to give them a pass–society and the system certainly enable their naivete and ignorance. In today’s world, having a cell phone is simply a given–well nigh a “right” in the eyes of many–and spending money on tatoo’s is another norm, like getting your ears pierced used to be. That’s what you spend your cash, your “extra” money, on. Food comes from SNAP.
However, despite these misplaced, even learned, priorities, it is also evident that they aren’t satisfied with their current life. They seem to innately know that it needs to get better and they are trying to work and do the right thing. But it looks like they need direction.
The article doesn’t mention if either is enrolled in the SNAP Employment & Training program like that offered at Family Resources Community Action in Woonsocket, which also offers financial literacy courses. (The center also offers direction in “Income Supports – Connections to public benefits and other financial support”. My cynical side suspects this is probably a bit more popular than the get back to work programs). More troubling to me is that the article also doesn’t mention if either have family support. Or if they are taking it. Or if the family of either are any better off in their economic literacy, for example. In short, are Rebecka and Jourie following the same path as their parents? We don’t know and that is a bit of context that seems relevant.
Regardless of how they got to where they are now, the couple seems to be at a tipping point. They can either resign themselves to treading water, captured in the government “safety net” or they can try to swim to the real safety of self-suffiency by using the programs available to them. Let’s hope for their sake and for their kids that they learn to swim.

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RIguy
RIguy
8 years ago

Marc, this is a thoughtful take on a bleak situation for both this couple and so many others trapped in poverty. I’d suggest a few things (if our government was truly interested in affecting change with our dollars that they hand out, as opposed to creating a dependent class).
1) Make this WaPo story required reading for every high school student either in danger of dropping out or not performing up to capacity.
2) Restrict SNAP spending one whole foods only – no prepared foods and no individually packaged shacks. The WIC program restricts purchases to certain items of most benefit to a pregnant mother and child. Why not SNAP? Could it be that Big Food loves the federal gravy train too? I was in a Providence Walgreens the other day and their junk food aisles was festooned with “Eligible for SNAP” signs.
For the sake of the program recipients, their children, and the taxpayer, restricting SNAP purchases to “real food” would be tremendous.

Justin Katz
Justin Katz(@justin)
8 years ago

Whatever the foot items might be, what the taxpayer is ultimately funding are the cell phones and tattoos.

Mike678
Mike678
8 years ago

It’s a positive feedback loop–laziness and ignorance beget more laziness and ignorance–and the remaining workers get to pay the bill. Sad that so many seem comfortable living off of others peoples money–and demanding more and more.
This is what the RI Dems evidently desire since there is no effort to either acknowledge the problem or correct it–heck–we encourage it! It keeps them in office, after all…at least until the gravy train goes bankrupt.

Dan
Dan
8 years ago

No education
Teenage parents with two kids
Sleeve tattoos
Overweight
Dogs
Out-of-control kids destroying store items
Individual juice boxes – expensive AND unhealthy
Excuse me while my heart bleeds over these two. I’m older than this couple, I make several times what they do, and I don’t have kids or a dog yet because it would be financially irresponsible at this time in my life.
The RIFuture crowd is blaming the situation of this couple on the decline of factories… so it’s just a random accident the people in this story are stuck where they are. Personal responsibility is truly a foreign concept to some people.

RIguy
RIguy
8 years ago

There is a lot to blame here, first and foremost with the couple. But we’re talking one-third of the entire city of Woonsocket dependent on SNAP. Did they all make bad education, career, and family choices?
I can blame the nanny state just as easily as I can blame the big corporations that shipped jobs to cheap labor countries. And our politicians that implemented the laws that got us here.

Dan
Dan
8 years ago

RIGuy – As someone said a long time ago, the poor will be with you always. There will always be Ortizes in this life making stupid decisions and looking for quick fixes. The difference is whether Rhode Island, and especially places like Woonsocket, set themselves up to attract and cater to such people through dependency-oriented public policy. Rhode Island seems perfectly content with attracting more Ortizes. To make room for them, it must kick out its talented young people and middle class families who take responsibility for themselves instead of holding their hands out. Contrary to what progressives will tell you, there are no accidents – Rhode Island has chosen its path.

mangeek
mangeek
8 years ago

I just wanted to note on the ‘cell phone’ front…
Home internet and home phone lines are pretty expensive compared to pre-paid phones. While a smartphone was once a ‘luxury item’, it’s often the least expensive option with the best value compared to a $600 computer and a $60/month internet connection.
My sister is on disability, her phone is really the only way she has any hope of communicating with the world. A land-line wouldn’t really work since she has to move quite frequently and keep tabs on her teenage daughter.
I’m starting to think that as you get more and more ‘dependent’, the system should take more and more freedom from you… Limiting the kinds of food people can buy with SNAP is a good start. Installing ‘smart thermostats’ that only go up to 64F for folks who are on energy assistance or in-arrears would pay for itself in a month or two.

Dan
Dan
8 years ago

Mangeek – As a small-government libertarian, I often surprise people when they find out I want borderline Stasi-like monitoring of those who receive public assistance. Public assistance, in my view, should be for the express purpose of getting people off of it wherever possible. Want your food paid? Okay, we’re reviewing your food receipts. Want your heat paid? Okay, we’re checking your house temperature. House visits every month – we had better not find cable TV, 40 Xbox games, $100 worth of cigarettes, and the latest $600 iPhone, or your benefits are being reduced accordingly. Receiving unemployment benefits? Prove to us you are looking for a job 4 hours a day. It should be VERY uncomfortable, annoying, and embarrassing to be living on welfare. Not because I’m a cruel person, but because the incentives created by a faceless, shame-less, essentially unmonitored system that automatically transfers funds to a card each month inevitably lead to the dependency disaster we have today. Don’t even get me started on the SSDI fraud-fest – that whole system needs to be overhauled with multi-doctor review panels and percentage-based functionality scaling of benefits.

mangeek
mangeek
8 years ago

The other silly thing is how much ‘work’ there really is to do in this world, vs. how many jobs there are.
My sister is on disability. She’s never going to be able to hold a ‘job’. She could definitely do 20 hours a week of work if she was furnished a laptop and fed things to transcribe/digitize. Unfortunately, ‘the system’ seems to be boolean: You’re either ‘able’ or ‘unable’ to work, there’s no ‘able to work X hours a week in a non-social environment, highly proficient in reading/writing’

Dan
Dan
8 years ago

Econtalk had a good podcast on SSDI (welfare on steroids) that explains why the number of recipients has more than doubled in both real and percentage terms since 2000:
http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2012/04/autor_on_disabi.html
Most of the people now on SSDI are not what we would normally consider disabled – anxiety, “musculoskeletal” disorders, etc. Basically anything that can’t be seen through a microscope or otherwise verified. My good friend is a prosecutor – virtually every defendant is “disabled.” We can reasonably expect to see Mr. and Mrs. Ortiz on SSDI sometime in the near future. If they’re denied the first time, a veritable cottage industry of medical and legal professionals has cropped up to help them push their application through. Unless major changes are made, that whole system is going to come crashing down hard.

Tommy Cranston
Tommy Cranston
8 years ago

Posted by Dan at March 18, 2013 1:21 PM
Very good posts by you on this thread.
Even Smarmy Sammy the sycophant scumbag has been shamed from posting his usual non-sequiters.

ANTHONY
ANTHONY
8 years ago

“or the $75 they owed the tattoo parlor”
It’s only fair that we should start subsidizing tattos and body piercings also. After all it’s a persons right to decorate themselves.
The nanny govt’ does a great job of spreading the poverty. RI is the laboratory of failed big govt. Incrementally Woonsocket is headed for the Blackstone.
However RI does lead the US of A in something:
http://www.rgj.com/viewart/20130315/BIZ03/303150033/

Warrington Faust
Warrington Faust
8 years ago

All of the “facts” in the article mentioned are well known, and have been for some time. I can recall Clinton people dismissing them as mere “anecdotal evidence”. Does anyone else recall “Don’t end it, mend it”?
The sad fact is that no one really cares. To give them the benefit of the doubt, government types expect inefficiency. If they are able to help 85%, they simply accept the remaining 15% of fraud as unavoidable. To deny them the doubt, they are buying off the thugs in the inner cities (I wonder if Dan’s friend would see fewer defendants on disability, or more defendants) and buying a lot of votes.
While we may have become inured to the situation, there is always hope. Reagan did well with his criticism of “welfare queens” and he was supported by the “hard hats”. Let us not forget that the working people who live amongst the fraudsters are more disturbed that we. Many of us may have relatives receiving legitimate assistance. Few of us are struggling at a lousy job to support a family, while watching an apparently able bodied neighbor who receives disability, and many other forms of assistance, for a bi-polar disorder. In terms of “supporting a family”, who is making the poor choice?
The question to my mind is how can the government parse? No one will deny that there many people who require disability. Unfortunately “judgment calls” are perhaps not appropriate. The governmental response is to issue new regulations. That will only open more doors. We must accept the truth known to our forefathers, that we have founded a government only suitable for a moral nation.

Dan
Dan
8 years ago

“No one will deny that there many people who require disability”
I suppose that depends on what you mean by “many.” In 2013, if you can use a computer, you can work.

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