27 06 2013

If you have teacher friends, surely you know what Wednesday was. (Aside from marriage equality day–yaaaay!) It was the last day of school here in New York. Those kids and teachers were all out celebrating the fact that they won’t have to see each other or bubble in an answer sheet until September. Or until next week, in cases of summer school.

Some kids, of course, won’t be back in September. Because they’re graduating!

If I may wax poetic for a moment, graduation is a big fucking deal. Especially in the Bronx, where we consider fifty percent of high school students graduating within four years to be a glorious improvement. A sad few of my teens have graduated high school, or are on track to do so. More are successful with GEDs, but that’s still a tough route. As for college…all who graduate college while working with me will get a free vacation to Fiji.

Graduation is rare. It matters. A lot of families don’t get to experience it. Their kids don’t walk across the stage and get their diloma as the entire family cheers for them, despite being specifically told to save their applause for the end. So, it seems, people kind of take what they can get.

I recently stopped by to conduct a school visit during kindergarten graduation. Had I known, I would have made it another day, but News 12 doesn’t mention these things. Yet.

At least, I think it was kindergarten graduation. It might have been some sort of baby prom. The five year olds were decked out in three piece suits and floofy dresses. There were balloons, talk of parties, and kids were handed envelopes of cash and prizes by family members.

I get being proud. And of course some kids struggle in school from the beginning, and their accomplishments should be lauded. But completing pre-k and kindergarten? Kids shouldn’t really even be aware of promotion at that point. “Hey I can write my name!” “Check out my rocking color wheel!” “I’ve met my developmental requirements!” Huh?

I actually worked at a pre-k, including graduation, back at Anonymous Youth Center. We made paper hats, the kids sang a couple of songs, and we said something nice about each kid. (Even the one who kept passing around lice.) The parents took a few photos. It was an adorable photo op. We said graduation with sarcastic air quotes. Before anyone brings up culture (I know one of you is itching to!) Anonymous Youth Center and Anonymous Agency serve a very similar demographic. There just wasn’t that expectation.

I wouldn’t care, but it has an impact. One of my more low key mothers, who is extremely involved in her children’s education, was horrified at her newly six year old daughter’s kindergarten graduation. She picked a nice new skirt and t-shirt for the kid. Then she was informed she’d be getting tickets for the event. She heard other parents comparing what restaurants they’d be going to afterwards, and if they were getting a hall (oh yeah) for the celebration. “I was going to take her for ice cream, just the two of us.” Um, yeah. That sounds pretty good.

I would have brought up what we did for my kindergarten graduation, but I certainly don’t remember it. I think my parents went, but who knows? I know they witnessed my debut as The Little Engine That Could. But that was an accomplishment. It was really one of the finest performances in a Canarsie auditorium in 1989, but I digress.

Obama even got into it a while back, admonishing parents not to make such a big deal out of eighth grade graduation. “It’s just eighth grade, people.” (He doesn’t have my gift for words.) You’re supposed to finish eighth grade.

It’s hard. You want to be encouraging. You want to tell kids they’ve done well, and to keep going. They need to know how good academic achievement can feel. But we don’t want it to be an “everybody gets a trophy” scenario. (By the way, stop blaming my generation for that nonsense, it was our parents’ idea.) We don’t give out prizes for the shit you’re supposed to do, to paraphrase Chris Rock. No plaque for not getting arrested, no Certificate for Participation in Breathing. We need to strike a balance.

It starts with remembering that ice cream with your mom is almost always the best way to celebrate.

You Gotta Give ‘Em Hope, Jr.

17 05 2012

A groundbreaking article was recently released on the subject of teen pregnancy and parenting, that is apparently based on new research. I say “apparently” because it’s possible that it was actually based on one of my rants from when I worked at Anonymous Youth Center, and began my relationship with pregnant and parenting teens. The article states that getting pregnant and raising a child is not typically the thing forcing young women into poverty. They start off in poverty, and this makes them more likely to become pregnant and choose to parent, for a variety of reasons.

And everyone who works with these young women kind of knew that already.

We talk about how likely it is for young parents and their children to live in poverty, for the parents to not finish school, and to work in menial jobs. For a lot of the girls I work with, that’s not all that different from the future they see for themselves without a child. It’s what their experience and examples dictate. While I certainly believe that young people who work really hard and have the right support, opportunities, and talents can create a different life for themselves, it’s incredibly difficult. We ask a lot of these kids, much more than we ask of those who were lucky enough not to be born poor.

If I had a child at seventeen, it would have meant giving up the scholarship I had to go away to college. It would have meant no study abroad. It would have meant not getting to do the things that most of my friends were doing. For my girls, this isn’t the case.

I recently went a high school to visit a sixteen year old girl I’ve been work with for the past year. She was in quite a mood, saying she was exhausted and nauseated. My mind started racing. “Weren’t you exhausted and nauseated two weeks ago?” “Yeah…”

Oh boy.

Now, I’m very positive when it comes to teen mothers. I have worked with many wonderful young moms. (Sorry I don’t write about teen dads, but I don’t have any!) I have written about it extensively, as I adore them and their kids, and feel that they can do a wonderful job, provided they have some chances and support.

This girl does not want to be a mother, teen or otherwise. She has said this for as long as I’ve known her. Her own family is, in her words, a disaster. She’s never felt taken care of, and has experienced all too frequently the many ways in which this world can suck. The kid wants an abortion.

But she’s being pressured, by her mother, by her boyfriend, not to take that route. So she’s considering what life would be like as a mother. I worked with her on taking some time to consider her options, as it’s still very early. What would be good about having a baby and raising it? What would be good about having an abortion? Can we even talk about adoption?

The answer to the third question is no, we can’t. Why you so crazy, SJ?

The answer to the second question is that she doesn’t want a child. No one is taking care of her, and she’s trying to focus on taking care of herself.

The answer to the first question was, essentially, meh? Why not? Things aren’t going to get any worse, and maybe it would motivate her to get up and get things done. The rationale that most people utilize to decide to chug a Five Hour Energy.

I was once informed that, because I expressed the hope that my teen girls would focus on developing interests and goals for furthering their education and careers, I did not have the necessary respect for motherhood, which is rooted in sexism. I would take a moment to address that point, but it’s so obviously stupid.

I have tons of respect for motherhood parenthood. I also have tons of respect for dismantling bombs. I don’t think either of these activities should be entered into lightly, or without preparation. At age 28, the idea of being responsible for another human (they don’t stay babies for long, do they?) blows my mind and terrifies me. Most parents I know say the same thing. It’s not that I don’t respect having children. It’s that I respect it too much.

Sometimes a pregnancy is a welcome surprise. I get that. I saw “Knocked Up” I also know actual humans who got pregnant before they intended to, but decided to go with it, because they realized it was what they wanted, and the time might never be exactly right, but they could do it. Mazel tov.

The idea of going into having a child the same way I go into having edamame for dinner four nights in a row is what’s troublesome to me. “Eh, why not? There are really no other options, and it doesn’t make a difference one way or the other.” It’s also sad. Profoundly sad. Because this girl honestly believes what she’s saying. That there’s no hope for her. Taking care of herself is not enough of a motivation. A child might be worthy of that, but she’s not.

This is a rare instance in which I wish I could take a child home.

I have faith that this girl could be a wonderful mother if that’s what she wanted, whenever she wanted it. I have faith that she could be amazing at whatever she chooses to do. Chef, rocket scientist, sanitation worker, poet, kickboxer, literally anything. She is smart, capable, and has proven over and over again that she is crafty as hell, and has essentially been responsible for herself and her siblings since adolescence. But she doesn’t have hope.

I have hope for her, and faith in her. Getting her to have that for herself is much more difficult. That is the hardest part, for me, about working with teen pregnancy.

Much harder than talking to a roomful of teenagers about condoms.

No matter what, we can all agree–Newt Gingrich sucks

5 12 2011

Newt Gingrich, who is apparently (really?) a serious candidate for president, seems to kind of hate poor children. Or, if you think janitorial work is tons of fun, he loves them. I’m sure we all remember last summer, when Fox news broke the startling story that poor people have refrigerators.

Lamenting that people are not so hard up for cash that they can afford to keep their eggs at a temperature that won’t kill them, or that kids are spending time learning to read rather than mop, seems pretty harsh. I don’t usually hear that about the families I work with.

But I have been subjected to views along these lines. I’m sure you’ve all heard them as well. Everyone seems to have a neighbor who drives a Lexus to recertify for their foodstamps, or a deadbeat, unemployed cousin who has the ultra-premium cable package, complete with Showtime. Of course there are all those people in soup kitchens making calls on their iPhones, and every kid in a failing school is wearing the latest Jordans.

I mean, those people are living better than I am! And I work!

Of course, this isn’t true of many people we work with. I have a lot of families with video game addict children, but those expensive games are always purchased second hand at Game Stop. They’re looking fashionable, but that shirt was five bucks at a no-name warehouse on Fordham Road. The nice phone is most often a gift from grandma. People have told me that I’m not seeing the bigger picture–what about how much the phone plan costs a month? Um, you’re stupid. Everyone participant I work with has a pay-as-you-go deal, and very often they don’t have minutes at all.

We also hear a lot about how the people we work with just don’t know how to budget. They act like cable is a necessity. (It’s not, but I can see how you might feel that way if you have six kids.) They buy too much pre-made food. (Again, when you’ve got a bunch of hungry kids in a one bedroom apartment, and you’ve been working all day? I get it.) They don’t prioritize. (Unlike me. I needed that novelty size Pez dispenser.)

As a society, we’re too hard on the poor. We expect things of them that we ourselves can’t do. We learn to defend against these viewpoints in Comedy Central social work school. But those who say low-income people need to budget and prioritize better? They’re not always wrong.

I don’t like to say it. It goes against my liberal social work sensibility. But I have worked with some people who frustrate me in this regard. They spend more money on junk than on concrete things that their children need. I had a mother ask me for band-aids to take home for her child, explaining that she didn’t have enough money because they had just bought a Nintendo Wii. Another worker was very upset to find out that her family that was facing eviction was still paying for three cable boxes. A friend was at a loss when a mother she helped to find a new apartment was late on her rent, because she spent her pay check on a dinette set instead.

I don’t like to tell these stories. Like I said, poor people get enough shit. There are enough people who think we waste money on public assistance programs by enabling people too stupid to budget properly. As long as the children’s needs are met, how adults choose to spend their money is none of my business.

Many people were scandalized when I mentioned that my first encounter with an iPad occurred when one of the two year olds I work showed me her family’s during a home visit. (I have never felt older than when that child rolled her eyes at my inability to operate it.) People couldn’t believe that this family could have afforded an iPad. I defended them strongly. Dad works fourteen hour days, mom is home with the kids, they live extremely reasonably, but they are geeks and love technology. It’s something they enjoy as a family. They can decide what to do with their money, so shut up with your faux concern/jealousy that you don’t have one.

Until the children’s needs (school supplies, clothing, and so on) aren’t met. Or they come to me asking for help paying their back rent. Then it is my business, whether I like it or not.

I understand some of it. I delay gratification and hold off on buying things I don’t really need, because I know that I’ll be able to save up for a down payment on a house new car new pair of Chucks. When you’re making minimum wage or living on public assistance, and greatly struggling to pay rent, the idea of saving up for a larger goal is not really on the table. It doesn’t seem realistic. So spending the six dollars in your pocket on sending the kids down to the corner store to get french fries for dinner (which simultaneously gets them out of your hair for twenty minutes) seems to make sense.

I don’t think that this means the people who engage in this particularly frustrating behavior are bad parents. In my experience, a lot of them became parents very young, and are very overwhelmed in their day to day lives. I can understand that they would spend money on unnecessary, but fun, stuff.

As a broad social policy, acting like poor people don’t have it that bad, or would be fine if they just laid off the Dom Perignon to go with their steak dinners, is pointless. It’s not true, and it doesn’t work. It isn’t right, and it won’t change anything.

But one to one? We can’t feel wrong in recognizing this. And I know people do. We’re constantly defending our clients to people who think they’re bad parents, bad people, they’re free-loaders, public assistance is the reason we can’t have nice things, America!

The thing is, it’s never all or nothing. You can’t paint an entire group of people with one judgmental brush, solely based on their income. And we can’t be too protective of the populations we work with, or married to a certain point of view, that we deny that people are doing something wrong.

So in this safe space of like-minded individuals, I will say–I have a great deal of respect for all of the families I work with. They regularly blow me away with their resourcefulness and resiliency.

 But I kind of wanted to drop kick the woman who chose Nintendo Wii over band-aids.

Same old woman, different shoe: The housing saga continues

23 03 2011

Monday, March 21st was a rough day in this office. Phones were ringing off the hook. There was also a surge in people being directed to my blog (OK, so it wasn’t all bad) by search terms including the words “Advantage voucher” and “FEPS,” or “Family Eviction Prevention Supplement.”

That’s because letters went out the previous week, informing clients that the Advantage voucher program was ending. No more rent checks would be issued after April 1st. The Advantage program is a program that helped people to move out of shelters and into their own apartments. The idea is that the program pays your rent for two years, then either ends or tapers off, converting into a Section 8 subsidy.

Except, Section 8 is no longer available. OK. And the waiting list for public housing is still years long. Oh, and rent in NYC, even in the Bronx, is still just a bit high.

Did I mention that people were informed of this March 21st? That their rent would no longer be paid as of April 1st? Not, “Oh, we won’t be honoring your two-for-one yogurt coupon.” We won’t be paying for the place that you and your children live.

We had a bit of a heads up at the office. The New York Times (let’s face it, all struggling parents have the time and energy to read the Times cover to cover, daily) ran this article explaining that this was happening due to the city’s financial crisis.

It’s cool. We’re short on funds, so we’re making people homeless.

In case you’re wondering, this is not SocialJerk being dramatic. It’s not my style. (Not entirely true, I was a fierce Little Engine that Could in 1989, but I digress.) The NYC Department of Homelessness website explains that if you have an active public assistance case, and are receiving cash assistance, you might qualify for a rental allowance. It might not be enough to cover your current rent; in fact, it almost definitely will not be enough. But it will be something. If you have sanctions, due to missing a recertification date, or skipping a Back to Work program in favor of attending college, or you only receive food stamps, too bad. Not happening. You are responsible for your rent, and you have a week to come up with it.

Now, SocialJerk, these are adults. Shouldn’t they be responsible for their own rent? I mean, is that asking so much? I certainly pay my own rent!

Shut up. Hear me out. Certainly, independence and self-reliance is the goal. But that’s not what our public assistance system is set up for. It’s set up to give people the least amount of help and comfort for a limited amount of time before cutting them loose. The Advantage program helped a lot of my clients get out of shelters. That’s great. And it paid their rent for a while. Also great. But their excessive public assistance appointments, the constant sanctions and fair hearings, the difficulty getting themselves enrolled in school (b-t-dubs, higher education is actively discouraged) in favor of attending pointless “work programs,” and the hoops they have to jump through just to get their kids into day care? Shockingly, none of this gets people educated and into a job that will pay their rent.

Maybe you don’t care. Maybe you think people deserve this, because their poor women minorities lazy. But a vast majority of these people have kids. And all that money the city doesn’t have? Is being spent on building new shelters. Very cost effective, I foresee no issues with this plan.

I spent a lot of time on the phone yesterday with a 22 year old mother of two. She wound up in a shelter after leaving the abusive father of her children. She got out with the help of the Advantage program. This woman described herself as being “on top of the world” when she moved into a one bedroom apartment with faulty plumbing and broken windows.

She was at her local PA office all day yesterday, missing a day of college classes, trying to figure out what to do. She knows that this is going to interfere with her completing her education, and with her daughters continuing at their current day care. She doesn’t want to return to the shelter, but she doesn’t have anywhere else to go.

This woman doesn’t have until April 1st, because, due to budget issues, the Department of Homeless Services started missing rent payments for her a few months ago. Now the arrears are her responsibility. She’s missing school, and almost forgot that it was her youngest child’s third birthday today, because of all the stress.

But really, the mom is irresponsible. That toddler doesn’t deserve presents or cake.

You can think what you want about these types of programs. But to tell people that they’ll be helped, to promise them a service, to provide them with something as basic as a place to live, and then yank that away with minimal warning, is cruel and inhumane. To go after people who are too busy, too overwhelmed, to wrapped up in struggling to survive to protest and call attention to their plight, is wrong.

New York social workers are now in the position of receiving these calls, and having to tell people that there’s nothing to be done. I knew the system was broken before, but it never hit me in this way.

It’s our job to fight this.

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe, until her rental assistance was terminated.

13 01 2011

I’m a preventive worker. We’re supposed to prevent families from being separated.

We do that by providing the family with counseling, approaching them from a strengths-based perspective and utilizing the family systems approach. This way we can reorganize their dysfunction, create appropriate boundaries and subsystems, and send them on their merry way.

And that’s exactly what everyone comes into our office hoping for.

Well, that and a place to live.

We’re in the midst of a housing crisis. We’ve all heard about the foreclosures (If you haven’t, I will for once suggest going to sources aside from SocialJerk for your news.) People living beyond their means, with mortgages they can’t afford, bubbles finally bursting. I have some friends and family who were only able to afford houses because of those foreclosures.

I mean, not me. I’m a social worker. I’m still paying off the sandwich I’m eating.

I’m not talking about people who were able to buy a home. I’m talking about people for whom that isn’t even a pipe dream.

So many people referred to my office come in asking for help with housing. They’re facing eviction, or they’re in an overcrowded apartment. Five of the families I work with are coming out of or going into the shelter system. I work with one family with six children who live in a one bedroom apartment.

Question: How do you fit three cribs into a one bedroom apartment?
Answer: You can’t!

I think I messed up the punchline.

For these families, the number one goal, greatest hope, is NYCHA. Public housing.

Public housing is important. But it’s rough. You don’t choose it if you can avoid it.

When that’s the dream, you know that the reality is bad.

All of my families who are not currently in a NYCHA apartment are on the waiting list. A waiting list that doesn’t seem to be moving. They wait for a year, and then are overjoyed to get an appointment, only to be crushed when they find out that it’s just an interview.

They have to wait another year to hear about apartments for which they are eligible, and then wait for one to open up. In that time, they might have added children to their family, so they have to wait even longer for a bigger apartment.

Well, in the meantime, there’s always Section 8, right? To help pay the rent on a regular apartment.

Only problem is, there is no Section 8. Not for people who don’t already have it.  But New York is having a little budget problem.

We have no money.

At first, Section 8 was only accepting new applicants who had to move due to domestic violence. Then they were only honoring existing vouchers, for people who hadn’t managed to find an aparment yet.

Shortly after, even people with vouchers were out of luck.

This presented a problem for my clients who had gotten out of the shelter system with the help of Advantage vouchers. Advantage programs are intended to help people coming out of shelters to become self-sufficient, by providing rental assistance for a year. At the end of that year, the voucher program ends, and tenants turn to Section 8.


Because they can’t get Section 8, my clients were told that their vouchers would continue paying their rent. And sometimes this happens. DHS will sometimes send in a few hundred dollars. When the mood strikes.

As a result, one of my young mothers owes $5000 in rent, another owes $4000. Both have received eviction notices, and no one at DHS will even talk to them. They’re far from alone.

One has already decided to return to the shelter system she escaped the previous year. She and her five year old son are less than thrilled.

The other is still fighting to stay in her apartment. I remember when she first moved in with her two and four year old daughters. She told me that having her own place after leaving an abusive boyfriend and spending months in a shelter made her feel like she was, “on top of the world.”

We turned to her former worker back at the shelter, who had helped her a great deal with a program called Homebase.

People are being turned away from Homebase and told to do for themselves, supposedly as a control group in a study, to see if helping people…helps.

But given what I see on a daily basis, it seems like that might be just another excuse.

My client, and her now three and five year old, have to wait for another eviction notice. Then hope that they will qualify for the Family Eviction Prevention Supplement,  better known as FEPS, and formerly Jiggets. (I wish they stuck with Jiggets, because at least that is fun to say.)

We’re hoping that FEPS will help, even though, like everyone, they’re also short on cash.

All these programs and acronyms might have driven me mad.

Everyone I talk to who does not work in this field (there are a few, yes) has no idea things are this bad. There’s still the idea that the government is paying all of these people’s rent, whether they work or not. It just isn’t true.

Is it right, or fair, to tell someone, to promise them, that they’ll be helped? That their rent will be paid, they don’t have to worry? This program is going to help you build your own life?

And then to snatch it away. And not even have to decency (or the balls) to offer an explanation or warning. To pretend like everything’s fine, meanwhile sending hordes of (primarily) women and children into shelters unnecessarily?

I’m not certain what the answer is. But this can’t continue. It is not effective, it is not sustainable.

And it is not right.

First and foremost, I am a lady

3 01 2011

But I’m sure you all thought nothing less.

I was raised by two staunch feminists. No, really, men can be feminists. They should be, in fact. Feminism is defined as “the doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men.”

Oh heavens, I am scandalized!

I have both my mother and father’s last names. I grew up reading Ms. Magazine. I got in an argument in kindergarten, advocating the view that there was no such thing as boy and girl colors. I also firmly believed that my Peanut league coach would not let me play first base because I was the only girl on the team. (I stand by that. I was a remarkable five year old athlete, meaning my shoes were generally tied and I knew right from left.)

But I digress. What does this have to do with social work?

Social workers work with the marginalized. We work with people in need. By and large, these people are women. And their children.

I currently have a caseload of twelve families. Of those families, ten are headed by single mothers, one by a single grandmother. Only one has an involved father. (And I use the word “involved” loosely.)

Women, very often young women, are the one raising these families. They’re the ones working, paying for day care, taking care of those damn kids day after day. When they can’t do it, it’s most often the grandmothers that step in.

Where are the dads? Sometimes they’ve just taken off. Other times, they’re around. They pop in now and then, drop off some cool sneakers, and go on their way. A lot of the mothers are surprisingly understanding. “Well, he’s not working right now, so how can he pay child support?”

Right. Give him time to find himself while you sacrifice your education and dreams to work a menial job to care for your child. I mean, it’s not like he had anything to do with the pregnancy. It’s only fair.

At what point do you explain that you will have to smack him for hours, until he comes over with Pampers and actually puts them on the kid?

I started this off talking about feminism for a reason. These women, as strong as they are, believe that this is their lot in life. They don’t see options. They don’t think that the men they had children with owe them, and those children. They might ask the guy to bring material things to the child, or to spend some time with the kid. (That’s fun, daddy time. Go to the park, play video games…not the serious mommy stuff of potty training and time outs.)

But they rarely think that the father has a role as a parent. And the men seem to think this as well. Most of them didn’t have a model father to show them the way. By the time they have their own kids, though, they need to figure it out.

These women already expect a lot from themselves. They need to expect more from men. The men need to think about what a father is, and what kind of a father they expect themselves to be.

Oh right, that’s where we come in. We need to come at these issues from a framework that will benefit our clients, and help them to make those difficult changes.

Not pro-choice? Fine. (Well, not really, but that’s not the point.) We need to be for our clients. The social work mantra value of self-determination kind of insists on it. I’ve had two clients in the past year come to me, telling me about their plans to seek abortion. One was a 15 year old child, one was a 24 year old raising a disabled son.

I asked if they needed anything. They both told me they were fine, knew where to go and what to do. They both knew I was there if they needed anything.

And that was my role. It was not my role to look shocked, act like this was a tragedy, or try to talk to them about options they weren’t interested in.

Most social workers, I’m sure, wouldn’t intentionally do this. But some do, and don’t even realize it. Because they start thinking as if they were the ones with the decision to make, when in fact they are not.

Again, I bring up feminism. Because this is an issue of trusting women. Of having enough respect for them to allow them to make their own decisions, and to understand that they are capable of this.

Whatever you would consider yourself to be (and I really hope that you would consider yourself to be a feminist) it’s something we owe to our clients.