When a Job's Not Enough to Get You Off Food Stamps

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Lupe Beltran waits for customers on a slow day at work. It's always like this at the end of the month, she says, because most of her customers pay with food stamps. In Fresno County a quarter of residents get food assistance.  (Vanessa Rancano/KQED)

Five years ago, Guadalupe Beltran had just had her second child. She was a single mom in her early 20s, hadn’t finished high school and was on welfare. One day she walked into a deli and pizza place and bought some subs with her food stamps. On a whim she asked the cashier if they were hiring. Just like that, she had a job.

Today, as she rolls out pizza dough at the same Fresno deli, Guadalupe -- she goes by Lupe -- says she feels trapped here.

“I want to do better,” she says. “What I feel like is holding me back is that high school diploma, to get a career, not just a job."

Lupe never really liked school. “I just was on the wrong path as a high school student, getting into trouble, hung around the wrong people,” she says. So she dropped out.

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Now, Lupe makes $11 an hour. She's not on welfare anymore, but she still depends on food stamps to get by. These days her story is common: More and more people on food stamps have jobs.

"I've been here so long I can make a pizza in 30 seconds," Beltran says. "I just kinda got stuck." She's hoping to trade her apron for a nurse's uniform.
"I've been here so long I can make a pizza in 30 seconds," Beltran says. "I just kinda got stuck." She's hoping to trade her apron for a nurse's uniform. (Vanessa Rancano/KQED)

Ever since spending on food stamps went up during the recession -- when the number of people using the program spiked -- some lawmakers have been pushing for cutbacks. Two years ago, the House tried to cut $40 billion from the program.

One part of the compromise lawmakers came up with was to put the USDA in charge of testing new programs that get people working or get them higher-paying jobs.

That’s something Lupe has wanted for years. She’d dreamed of becoming a nurse, but it seemed impossible. Then, out of nowhere a couple of months ago, she got a call offering her free help studying for the GED and getting started on the path to nursing. The call came from a caseworker with Fresno Bridge Academy, one of just 10 education and training programs across the country that got the special USDA funding to reach out to people on food stamps.

Lupe with her kids Louis, 6, and Kaylee, 8.
Lupe Beltran with her two children, Louis and Kaylee. (Guadalupe Beltran)

Lupe will spend a year and a half working closely with the case manager. She’ll get help preparing for the GED, and once she passes, the program will help her get training to become a certified nursing assistant. Fresno Bridge Academy will help her apply for financial aid, and pay for her textbooks and uniforms.

So far, the program has been successful. After a year and a half, 80 percent of students either find jobs or get higher-paying jobs. Thirty percent get off public assistance completely. If that holds true over the course of the USDA study, this little Fresno experiment could help shape the future of food stamps.

Lupe knows firsthand what’s at stake. After 15 years working the same low-wage job, her mother got fired.

"They let her go just like that,” Lupe says. “She didn’t have a high school diploma, and there she was stuck.” Lupe says that opened her eyes. “I was like I need to get this diploma. I need to get this out of the way, it’s like a big ol’ stone that’s right there. I need to move it."

At least now, she says, she’s got some help.