Check's in the Mail 

Stimulus checks could hurt those in need

The promise of a little extra money is a welcome offer for most, especially when budgets are already stretched. But what if that money means losing your child care, your medical care or your ability to feed your family?

It's the prospect some Idahoans are facing when they receive their government-issued economic stimulus checks.

While the $600 to $1,200 tax rebates might not seem like a make-or-break payoff, they could push some on the edge of income limits out of public assistance programs. Among the services in question are the Idaho Child Care Program, Medicaid, food stamps, and mental health and substance abuse programs.

"It could affect those right on the line," said Emily Simnitt, public information officer at the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. "It could push them out of eligibility."

But there is a way around the income limitations: Just get out there and spend those stimulus checks quickly. The federal government wants consumers to spend to boost a sagging economy. So, as long as stimulus checks are spent within three months, they won't be counted as an asset.

Some advocates say the three-month spending deadline is sending poor people seriously mixed messages.

"It's bad to be poor and it's bad to save," said Dalynn Kuster, program manager at El-Ada Community Action Partnership, a nonprofit group that helps provide a safety net for families in Ada and Elmore counties.

Mary Chant, executive director of the Community Action Partnership Association of Idaho, said it's just another example of the problems that arise with things like tax refunds and credits­—one-time funds that people can't count on for daily bills.

"What [counting them as assets] does is discourage people from saving," she said. "If they save, they might lose their Medicaid. The stereotype is people get money and go and buy a big screen TV. But if you're punished for saving, why not?"

Kuster said she won't count the stimulus checks against any of her clients since it goes against her agency's mandate of ending poverty.

"You're not going to get out of poverty unless you create assets, and a key part of that is savings," she said.

But Simnitt points out that the programs in question aren't designed to be long-term. "They are designed to help people in crisis," she said.

Hundreds of thousands of Idahoans utilize these programs.

But not every government program takes the stimulus check bump into account. Those programs not affected include the Women, Infants and Children program, the Emergency Food Assistance Program and other women's and children's health-care programs.

According to Simnitt, no one has yet been affected by the extra money from the stimulus checks since the first batch was sent out less than three months ago.

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