ST. PETERSBURG – A small group of concerned citizens gathered at Childs Park YMCA, located at 691 43rd St. S., last Tuesday to speak about how the national budget has affected the benefits and services they receive through the state to help put food on the table, or pay for medical expenses.
Ward Cox is one man trying to make a difference. For the past two years he has been orchestrating meetings all over the Tampa Bay area trying to get the word out on the silent suffering that so many Americans live through day-to-day.
The small crowd didn’t deter him though; his goal is to hear as many community stories from real people as he can. “Your stories make the difference,” he said.
Cox views himself as successful in developing community awareness where there is a message to communicate and has been compiling human interest stories that he’s heard at each community forum to make what he calls a vulnerability outline. He then creates press releases trying to get the word out to the local media outlets in an effort to show the silent sufferers of budget cuts.
“If people of the community knew, they wouldn’t let it happen,” said Cox.
Cox runs the agency For the Family, Inc., which was established in 1998 providing over the phone mentoring for those in need. As of a year and a half ago, Cox has been conducting these community forums around Tampa Bay, where he strives to help those in need find their voices.
“I’m tired of people suffering in silence and just expected to suck it up and take it,” said Cox who is focusing on families affected with the cuts in various services such as food stamps, Medicare/Medicaid, and subsidies to childcare services. Fed up with the continuous cuts, he urges families to speak up and be heard. “I pretty much reached that point where you say enough is enough.”
Last Tuesday’s town hall meeting marked the 26th meeting since April of last year. Cox spent some time going around the room while those in attendance introduced themselves. He opened up the discussion quoting statistics, focusing on the 43 million dollars in food stamps that he said was cut from the federal budget just a few years ago.
He’s also referred to the approved eight billion dollar cut that passed just this year. Of course the full eight billion cut won’t be felt all at once, as available funds are scheduled to be reduced over the next 10 years, but Cox wants those affected now to tell their stories because he is sure deeper cuts are in store down the road.
When asked who in the room had seen changes in their food stamp amount, one woman, Mrs. Sparrow, said she was receiving over $200 a month just a year ago, but now only gets six dollars.
“Our diet isn’t nearly as nutritious, and there’s not as much variety. With so many other bills to take care of, you don’t have a choice but to make ends meet,” she said
Though her circumstance had many twists and turns, her husband was recently killed in an auto accident and so his social security was added to her income, as well as her decision to reduce her hours of work because of medical issues, Sparrow feels she was misled as to what services would be taken away from her and her son.
“I kept getting sick because I was working too many hours,” said Sparrow who reduced her workweek to just 16 hours. However with fewer hours at work, she lost her childcare subsidy, which requires 20 hours of work per week, and is now paying out of pocket for before school care. Although she has picked up more hours to compensate, Sparrow now finds herself on a yearlong waiting list for her childcare funds to be reestablished. “They didn’t tell me,” she said.
Cox discussed a recent article he came across that showed according to a United Way study, some 46 percent of residents in Hillsborough and Pinellas County aren’t making enough each month to meet the cost of living. A statistic that he feels is being dismissed by the local media and swept under the rug. Cox feels that if more residents start speaking up about their daily struggles just to make ends meet, that change will follow.
“What we’re trying to do is to get people to realize that we’re all in it together,” Cox said.
Tamekia, a 31-year- old woman with six children aged three to 17 has witnessed a slight decrease in her food stamp allotment. Although she receives $721 a month to feed her and her children, this is about $100 less each month than she previously was awarded.
She also discussed the changes she has seen in the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program over the years. All her children received the food supplement consisting of eggs, cheese, milk and cereal until they were five years of age. Tamekia shared that although some improvements have been added, like fruits and vegetables now being part of the service, she’s noticed some brands of foods are no longer covered by WIC.
“It’s certain brands, certain stuff,” she said. “You just can’t pick up anything anytime.”
Others at the meeting, such as Volanta, have been faced with the same hurdles as Tamekia. She is a young mother of three kids who spends her days working as a registrar at a local hospital. Although she receives a childcare subsidy amounting to around $400 a month, she said it’s not enough to cover the cost, resulting in out of pocket expenses she just can’t afford. She receives WIC, which she admits helps a lot, but still finds herself struggling to provide for her children.
“It’s something I deal with,” she said. “You juggle it, you work around it.”
A 33-year-old St. Petersburg mother of two, who wishes to remain anonymous, has worked as a Certified Nursing Assistant for about three years, and is also studying fulltime to become an LPN. She had been receiving $380 a month in food stamps until all recipients were cut in November 2013. Even though the monthly reduction was supposed to be no more than $29, her benefits were cut by nearly eight times that amount to only $158 a month.
There was no explanation, and no opportunity to appeal. “I have to juggle my bills even more, but God has been good.” She looks forward to spending more time with her children after earning her certification in another eight months.
Cox knows it takes a lot of guts for the women present to stand up and tell their stories and hopes it will encourage others to do the same.
“There’s all kinds of heroism,” he said pointing out that enduring the day-to-day struggle just to make ends meet is a situation that puts exorbitant amounts of stress on parents, especially with the realization that you are just one bad thing away from having it all crumble to the ground.
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