January 11, 2014

Profile: Living With Gaps in the Safety Net

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Russell Perry of Turley relaxes with his family: wife Tamara (right), daughter Danielle Jampetro (center) and granddaughters Shirley and Lily Rose.

Provided by Russell Perry.

Russell Perry of Turley relaxes with his family: wife Tamara (right), daughter Danielle Jampetro (center) and granddaughters Shirley and Lily Rose.\

The public safety net for people in poverty is far more generous than it was five decades ago. But it contains some big holes, particularly in Oklahoma.

Russell Perry of Turley can attest to that.

Perry, 52, qualified for Social Security disability income two years ago because he has severe hypertension, kidney disease and an aortic aneurism. Because of his disability, he also qualifies for health coverage through Medicare.

Perry receives about $18,000 a year in disability payments for himself, plus about $3,000 earmarked for his 17-year-old daughter Sarah, who is finishing high school.

On that $21,000, Perry is supporting a household of six. His wife Tamara, 49, has been unemploye for about three years. She’s been unable to find a job, and her unemployment benefits have run out. She’s attending school to become an accountant.

Another daughter, Danielle, 24, is staying with the Perrys, along with her two daughters, ages 5 and 3. Danielle, who’s unemployed, is planning to get a nursing assistant certification after she has her third child, due in the spring.

All six people are staying in a trailer that Perry and his wife acquired through a rent-to-buy arrangement. The federal poverty level for a family of six is $31,590.

Because of the way the rules are written, though, the family doesn’t qualify for food stamps, and Tamara and Danielle don’t qualify for SoonerCare, Oklahoma’s Medicaid program. Gov. Mary Fallin rejected an Obama administration proposal that would have expanded Medicaid to include them. For now, they will remain uninsured.

Perry said he’s grateful for the income he receives from Social Security, but wishes the government would do more to help poor people receive medical care and find jobs.

He said he went on unemployment at several points during his career, most of which was in restaurant management. In the late 1990s, he said, the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission quickly helped him arrange interviews with prospective employers. He was back at work within a few weeks.

But when his last job ended about four years ago, the agency seemed far less interested in trying to help him do anything other than collect his benefits. He said his wife had a similar experience during her latest bout with unemployment.

“From what I saw, they went from trying to help you find a job to helping you get the money,” Perry said. “Then, when the benefits run out, it’s like they wipe their hands and say, ‘There’s nothing we can do to help you.’

“We weren’t looking for government handouts. We just wanted to go back to work. But it takes more effort to assist somebody in finding a job than it does to just take your application and cut you a check.”

Warren Vieth can be reached at wvieth@oklahomawatch.org