Debra and Raymond Gonzalez spend a lot of time managing their welfare income streams, which usually don’t come out to quite enough. (Lydia DePillis for The Washington Post)

LAS ANIMAS, Colo. – It’s the beginning of the month, which means that Debra and Raymond Gonzalez’s fridge is packed: Pallets of eggs, bags of tomatoes, a big bowl of spaghetti, a tub of ice cream in the freezer. But they already know that they probably won’t make it to the end of the month without help.

‘We used to be able to get bags and bags of groceries, and only spend $50,” exclaims Debra, 54, who walks quickly around their double-wide trailer despite the respirator she carries strapped to her waist, and the breathing tubes in her nostrils. “And now you spend $200, and only get 2 little bags!” Meat, especially, has escalated, along with milk and cereal. Debra loves broccoli, but it’s usually too expensive at the one grocery store in this shrunken town in southeastern Colorado.

They used to be able to afford it, though. A little while ago, Debra’s food stamps were cut from $180 a month to only $15, when Raymond started receiving social security benefits. They get some help with gas bills for heat in the winter, but also burn wood cut by the permission of local farmers (they’ve stripped the dead tree in their front yard too). Along with his pension from the long-shuttered Veterans Administration hospital and Debra’s disability benefits, it comes to about $1,200 a month, which the welfare office said was too much.

“They only see it one way,” says Raymond, 64, sitting across the living room from Debra, in a quick, high-pitched voice. “They don’t realize we have to pay for gas, etc.” Debra needs to make frequent trips to medical specialists in Pueblo and faraway Denver; Las Animas lost its last physician years ago. “So you can’t win for losing. They put you in poverty, to some point.”

The total amount of U.S. spending on public benefits, which lately seem to the Gonzalezes like they’ll never add up to enough, has actually risen since the advent of key social welfare programs in the 1960s. But as the American conception of who deserves help has changed, so has their distribution. Before, destitute families could find support, if jobs weren’t available. Now, those who work receive the most assistance, while those who can’t aren’t quite as lucky.

Robert Moffitt, an economist at Johns Hopkins University, ran the numbers: Benefits increasingly come in the form of tax exemptions, like the earned income tax credit and the family tax credit, for which people who don’t work aren’t eligible. Meanwhile, the program that used to be known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children has dwindled to almost nothing.

Robert Moffitt's calculation of how spending on different welfare programs has changed over time: Aid to Families with Dependent Children has declined, while the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit have expanded.
Robert Moffitt’s calculation of how spending on different welfare programs has changed over time: Aid to Families with Dependent Children has declined, while the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit have expanded.

The Gonzalezes are not the biggest losers from this trend. That would be the single parents earning less than half the federal poverty line, who in 2004 received 35 percent less in transfer payments on average than they did in 1983, as benefits have flowed instead to those who are either married and employed or elderly and disabled. But since Raymond’s mounting back pain has kept him from being able to hold down a job, the two have fallen behind; if one source of income gets bumped up, another fades away.

“If they’re on public assistance, it’s a very fine line,” says Sharon Barber, who runs a local non-profit called Las Animas Helping Hands. “When someone gives them a raise, it’s really a cut.”

The Gonzalezes have been depending more and more on Barber, who followed her pastor husband to the town 11 years ago. Her all-volunteer operation has taken over a number of social services previously performed by local government: Delivering food baskets to seniors, running the local food pantry, helping with income tax preparation, filling in when people fall short on bills. Barber administers several government grants and writes applications for others, all from her basement.

Social welfare services have become a bigger task in recent years in small town America, as the disappearance of jobs has put more people below the poverty line. In Las Animas’ Bent County, percent of children under 5 receiving WIC assistance grew from48.3 percent in 1999to96.2 percent in 2012. And drawing perhaps the biggest volume of benefits payments, more thanone in four residentsof Bent County is disabled, according to the Census. Technically, the cost of living is lower too, but it’s also harder to access services: Barber spends a lot of time driving people to Walmart the next town over, or medical appointments even further away.

“Sometimes the need is just so overwhelming that it’s hard to keep up,” Barber says. Raymond and Debra are typical: Not quite able to make it on their own, but with expenses too great for the social safety net to bear without tearing holes, which Barber then has to fill with cans of beans.

It’s not that the Gonzalezes never worked. They did, hard, for years. Debra worked at a pickle factory and a Walmart in neighboring La Junta for more than a decade after 1988, when husband beat her with a baseball bat, killing her 6-year-old son and the twins she was carrying. But the ailments kept piling up: Debra was diagnosed with osteoporosis, fibromyalgia, diabetes, neuropathy, congestive heart failure, and a rare, progressive lung disease called Lymphangioleiomyomatosis.

Debra met Raymond, a twice-divorced Las Animas native, through babysitting his grandchildren. They got married, and for a while he worked at a car wash in nearby Lamar for $1,200 a month, which made for a relatively comfortable living along with his $670 per month pension from having worked at the VA Hospital. But arthritis started creeping into Raymond’s joints, so at 62, he finally had to quit, even though he’d never been able to build up much of a nest egg for retirement.

Now, he occupies himself keeping the home he bought from an ex-wife in immaculate condition, building decks out of salvaged wood, painting and repainting the trim in baby blue. Debra sews, and takes care of their two dogs, and does the bills. It’s a pleasant enough retirement, as long as someone’s around to bring food over when they inevitably run out.