The other day I was lurking in a comment thread on an article examining how one solution to homelessness is to give people houses, much along the same idea as one way to alleviate poverty is to give people money. The thread went in a number of different directions. One was the difference between private charity (e.g., church-run) and public (i.e., government sponsored) charity. The consensus being that private charity often involves certain stipulations to ascertain whether the impoverished person is “deserving” of help (do you go to the right church, life your life the right way, etc.) whereas public charity tries to distribute resources more equitably.
Whoa, hold on there, hoss. As a poor person, I disagree. Okay, the government may try to distribute resources more equitably, but US culture is so steeped in ideas of the virtues of capitalism and the idleness of the poor that the people making laws can’t help but spout nonsense every time they open their mouths. How would they? They literally have no idea what being poor is. As a result, ideas about deserving show up in all the ways meant to help people in need. They take the form of hoops you have to jump through to get that help, and while they may be different hoops than, say, being required to recite the Lord’s Prayer before supper or having to sleep in a separate shelter than your life partner due to ideas about morality (or, for that matter, not being acceptable to a shelter at all if you’re gay), they do more to hinder and demoralize us poors than to give us a hand.
We’re currently in the process of seeking some assistance, and here are some of the hoops I’ve noticed.
The Childless Hoop
Virtually every form of public assistance I’ve looked at prefers, and in the case of being eligible for immediate aid requires, that there be minor children present in the house. Now I happen to think it’s great the government wants to feeds children despite some politicians’ best efforts to the contrary. And I don’t believe that people would elect to have children solely to get those cushy benefits, as I’m sure some do. However, as a childless poor woman I feel even more of a second-class citizen every time I fill out a form asking if there are minor children in the house and know my chances of getting help would be better if there were. (In fact, back in the dim and distant past, the first time I applied for assistance [unemployment], the case worker told me to my face I might as well give up trying since I didn’t have children. And this was before Clinton’s Welfare Reform, mind.) Moreover, as a childless woman who desperately wanted children but couldn’t have them, I feel slapped in the face every time I have to answer that same question. Not pleasant, or easy.
The Distance Hoop
The other day, my husband had to drive some forms over to the county social services extension in the next town, a distance of ten miles. When he got home, he told me, “I was watching the gas gauge the entire way, and I’m going to have to come up with some money to put in the tank by the end of the week or I won’t be able to get to work.”
Every time we have to turn in a piece of paperwork or attend an in-person interview, at least one of us has to travel those ten miles at minimum. If we can’t do what we need to do at the extension office and have to go all the way to the main social services building, that’s thirty miles. One way. There’s no public transportation in the rural area where we live. If we didn’t have a working vehicle, we’d have to borrow one or beg a ride, or we’d be stuck. It’s asking a bit much, I think, of poor people to require they have a car–and the gas for it–to be able to apply for assistance. And it plays directly into the next hoop we have to jump through, which is
The Time Hoop
Applying for assistance takes time. No matter what some people believe, you can’t just walk into an office and claim you need help, and walk away with a fat cheque. There are myriad forms to fill out, and interviews to attend, and more paperwork to file after the first lot has been processed. We’ve been working on this process for six weeks now, and we have no word whether we even qualify.
Government agencies don’t care about your time, and that’s dehumanizing. And it’s even worse in rural areas. Sure, some things can be done through the post, but the post isn’t reliable. Here the post has to go from Delta, where the main social services office is located, all the way to Grand Junction to be processed, and only then back to our small town. This can take days. Back last summer when my husband had his work accident and we were trying to see if we could get it covered on his insurance, we got a notification that we needed to file certain paperwork after the date it was due. Consequently, his whole claim was denied. More recently, we received notification of a phone interview the evening before it was to take place (at 8:30 the next morning). This doesn’t leave much time to make arrangements–in our case, with my husband’s job, in other cases, for childcare or anything else necessary to make sure you have a chunk of time available. And we were lucky; our interview could be conducted over the phone. If you have to go in, in our area that’s 30 miles to cover to get to the main office, then another chunk of time waiting–there’s always waiting–and then up to another hour for the interview itself. If you have to travel and you lack a car, you can easily blow an entire day getting to and from one interview. In that long ago time when I filed for unemployment, I had to ride a local bus from Ann Arbor to Ypsilanti several times. It’s a distance of ten miles; it took 45 minutes there and back, plus the time at the social services office every time. That didn’t leave much during the day for other things like, say, looking for other work.
The Proof Hoop
I’m convinced that the reason for all these hoops is that the social safety net–for what it’s worth–in the US isn’t designed benefit people at all. It’s designed to keep out those whom the system decides don’t qualify, for whatever seemingly arbitrary reason. And nowhere is this more evident than in the mountains of proof required to convince social service workers that you actually need and qualify for help (the accumulation of which takes time which you may not have, mind).
Take my disability claim. I have had a serious mental illness my entire life. Numerous doctors have treated me for it. Many of those have told me and those around me that I would never be able to work a full time job. (My parents were told “she’ll never be able to take care of herself” when I was eighteen.) Despite this, it took me until ten years ago to think that maybe I might qualify for disability, So I filled out the forms and was denied off the bat.
This is not unusual. Generally disability claims are denied the first time you apply, unless there’s reason to believe you won’t live another six months. If you appeal, you have a chance of your claim being granted, but you have to supply ample proof of your disability and, in many states (mine included), attend a court hearing.
I wasn’t up to the task, so I enlisted a lawyer who would take for his fee a portion of the award if my claim was granted. What I would do if it weren’t, I had no idea, but I was in bad shape so I went for it.
It took two years. The court demanded all my medical records for the ten years previous, as well as statements from all the doctors I had seen in that time and any I was seeing currently. In addition, I had to fill out another ream of paperwork: all about my treatment, and the meds I was taking, and what steps I had taken not to be disabled. I was deep in a major depressive episode at that time, and I could barely face doing the work. My lawyer called me up and yelled at me for not reviewing my files.
Well, anyway. I guess I presented as crazy enough at my hearing because my claim was granted. But even though I have a lifelong illness, the powers that be see fit to review my case every three to five years to see if I still have Bipolar Disorder. This puts me in a Catch-22, because if I improve too much I’ll lose the disability medical insurance that pays for the medications that helped me improve in the first place, and I’ll be right back where I started.
As a contrast, at the same time as I was going through all this rigmarole, a friend in England with troubles and a depressive episode of her own needed a reprieve from work. She saw her primary care doctor and told him what was going on. He wrote her a slip of paper “signing her off work” for six months, which she took to the nearest benefits office and that was that. Of course, things being what they are in the UK right now, this system may be on the way out.
More recently, as we’ve filed for assistance, we’ve been asked for proof of disability, proof of work, proof of wages earned, proof we no longer had a bank account that’s been closed for ten years, proof that an insurance policy was canceled, proof of debt…and the list goes on and on. All of which serves to solidify my belief that the social service system in the US exists in mortal fear of dispensing benefits to someone who doesn’t “deserve” them.
The poor would be better served, and bureaucracy much reduced, with less judgment and less concern about who deserves what and more compassion and trust. But until more politicians take their heads out of their asses and stop listening only to those with clout and money, attitudes of judgment will continue to infect the very systems claiming to provide relief.