Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Gap

Natasha Vos

There have been a lot of conversations this year about the financial model that AmeriCorps VISTA uses to pay its members. Currently, the stipend for the year is set at 105% of the poverty line of the county that the member is serving in. For me, that means I can expect to receive around $11,400 for the year, or $442 every two weeks. The logic behind this is that we can have (in at least a small way) a shared experience with those living in the communities we serve. We intensively plan out budgets, enroll in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), seek out public transportation, and look for cheap housing. If anything, my experience has informed me that those living in poverty are actually the best at using financial resources, because they have so little to work with in many cases. I recognize the limitations of this model in its inability to account for factors such as family size and support, transportation, personal, physical and emotional health, education, etc. which is why I say a shared experience, 'in at least a small way'. Many AmeriCorps members elect to go through application processes for benefit programs such as SNAP, and recently the Healthcare Marketplace.

This year I turned 26. The only birthday milestone that you do not look forward to because you officially get the boot from your parents’ health care plan. As an AmeriCorps member in North Carolina, I fall in this health care limbo referred to as “the gap.” Try to follow me here because it gets a little complicated. I exist in an income level with my stipend that is too low to qualify for monthly federal tax credits to help me pay for the most basic health care plan. However, because North Carolina as a state did not expand Medicaid, this same income level (105% of the poverty line in Forsyth County), was too high to qualify me for Medicaid. The consolation prize? An exemption that would prevent me from being penalized on my taxes for not having health care.

Fortunately, being a second term AmeriCorps member I had earned my educational award of $5645 to be used towards my existing student loans. Because the education award is a taxable source of income, using it entirely this year, bumps me up into the next income bracket, qualifying me for tax credits and an affordable health care plan. Fantastic right? Here’s the drawback: the education award is a taxable source of income that taxes have not been taken out of, so I will end up owing several hundred dollars for using it all this year in addition to state taxes I will owe, because they are not taken out of our weekly paychecks. Many AmeriCorps members choose to use their education awards slowly over time to pay a minimum in taxes on them. I had to essentially do a cost benefit analysis. Not having health care was not an option. Purchasing my own plan would have cost me $200 per month, but using my education award would result in $300-400 in taxes once. Easy choice, but I’m still forking over a couple hundred dollars, which for someone making $11,400 a year, is challenging.

AmeriCorps offers its members a $6600 allowance per year to be used on approved health care costs, but you have to a have plan first. This is not a critique of AmeriCorps or its policies. This is using myself as a personal example to demonstrate challenges that low income individuals face to providing basic care for themselves and their families. I had the luxury of choosing to use my education award to ensure that I make enough to qualify for tax credits and an affordable health care plan. There are millions of families and individuals that do not have this luxury. The Affordable Care Act has provided healthcare to millions in this country for the first time. It has withstood many challenges to its constitutionality, and that should be (and has been) celebrated. But cracks have appeared that allowed states to choose whether to expand Medicaid and in over half of the states, that choice was no. However you feel about state’s rights, the fact is that because of North Carolina’s decision not to expand Medicaid millions of individuals and families still do not have health care. Progress is never content and we need to continue to find these gaps and close them.