Family finds America's safety net has big holes

This Just In...

November 15, 1999|By DAN RODRICKS

SHARON YOUNGER has a question about the frozen turkey. It sits, white and pink, on its back in a roasting pan on the kitchen counter of the Younger house in a middle-class development in Stevensville, Queen Anne's County, on the Eastern Shore. Before its present state, the turkey had been wrapped and stored in a freezer for several months. It came from an emergency food pantry. Younger wants to know if I think the turkey is still good. I suggest she give it the smell test.

"I did that already," she says. "I guess I'll just roast it and see what happens."

Most of us would do the same, especially if we found ourselves in Sharon Younger's position -- disabled husband out of work, three kids to feed on $100 a month in food stamps. There's income -- about $1,700 a month in disability insurance, but that covers the mortgage and a bill-consolidation loan. "It keeps a roof over our heads," says Younger's husband, Michael. "But there's nothing left after that."

Under those conditions, you must do what you can to survive as a family. If someone suggests you visit a certain food pantry, you go there and gladly take what you can get -- a frozen turkey, whatever. You throw yourself into America's vaunted social safety net.

But, as Sharon and Michael Younger have discovered, that safety net is vastly overrated.

They learned the hard way.

Six months ago, Michael Younger, 40, a self-employed home improvement contractor, was on the job. He was fixing second-story windows on a house in Stevensville. He stepped onto a scaffolding plank. The plank cracked. Younger fell. He landed on a concrete driveway. He landed on his back.

He fractured a bone in his spine, his right wrist, left ankle and foot. A state police MedEvac helicopter took him to Baltimore. Surgery at Maryland Shock Trauma Center lasted 11 hours. Younger spent 11 days at University of Maryland Medical Center, another nine at Kernan Hospital. He spent five months in a full body brace. Sharon bathed him, fed him, dressed him, brushed his teeth. His doctor said that, with physical rehabilitation, Younger could expect to get 60 percent of his strength and mobility back. His doctor predicted that his recovery could take from 10 months to two years.

Unable to work, and with $80,000 in business debt, Michael Younger filed for bankruptcy and lost his company. His six employees lost their jobs.

Younger's disability insurance kicked in two months after the accident, giving him enough money to make mortgage and loan payments. But because Younger gets that $1,720 check from his insurance carrier -- and because he still has his house -- his family is eligible for little other aid from the governments to which he's been paying taxes for 24 years.

He's not eligible for welfare.

"The Family Investment Program follows federal, state and local policies that do not always meet the needs of families and/or individuals," said a letter from the Queen Anne's County Department of Social Services.

The Youngers pleaded for a larger food stamp grant. One hundred dollars a month doesn't go far for a family of five.

"Food stamps are calculated based on income and expenses and are intended to supplement the family's food expenditure, not provide the complete food allowance," the letter said.

The Youngers could no longer afford health insurance. The cancellation noticed arrived last month. Could the county help there? Yes -- with medical assistance for the children, but not the parents. The man who needs physical therapy doesn't have an insurance policy to pay for it, and it costs up to $880 a month.

What about the federal government? Could the Social Security Administration grant Michael Younger supplemental income, maybe until he gets back on his feet?

The Youngers asked the SSA for help in May.

The SSA took four months to answer. Here's what the rejection letter said:

"You said you were unable to work because of a broken back, a fractured foot and a fractured hand. Although you sustained multiple fractures to your back, hand and foot, these conditions are expected to improve within twelve months. The medical evidence ... shows that you are healing satisfactorily. You will be able to walk, stand and move about without help and you will be able to use your arms and hands for basic grasping and handling. The medical evidence does not show any other disabling condition. ... While your condition is severe at this time, it is not expected to last for 12 continuous months from the date it began, as required by law. Therefore, disability is not established."

Is this what they call welfare reform? Or is this compassionate conservatism?

Notice the confidence with which the SSA staffer, who never looked at Younger or spoke to him, predicts improvement in his condition.

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