How it really is

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How it really is…

I’m pretty socially networked.  I’m socially networked because the accident last December generally cut me off from being actually networked.  My one thread left has been to my church family, and that thread is precariously fragile.

I’m not particularly keen about entertaining the idea of no longer having a church family.  I ended up stranded 25 mi. from church after the accident (which might as well be the moon for lack of public transit).  I can say with absolute authority that I have visited all of the local Protestant churches within a reasonable distance to my present location (e.g., I can walk there in under an hour) except the church where my sister’s family used to go (and I support “used to”).  There isn’t a single one where the congregation “has room” for folks under 50 — in this part of the Valley.  That doesn’t stop me from attending Bible Study with 70-somethings, but it’s frustrating — few of them have room for me as a sister-in-Christ, only as a curiousity.  Is that harsh?  Maybe, but I don’t have a place to fit in their world.  Young people in this part of the Valley are not in church locally on Sundays, and unless you grew up in a certain congregation, you’re not welcomed in the sense that there exists much to support you or welcome you in congregational life; there is also little by way of Christian Education (either nothing at all, or you have to choose between  Worship OR Sunday School…which is inexcusable in any Christian church).  The closest churches that are viable options for my own denomination are 10+ mi. away, and at least an hour or two by bus (making participation in congregational life at those places pretty impossible).

At that point, what’s the point?  I’m not a “show up to show up” kind of person.  The Roman Catholic church down the street is fine, though I am not Catholic and would be partially excluded from some service opportunities there because of it.

But since I still have no idea where I will end up, what’s the point?  Contemplating the threat of falling out of church as you’re about to fall out of the rest of life isn’t the best way to go.

That would be me giving up; I’ve been close lately. Very close.

But the original purpose of this post was to rant about the recent disaster at Social Services a week ago Thursday…

Backing up, I was in a horrible accident last December that left me with a broken shoulder, no car, no job, and no possibility to work because of my profound disability.  I went to Social Services to be rejected for one type of medical coverage, but found out I qualified for food stamps (a debit card program for grocery purchases).  Really?  I’ll take it, one less thing to think about.

Except the program makes no sense.

My maximum allowable monthly income — as a single person — is $1,100/mo. to remain on the program.  For awhile my roommates’ family (a family of five) was receiving benefits from this program, but their maximum allowable income was $2,000/mo.

Given that the cost of rent for a space big enough to marginally accomodate a family of five — rent alone, not utilities — is about $1,400-$1,500/mo, don’t ask me how or where one is expected to live.  Nothing about the program makes any sense.  If you really want to know the truth about the insane mismanagement of this program, go hang out in Social Services for awhile — everyone there knows they are going to be stranded for hours, it can be a chatty place for how to work the system not to game the system, but to get your wait time under three hours at various agencies (talk to this place, fill out this form, etc.).  Ain’t nobody else watching out for the poor, the poor take care of their own.

I wish I were kidding, it’s deplorable and unacceptable.

So, I’d been getting letters in the mail that they were going to terminate my benefits if I didn’t provide my disability income information.

I’d offered them this information twice (once as a bonus to the trip I had to take when they terminated my benefits because they lost the paperwork I turned in…in-person).  That’s two trips at $5/each in bus fare (though the Social Services office is not actually served by public transit, it is four long blocks to the nearest bus).  I took a third trip out, and my worker had no idea why I was there (this is the man that made me fill out all my paperwork myself with a broken right shoulder three days after I broke it; I now have a new worker and the world is a better place).

If you’re counting, that’s three pointless trips at $5/each (plus about five hours of waiting) all because Social Services can’t get their act together.

Also, I was still getting the letters.

A few months back they took away our ability to directly communicate with our workers (this was when I had my worker changed).  There is just a toll-free number to a call center.  I called and the worker (not my worker) who answered the phone looked at my file and said that my former worker was shoddy on the data entry side and forgot to check a box in a form in their system.  Eventually, some days later, my new worker called — problem fixed, you shouldn’t be getting any more latters, but please turn in your QR7 when you get it.

What is a QR7?  A QR7 is the form required for income and employment eligibility requirements to assess if you qualify to receive continued benefits from the program or programs from which you receive assistance.

Q…stands for “Quarterly.”

R…stands for “Review.”

7…is a reference to the 7th Circle of Hell (Violence) from which the employees in the QR7 department escaped (but deserved) after getting lost in their botched escape plan from the 8th Circle of Hell (Fraud); these employees belong resolutely in the 8th Circle of Hell.  Social Services is actually one portal to the 5th Circle of Hell (Anger), which becomes abundantly clear to anyone who has ever spent any time there (it really would improve Customer Service if the security guards just handed out complementary Xanex after they screen your bags).

Right, so…”Turn in my QR7 for the reporting month of April when you receive it in the mail.” Got it. Waited for my QR7. Mailed the 30th of April, received the week of the 6th of May — late — and thus assumed it was therefore due by the 5th of the following month June, and didn’t really give it much thought. I would turn it in the next time I had to run errands in that direction.

Got a letter on Wednesday the 15th of May with a notice that my benefits were being terminated (again) because I failed to provide income information. Now all those dumb letters said they needed the disability income information they didn’t need by the 7th of May. I thought the letter was related to that, well, since I needed to make the trip out there, might as well turn in the QR7 too.

Then — filling it out — noticed that it had actually been due by the 5th of May, not June (a pretty fancy feat for me to do since I didn’t even have the form at the time).

Went to Social Services, walking nearly two miles because I also needed to stop at the Post Office on the way). Got there at 1:50 PM. Security screen, waited in line, checked in, was called by my worker within five minutes. Explained the situstion, can I turn it in, I also need to file an affidavit to document filing for a pending disabilty extension (in March, which I hope to see by June). She called the QR7 department, yes someone would come down to meet with me, please wait and they will call you.

Was okay for the first hour, but then my blood sugar dropped dangerously. At an hour and a half went back to the reception window — are they coming, do they know I’m here? They called my worker again. Getting up made me realize I was almost at a place of passing out. Had some almonds and a sugar packet (all I had in my purse). Asked the guard about vending machines — yes, a soda machine in the next building (no good, I had to wait here). Was there a problem? Yes, hypoglycemia. Ten minutes later he randomly showed up with a piece of candy (which actually, probably saved the day).

At two hours total wait time, my worker called me again.

“You’re stiil here?”

“Yup.”

“Didn’t they call you?”

“Nope. At an hour-and-a-half I went back to the reception window.”

“Let me call them… They say they already met with you.”

“If that were true, why am I holding the forms I want to turn in? I just need to fill out the affidavit for my disability status and turn it in.”

[Long pause]

“I’ll call, no…you know what, we’ll do it here. If I get you the affidavit form you can fill it out?”

“Absolutely, but I have a question about what I need to put, which is why I am here.”

Got everything straightened out, took the time to fill out a comment card to document my visit, finally left at 4:30 PM. Walked up the street and caught the bus just before 5:00 PM. Two-and-a-half hours, an hour of walking off the bus line, and $5 in bus fare because other people cannot do their jobs (for which they are paid) correctly.

It is at this point that I would note that there are probably people who game the system, but the majority of individuals in that office have a profound and legitimate need. Often the legitimate need is a short-term transitory need for a few months, maybe a year. With respect to food stamps, it’s impossible to actually eat well because you’re bound to get by on $5/day or less for food.

You can’t eat much worth eating on $5/day, but it will keep you from starving to death. Lots of “poor people” food — peanut butter sandwiches, quesadillas, protein never gets to be a mainstay. Corners are cut. Regular and herbal tea bags “count,” so often I get by with cold-brewed herbal tea instead of juice (which works out to about $1.52/two quarts compared to $3.00+/two quarts). “Juice cocktail” is also cheaper than 100% juice. Some drink mixes (Gatorade, Kool-Aid, etc., but not sure which) also seem to be covered — also cheaper than juice.

Pre-cooked food is not covered.

I have a friend whose favorite example is that when she was homeless she could buy a raw chicken (which she had no way to prepare) but couldn’t buy a pre-cooked chicken from the deli section. It’s true, the restriction to “ingredients” make life a challenge to any homeless or near-homeless or even folks living in room-for-rent situations where storing and preparing perishable food is impossible. I haven’t had a kitchen since 2005, I haven’t had access to a safe refrigerator since 2007. I live in a world of eternal breakfast — fruit, nuts, dry cereal, juice, and tea…occasionally with crackers. Life is one long preschooler snack, and has been since mid-2007 (as even though the food stamps is a recent thing, in room-for-rent situations you eat like this anyway; some would add ramen noodles to that list).

But I digress, what is on the approved list of things you can buy makes no sense. Often, it is a brand difference. Sometimes the name brand qualifies and the store brand doesn’t. Sometimes one brand qualifies but its other name brand equivalent doesn’t. I am hypoglycemic, and was stranded at the mall on a 100°F+ day needing to eat. It took three tries before I gave up trying and used a single banana as my litmus test in Target — none of the single items I tried to buy, including a box of the store brand granola bars, was approved (which meant I had to also stop at a neighborhood market for the perishable stuff on my way home). Was it because the granola bars had chocolate chips in them (with dried cherries)??? It is possible to buy a bag of chocolate chips, it is possible to buy cookies, it is possible to buy some varieties of candy (I have been told this about candy, but I have not tried it, I don’t have much of a sweet tooth). Granola bars? Hit-or-miss. Ice cream? Also hit-or-miss. Deli-prepared fresh food (e.g., those roast chickens), never.

And never, ever, ever, ever soap, toilet paper, shampoo, laundry soap, female sanitary supplies, etc.

No one would choose to live this way.

No one would choose to put up with the bureaucratic ineptitude, the total degredation of being treated like a sub-human or unintelligent by many social services employees. The world operates with a single story on aid recipients, but it was never really true, and is especially false after 2008 when entire job sectors disappeared (including mine) and will never come back.

Ever.

I wonder if people who only know my writing, who can only see my mind, “get” how far below the U.S. poverty line I live. I am very well aware how rich American poor are, but I’ve variously gone without things most people take for granted — indoor plumbing, potable water, access to a refrigerator, heat, natural light, ventilaton, access to sanitation for trash, a bed, cleanliness enough to be able to turn off the lights without being swarmed by roaches. I don’t remember the last time I regularly ate dinner, probably sometime in 2000.

On paper, I am not worthy of your consideration as a person of value given my dossier, résumé, etc. — an entry-level struggling nobody.

Is that who I really am?

This is not a rational lifestyle choice, people in my station end up here, it’s not an aspiration. It’s a hellish way to live, no one in this place stays here a moment longer than absolutely necessary. And yet I always come up against stereotypes and people with impractical/unhelpful “advice.”

I’d seriously like to give them a year of this to see if they could survive it.

This is how it really is. A girl sitting on acceptance to a prestigious university (can’t go), food insecure, marginally employable, on the cusp of homelessness again. None of it adds up, this is not the Reagan-era ideaology that if you work hard in school (I am an honors student with very nice grades and a beautiful long list of community service and ministry work), you will do well.

I got 99 problems, and 73 of them can be fixed by throwing money at them.

I don’t think the American Dream is dead, but it is unconscious and bleeding in a back alley somewhere.

This is how it really is: but for the grace of God go you.

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2 thoughts on “How it really is

  1. Excellent read…..one of the best I’ve had the opportunity to read. A real snapshot (video, really) of what it’s like to live in a world most people seeing this will never know. By the Grace of God they will never, ever, know.

    • But you know…the thing is that I think it is socially and civically irresponsible NOT to know about this. I believe it is every Christian’s responsibility to have SOME knowledge of this reality. As a responsible citizen we should also be aware of this, because it is a huge tax expenditure for a program that is neither equitable nor practical to meet the needs of the population it purports to serve. The stigma of it all makes me very angry in-fact.

      I need to mine my correspondence, because *somewhere* I have an essay within a letter of my journey from upper middle class to living and working among the poorest of the poor in our society, and what I think about that.

      There is this Horatio Algers mythology (you know, the up-by-your-bootstraps crap) that says that if you aren’t doing well, it’s clearly and unequivocally your fault without exception: try harder.

      Yeah? How? If nothing else, that letter from LMU renders people speechless. It is possible to do everything right, but still be damned for not playing the games quite well enough. I’ve got 99 problems and 73 of them can be obliterated with the chance to work for a living wage.

      One of these days I’ll do public transit and also the truth about the implications of working for an internationally-owned company iin a global marketplace (that’s what lost me my last long-term job and is what is making my sister’s life hell right now).

      I mostly write devotional stuff, but social justice has a place here too.

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