When I was growing up, the youngest of four kids in my family in a middle class suburb, I was one of two or three kids in my elementary school grade who received free or reduced-price lunch. This got me to the front of the line every day at lunchtime, provided a hot lunch (or a fluffernutter if I preferred), and meant I didn’t have to carry a lunch to school. No one at school made me feel badly about receiving this benefit; on the contrary, it made me feel special – in a good way!
I had no idea my parents were embarrassed by this.
Later, once I was an adult working in the social services field, my mom told me how it had made her feel to accept this assistance. Although it upset her, she accepted it because it provided her children with daily nutrition. I asked her if we ever had food stamps, and she said no. “The people in the social services office were awful. They made me take out my wallet and count how much money I had in it. They criticized me for not working outside the home when I had four small children. They wanted all of our information and acted so rude that I never applied.”
What they wanted from my mom – in addition to an accurate count of her quarters and dimes – was her dignity.
Today’s social services providers show compassion for their customers, and help them meet their needs without judgment. At Community Action Agencies (CAAs) across Connecticut – and across America – staff consider all of the needs individuals and families may have, and connect them with resources to improve their lives. They are culturally sensitive, community-minded, and passionate about making a difference in people’s lives. Community Action’s goals are to address the causes and conditions of poverty, help people out of poverty by becoming economically stable, and enable people to contribute to their communities.
As we enter our third month of the COVID-19 pandemic, this is important for all of us to understand – especially as so many of our neighbors face economic instability and uncertainty. And I encourage everyone who is struggling right now to apply for programs that might help them through these difficult times.
Here are just a few of the programs you can apply for at your local Community Action Agency. These are federally-funded programs – our taxpayer dollars – that help neighbors and families right here in Connecticut:
1) Energy assistance: need help paying for oil, or electricity, or gas? Applications are still being accepted for the Connecticut Energy Assistance Program (CEAP) through June 1.
2) Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP): There has been a lot of news coverage about food giveaways through Foodshare and CT Food Bank, which are extremely and immediately helpful. But, for long term needs, SNAP (formerly Food Stamps) provides an ongoing opportunity for people to choose their own groceries for their families. A debit card is reloaded monthly (the amount depends on family size and income) and it can be used at grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and even some direct market farms. More people are eligible than they realize!
3) Case management: The array of services and programs available to help people (typically administered by various local, state, and federal agencies) is, unfortunately, constructed in a confusing manner that can be difficult to navigate. This is where Community Action Agencies can step in. When you go to your local CAA for any reason, staff will assess all of your needs – housing, food, education, transportation, health care, and more – helping you navigate the maze and obtain the assistance you need. This includes coordinating resources and working with you along the way to overcome obstacles, set goals, and move towards a better future.
We don’t know how long this crisis will last. But we do know that these programs, and more, are there to help all of us get through tough times like these and come out the other side. So, please reach out – your local Community Action Agency (find yours here) is ready and waiting.
Deb Polun is the Executive Director of the Connecticut Association for Community Action (CAFCA), the state association for Connecticut’s nine Community Action Agencies, the state and federally designated antipoverty agencies covering all 169 cities and towns. CAFCA is a proud member of the National Community Action Partnership.