By MAGGY LEHMICKE

Nebraska News Service

LINCOLN — Several Nebraskans described for a legislative committee Thursday the struggles of those living just above the poverty line.

Aleisha Perkins, a 25-year-old single mother, said between childcare, clothing, gas and other necessary expenses, she was at least $185 over budget every month.

"I really struggled to make ends meet," she said. "I could barely afford enough food for my son and I, so typically, I just wouldn't eat."

After nearly being evicted, she applied for the Department of Health and Human Service's Economic Assistance Program, only to be denied because she made too much money.

After realizing there was no way she could make ends meet, Perkins decided to cut her hours and reapply. This time, she qualified for childcare, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and emergency assistance.

"The reality of the situation is I shouldn't have to cut my hours to be on welfare," she said.

After cutting her hours, Perkins said she struggled to pay for expenses the state doesn't assist with, such as car payments and phone bills.

"I don't want to work less so that I can be assisted by the state," Perkins said. "That type of design will only make it more difficult for me to get back on my feet without welfare."

Andrea Wilson, a single mother and full-time college student working an additional 40 hours a week, recently experienced a 75 percent cut in assistance.

Because of a three-dollar pay increase, putting her at $12 an hour, Wilson no longer qualifies for SNAP. She said she now pays an extra $300 each month in expenses.

Wilson said she's unable to cut her work hours without potentially losing her job. However, she said the extra $120 she's earning each month is preventing her from getting necessary childcare, food and medical benefits.

Sen. Mark Kolterman of Seward, a member of the Health and Human Services Committee, said there's no reason people trying to get out of poverty should have to turn down work.

Just because people are above the poverty line doesn't mean they're doing OK, he said.

Wilson said her son's recent diagnosis of low growth hormone might lead to a series of expensive treatments that she can't afford. Without any help, she said, her only choice is to take time off of school and risk losing her scholarship.

James Goddard, the director of the economic justice and health care programs at Nebraska Appleseed, said Wilson's situation isn't unique.

"Despite hard work, many Nebraskans are struggling to make ends meet," Goddard said.

He said the "cliff effect," often the result of a raise or promotion, puts those struggling financially just over the eligibility limit for most programs.

"They end up taking one step forward and two steps back," Goddard said.

Aubrey Mancuso, the economic policy and research coordinator at Voices for Children in Nebraska, said 46 percent of those in their programs have reported experiencing the cliff effect.

"Families in this situation often resort to coping strategies to ensure that they can meet their monthly expenses," she said.

Mancuso said the most common is cutting back on hours at work.

She said these families are behaving logically, based on the way the programs are designed.

"We need to make sure these programs are structured in a way that support families as they work to improve their financial security," she said. "All children should have their basic needs met."

Kolterman said the goal is to find a way to help without creating roadblocks.

"I think we need to be that safety net," he said. "We need to coordinate all of our programs and align them so that we don't have this problem."

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