Are we an honorary low-income family?
June 5, 2018 6:40 PM   Subscribe

Even though we are not low income, my family receives services from what is otherwise a low-income assistance program. Several area businesses use eligibility for that program as a proxy for eligibility for other subsidized benefits. Is it OK for us to use those other benefits?

My wife and I are licensed volunteers for a Local Community Services Agency. This volunteering quite literally takes over our lives and costs us time and money, so we are given access to services from other government agencies to help reduce our out-of-pocket expenses. Since these services are normally only given to low-income families and individuals, it turns out having an ID card for those services can get you other benefits.

  • The local bike share offers 90% off a yearly membership, subsidized by a large national philanthropic organization.
  • A large museum offers 75% off of a yearly membership, subsidized by a large retailer. I actually already signed up for this since I used to be a member and can no longer justify the expense while we're volunteering. But go figure, we're so busy that even though I work within walking distance of the museum I haven't made it in this year.
  • Another local museum offers 50% off a membership, but the conditions are worded in such a way that we don't qualify by their metric.
  • Apparently Amazon offers discounts on Prime membership.
  • Slightly different: A local community gardening organization offered 90% off of delivered compost (This is a steal) to the lowest income zip codes in the state. Our neighborhood happens to fall within one of those zip codes, but has double the average income.
I signed up for the museum since there were posters all over the agency office we receive benefits from, but now that I'm seeing other discounts I'm thinking twice about who they are really meant for. These are all programs and activities I'm interested in, but I don't know that the bike share discount was intended for families with 2 cars in great condition. On the other hand, there are a bunch of bike-to-work initiatives going on this month and I'm not participating because I don't have the mental capacity to handle logistics for my own bike due to the energy we spend volunteering.

Any thoughts or ideas on this?
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug to Grab Bag (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I qualify for similar reduced cost things. But I don't use them because I realize the companies could really use my money. I am broke though so YMMV.
posted by Kalmya at 6:44 PM on June 5

If you take advantage of the bike share, you'll use your car less, which is better for the planet and the resale value of the car. One less car on the road some of the time plus a cardio workout? I'd do that. Assuming it worked for my commute etc.
posted by vrakatar at 6:54 PM on June 5 [3 favorites]

This volunteering quite literally takes over our lives and costs us time and money, so we are given access to services from other government agencies to help reduce our out-of-pocket expenses.

If I am right in guessing that the volunteering you are doing is actually providing foster care to a vulnerable child or children in your community, then you take every dollar on offer and please use it to enrich the children's lives. Give anyone who begrudges these little children an afternoon planting flowers in their garden or visiting a history museum on Target or Amazon's dime my phone number and I will set them straight.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 6:57 PM on June 5 [56 favorites]

I'm OK with this- hypothetically, if I learned that a friend was in your situation and making use of these benefits, it would not affect my opinion of them in any way.

Accepting a discount on a membership etc. that you wouldn't pay full price for is (in many circumstances) a net positive for the entity. If I'm a museum, I'd rather have you pay me $10 for admittance than have you stay home for $45.

For other things, let conscience guide you- if you feel like availing yourself of a specific benefits is exploitative, then you can decline to partake.
posted by EKStickland at 7:02 PM on June 5 [11 favorites]

In my experience, for most moral dilemmas about which someone asks "Is it ok if..." the answer is no. You have not changed my experience.

(I've been a single mom who couldn't get assistance. I've been homeless and not been able to get assistance. I'm currently on food stamps and Medicaid. If you don't need the thing, don't use the thing; someone else certainly needs the thing.)
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess at 7:04 PM on June 5 [3 favorites]

I would probably call and ask in each case. If I were using something I wasn’t sure I was eligible for, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy it.
posted by FencingGal at 7:11 PM on June 5 [1 favorite]

In the case of the first museum membership, I would look at it this way: you aren’t taking a resource from someone else, and because you say it’s subsidized by a retailer, it sounds like the museum isn’t losing out on anything either.
posted by Night_owl at 7:19 PM on June 5 [11 favorites]

On the bike share, I would say - use it, because bike shares are still a new enough phenomenon that overall interest, and thus future investment, is gauged by membership. Stand up and be counted, for the general good.
posted by Dashy at 7:30 PM on June 5 [4 favorites]

you don't need the thing, don't use the thing; someone else certainly needs the thing.

Some programs only have a certain amount of money in them. Others have as much money as anyone that needs them. In your situation I would think twice about programs that have a limited number of things. For the record food stamps is not such a program currently, but food banks can be, even though they strive to be inclusive.

So it's a moral compass issue. For me, I wouldn't blink twice about getting Amazon Prime or anything that is subsidized so that the museum/bike share still gets paid. But again, think about the "If I get this, will someone else NOT get this?" metric. Some programs may have their own metrics (like the compost ones, possibly) where they have to demonstrate that they are serving certain demographics for whatever reasons. So if you're legitimately in an eligible zip code, you may actually be HELPING them by getting compost, not hurting them.

And, honestly, everyone needs to find a balance. Money is just one way to measure value and it's just one way to contribute to the cost of a thing. Try to assess if you think you're being fair and equitable to your larger community in addition to just being fair and equitable to your family.
posted by jessamyn at 7:35 PM on June 5 [44 favorites]

My general feeling would be "No" for local resources and "I guess, sure," for non-local resources like Amazon, but I like jessamyn's framing. If you're taking resources from needier families, it's a moral "no" from me. If you're not, it's a moral neutral to positive.
posted by lazuli at 9:40 PM on June 5 [2 favorites]

If there are needful things you are going without because of the expense involved in whatever your volunteer work is, by all means take advantage of any benefits you are eligible for that would save you money that you could then use for those things.

Except to the extent that you would be literally denying people who are worse off than you some sort of basic necessity, I feel you'd be morally in the clear. In any reasonable society you would not personally be out of pocket for expenses related to your volunteer work. Consider it alternative reimbursement, so long as you are actually eligible.

We have a big enough problem with people who qualify for assistance not taking it out of pride or fear they will be denying someone else. That's our Puritan culture at work. Be an example and accept the help.

Now, if the only thing you're missing out on are lavish vacations or a private jet, maybe don't, otherwise please take the discounts and anything else you can. You having reasonable savings helps you, your family, and your entire community, if nothing else.
posted by wierdo at 11:18 PM on June 5 [1 favorite]

I mean take the discount on Prime at least. That’s a no-brainer
posted by mr_roboto at 12:18 AM on June 6 [6 favorites]

I read your available discounts twice. In every instance except maybe the compost, and even there I can make an EXCELLENT argument, these are all subsidized by the uber wealthy (people, corporations) not paying their fair share of taxes and diverting that money to philanthropic opportunities. YES YOU SHOULD GLADLY ACCEPT THESE DISCOUNTS. YOU ARE PUTTING IN SELF EFFORT, THIS IS THE BALANCING FACTOR.


The more people who access these programs, the more money is available for the next year. That's how grants from philanthropy works. If no one used it, the money for the following year is not usually forthcoming. Further, all of these things enrich society and/or the environment- except Amazon. Jeff Bezos can afford it (see: tax incentive) so literally, there is zero reason for you to deny yourself that which you are earning in multiple ways + it will help others keep ongoing access.

Despite being professional volunteers, it's like you don't know how this crazy system works. Verify how it works if you don't believe me. Use these discounts and promote them to others. Share your experiences.

Thank you for your service to our society. I deeply appreciate your contributions and I know I am not alone.
posted by jbenben at 12:27 AM on June 6 [17 favorites]

I've been involved in the budgeting process for a large company. Those dollars have already been set aside for the benefits. So the benefits already exist, you are not taking anything away from a more needy individual. If there is a higher demand for a benefit than there is supply, either the institution will demonstrate that to their corporate benefactors and request a higher donation, or they will clamp down on who qualifies for the donation.

If those benefits don't get used the corporations will reduce (or possibly eliminate) them in subsequent years.

Use your benefits with pleasure. You have earned them. Share them with friends or others who might not otherwise get to benefit from them. Encourage your social circle to support the donors.
posted by vignettist at 8:14 AM on June 6 [2 favorites]

IMHO the only benefits you shouldn't use are those of scarcity: if, for example, you'd take a spot that could have gone to someone else.
posted by so fucking future at 8:34 AM on June 6

I agree with all of the above comments about taking advantage of programs that are subsidized by wealthy companies, not in limited supply, and will encourage expansion of said programs in the future.

Here is a situation that is maybe parallel to your compost situation. We are buying a house in a neighborhood that qualifies for a government down payment assistance program. We qualify for this program in every way - our income meets the (not particularly stringent) requirements, the house is truly within the program boundaries, etc. Do we NEED the money in order to afford the house? No (we COULD buy the house without it), but it will certainly make living there easier and allow us to invest more in sprucing up the property. We consider this a win for our neighborhood, as the purpose of the program is literally to encourage responsible home ownership and well kept properties in this neighborhood. Plus, if no one takes advantage of these funds (and few people in our area do, because of extremely low rates of home ownership), they will disappear in the future.
posted by raspberrE at 9:32 AM on June 6 [1 favorite]

I am really surprised by the comments on this one... because your question answers itself.
Also, there is a broad misunderstanding of the purposes of these programs.

Even though we are not low income, my family receives services from what is otherwise a low-income assistance program. Several area businesses use eligibility for that program as a proxy for eligibility for other subsidized benefits. Is it OK for us to use those other benefits?

Even though you are not low income... is it ok for those who qualify by loopholes to use those programs intended for low income people solely for their benefit?
I'd say no. It's not "ok," even though it's possible, legal, so technically "ok" etc.
These programs don't exist for the benefit or advantage of low income people. They exist to make services which are otherwise inaccessible to low income people, to both improve their quality of life, but also to reframe, to present to them the possibilities within and advantages of working towards getting out poverty, and so to benefit society as a whole by doing so.
In addition, when these programs are used by those who can otherwise access these resources independently, it skews the programs efficacy towards an illusion that it's of benefit to those who need is vs. want it. As in, you may in actuality be making this program less accessible to those who need It, by making it appear as though it is being acknowledged by, accesable by, and utilized by those it is actually intended for, when perhaps the program is not at all structured in a way that low income people can make use of It, as evidenced by the fact that it is being promoted for use by your coworkers, and not being fully utilized by the low income people for who it is aimed for.
Low income programs are designed to keep people at a functional survival level, but not to help them get ahead by It, or profit from it. They're regularly assessed for extra income, assets and savings. Those things are then net deducted from their support. Ie. You have 2 vehicles. Most if not all low income programs do not allow people to own more than one vehicle and not one newer than 10 years. So the bike share night be necessary for them, not a perk.
I'd say in general, I wouldn't think it's ok to take from what you don't actually need or actually qualify for, out of technically or convenience or personal benefit/profit, though there may be some exceptions to this, your case doesn't really appear to be one of them.
posted by OnefortheLast at 2:18 PM on June 6

Could it be safe to assume that you are considered to be qualified for some if these services and benefits as a way of encouraging participation in the program for which you volunteer and offsetting some of the burden of that participation? If you reached out to people administrating the services you’d be interested in taking advantage of and they gave you the green light I see no reason to give it a second thought. I agree with other posters that there are some benefits that you list that seem more obviously best left to those truly in need, while using others may provide a net positive for the organization in terms of ensuring future funding.

But obviously as a society we should encourage volunteering any way we can and as a person who pays full price for museum membership and Prime, supports charities, and pays taxes, I think it’s great if you can have access to certain resources at reduced rates that benefit you and the kids you’re caring for! I didn’t even know that was a thing and I’m delighted!
posted by padraigin at 5:55 PM on June 6 [1 favorite]

If the "volunteer" role is as arduous, critical to society, and in-demand as seems to be alluded to here, I say use all the benefits without shame.
posted by grouse at 4:10 AM on June 7

I appreciate all the perspectives and new information. I'm still processing the various ideas here, but in the meantime there's a bit of an update.

I happened to be working down the road from the bike share's corporate office, so I thought I'd see if I could talk with them to find out their thoughts. I wasn't sure about their hours so I left a message, but never ended up hearing back. Since I'm not out their way during business hours again until later this summer, I decided to fill out their discount request form since it said they'd get in touch to verify details......and then this week, they email me the signup code without ever reaching out. Go figure.

The email says to get in touch with any questions so I'll try doing that again just to attempt to close the loop on their specific program, but I'm beginning to suspect this ones falls on the "not going to run out" side of things.
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 6:32 PM on June 12 [1 favorite]

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