Just because you didn’t say “welfare queen” doesn’t mean you’re not a jerk.

28 12 2010

Those of you following my constant whining tweets will be aware that I was a bit stranded for the past few days. We had a bit of snowfall in the northeast, and it looked for a while like we all might have to wait for spring thaw to get to where we were going. (Things got really strange when these seven brothers and their brides showed up at my parents’ house…but I digress.)

Being stuck in Queens for longer than I expected was a bit inconvenient. Some things that I thought I was going to get done had to wait. And it got me thinking about privilege.

My life is not bad.  I don’t make tons of money, but I get by. I have some money saved, and I have parents to go home to for Christmas. Even the things that I have to complain about are not such a big deal. I live in a nice enough place that my super had the job of shoveling our front walk, and this actually got done. Sure I had to help my parents shovel their car out when I was home, but that’s because my parents own a car and a house. More than a lot of people can say.

We all like to focus so much on how hard we work. When we have extras, we want people to know that we’ve earned them. Think about it–when was the last time someone running for public office came out to say, “I am where I am because of my last name. My parents’ money opened a lot of doors for me.” No. It’s all about pulling on one’s bootstraps, for some reason.

There’s a sense of competition. Who had it the roughest? We can rarely agree on this, but we can all unite in being judgmental of people on public assistance.

Those of us who work with people on public assistance (I’m including programs like cash assistance, Section 8, food stamps, Medicaid, etc.) know that it’s not an easy or pleasant way to get through life. It’s tough. Benefits, especially cash, are meager. No one is really getting money handed to them anymore. At least in New York, housing programs are unreliable. Many of my clients are facing eviction because their voucher programs stopped paying the rent. (Just saying, a letter or something would have been nice. Cutting them off with no notice? How about some manners?)

Food stamps and Medicaid are a bit more reliable and generous, but my goodness–could they be a little more complicated? I think that people are being asked to jump through actual hoops at their appointments now. Recipients are given random appointments, with little notice, where they have to wait in line, often for hours, usually with children.

But the sunny disposition of the workers really makes up for it.

Miss one appointment, and your benefits are sanctioned. Show up at your appointments…you still might get sanctioned. Better get documentation.

Keeping up with all this is like a full time job. Hmm. Makes going to school or, you know, getting a full time job, a little difficult.

And yet, we still like to see the people benefitting from these programs as less than. They’re lazy, poorly motivated, often unintelligent.

Hey, if you aren’t getting public assistance, you have every right to say it.

It’s not like you benefit from government assistance. I mean, it’s not like the rest of us are driving on paved roads or sending our kids to public schools. We don’t intend to collect unemployment or Social Security when the time comes.

Oh, wait.

Back to my point. The poor. They spend unwisely, that’s the real reason they’re in need.

They all have these fancy cars. Their kids have iPhones and the latest video games. They buy gourmet food, cigarettes and booze with those food stamps. They have tattoos, those are expensive!

I mean, if someone is going to rely on government assistance to provide for their children, they could at least have the decency to allow taxpaying citizens to vote on their every purchase. It’s the most sensible option.

It’s strange. Everyone sees these wasteful, greedy people every time they leave the house. I work exclusively with people receiving public assistance, and yet I don’t know anyone like this.

Sure, I don’t agree with exactly how everyone spends their money. But I also have a sense of humility and realize it’s none of my business.

Most of my clients have cell phones. A lot of them have a concerned parent or other family member who buys them a decent phone. They are usually cheap, Metro PCS phones that don’t work outside of the five boroughs. When they can’t afford minutes, they don’t have working phones. Those video games are used, from Game Stop, and surprisingly affordable.

As for cigarettes and booze–how wealthy does one have to be to be entitled to a vice? I have plenty of nights when I just need a drink, and, like I said, my life is pretty good. If I was a single mother, raising a couple of kids with almost no support and no money…I’d probably have to just go ahead and change my name to Bailey Irishcream.

If you’re a resolution person, maybe 2011 can be the year when we all agree to give people a break. Cut those who are already struggling a bit of slack. I’ll just be over here, preaching to the choir.

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10 responses

29 12 2010
cb

I read your post with some trepidation. I fear that our system is increasingly becoming more like yours and it pains me. I have always been immensely proud of some of the social support we offer to people in this country but this government (sorry about getting political) is ripping out the very culture of our ‘welfare state’ and generating a discourse of ‘blaming the poor’ that hadn’t been in vogue since the Victorian days of workhouses and ‘deserving/undeserving’ poor.
We shouldn’t have any right to make those judgements. In other words, I completely agree!

31 12 2010
socialjerk

The “deserving/undeserving” dichotomy is everything here. Obama definitely has a better attitude about the poor, but it hasn’t reached most of our politicians, citizens, or policies.

A friend and I were recently discussing the recent protests in the UK over tuition increases. My friend said something along the lines of, “Oh boo-hoo, imagine having to pay for school!” It apparently unleashed some rage in me, because I’ve always looked to your country’s “socialist” policies as a model for what we should be moving towards. I was like, I have a lot of respect for everyone over there for not letting what has happened here happen there.

29 12 2010
Thorn

I love this post! I had no idea how much of a pain it would be to go to WIC appointments for/with my little foster daughter. But no, we had to wait for hours so she could get weighed and stuck with a needle there literally a day before going to the doctor’s office to get the same exact things done. And this isn’t a complaint about what WIC does, either, since I think public health nurses are great. It’s just a mess.

I’m an educated, middle-class white woman and the first time I used a WIC coupon it took the cashiers and me almost 15 minutes for stuff worth less than $15, including the “$6 worth of fresh fruits/vegetables (NO ORGANIC!)” and I was appalled to think how much harder it could have been to someone who didn’t have my privilege or English language facility or whatever. But while we don’t need WIC from a financial perspective, we want to keep Mara’s case active in case she does go back to her family, because I can only imagine it would be a pain to have to restart. It never ends.

31 12 2010
socialjerk

Thank you! I can imagine what you’re dealing with. I am still learning so much about the benefits system, and much of what I learn is taught to me by one particularly savvy 21 year old client. To me, this girl is pretty much a genius, when I think about how she manages to get by on so little, and how much she’s figured out. I always feel bad when I try to avoid people using WIC in the supermarket, just because I really don’t want to get stuck behind them in line! Good luck with Mara 🙂

29 12 2010
annette

Another great post! You blog so well.

31 12 2010
socialjerk

Thank you! So nice to hear that from someone I’m not related to 🙂

29 12 2010
lastcrazyhorn

Howdy. I’ve ventured over to your wordier side. Frightening. 😛 Actually, I’m in the process of trying to get into some of those programs you mentioned. Poor little bankrupted me. Well really, not only do I have to estimate what I’m worth, but I also have to put it in writing – a couple of different thousand ways from Sunday, but I digress.

Personally, I think that dignity is the true issue at hand here. You know, all of those little details, like the dignity to live indoors and have heat and eat occasionally. Little things, really.

“But the sunny disposition of the workers really makes up for it.”

Let’s not even go there. Public assistance workers are like financial aid staff at universities, except with bigger offices and harder floors. However, unlike the financial aid staff, I can’t just send out big emails were I CC and BCC everyone’s bosses until someone tells me how to fix the mess I currently find myself in. Mostly because I can’t figure out who exactly is in charge of whom, but that gets filed back under the little details category.

31 12 2010
socialjerk

My wordier side takes u a lot of me 🙂 Applying for those programs is no small task. Good luck.

Dignity is absolutely the issue. In terms of the right to obtain those necessities, and to also be treated like a human when going in for an appointment. Now that you mention it, it really does remind me of the financial aid staff from university. Once a semester when I was an undergrad, I would get an undated note in my mailbox saying that my check had arrived, and I had to go sign for it by the end of the day or it would be returned. Cue SocialJerk sprinting across that leafy green campus, only to not be able to find an open office anywhere. Charming times.

6 01 2011
sarahk

Oh, boy. I’m right there with you. I’m a mental health social worker in Chicago and I spend a LOT of time making phone calls or going in person to appointments with my clients. I have a master’s degree from a prestigious school and two years’ experience dealing with this on a weekly basis, and I often find it very confusing and frustrating. Never mind dealing with it if you have a cognitive impairment, are hearing voices, are drugged by your meds or grappling with an alternate reality. If you’re depressed and hate yourself or so anxious you’re constantly on the verge of panic. Never mind the fact that the world already hates you for being crazy and sometimes it gets to you, now the world can hate you for having the nerve to be poor, too.

One thing we talked about in social work school was service rationing, the idea that there’s not enough to go around so let’s make it unpleasant to get this benefit so some people will give up on it. Somehow thinking that it’s totally intentional makes it more tolerable to me (terrifyingly). I can’t count the times I’ve waited 5+ hours, often standing for several hours of it. Sat through lunch and been starving. Came in for an “11:15 appointment” and waited until 4pm.

One of the most important factors in making a change in your life (pulling yourself up by your bootstraps?) is believing that you are capable and deserving of that change. Good thing it’s built into our system to make sure that the people we think need to change feel like they’re totally worthless and undeserving.

6 01 2011
socialjerk

Thanks for the comment! Service rationing is an excellent point, and I think it gets so overlooked. I brought that idea up to a family member–that public assistance and related services are intentionally made unnecessarily complex and horrible to deal with, and they refused to believe it. But when you’re in it, day after day, it’s the only explanation. A majority of the appointments serve no purpose. I have many clients who can provide documentation that they went to their appointments, but they’re still sanctioned. Which allows the city to cut off their benefits until they file for a fair hearing. This happened so frequently to one client of mine that she just gave up, because she was so disgusted. She’s in a shelter, and really needs the help, but she just can’t deal with the system anymore.

I am glad that I go to those appointments with clients sometimes, because I don’t think I would be able to appreciate how degrading and frustrating it is otherwise.

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