Working the System: Tales of a Welfare Queen

Oh, here we go. 

You’ve gotta be kidding me.

 

If the title of this post elicited such a response from you, then my click bait did its job. Maybe you just rolled your eyes, or scoffed a bit. Maybe you already knew that I wasn’t really going to claim the rhinestone studded throne of Welfare Queen, but you hope you’re at least going to see an angry mob of comments from people who are frothing at the mouth to yell “Bootstraps!” and “bleeding heart liberals!” but you’ll be disappointed because those chuckleheads are all hanging out on your hometown’s FB page or commenting on Yahoo! news anyway.

Maybe you’re related to me and you need to read this shit to make sure I don’t embarrass anyone, or myself, again.

Too late. I once wrote about farting in a snuggie, you guys. I post melodramatic essays about my mental illness and my inability to operate a microwave.

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This girl gets it. Tiny violins for us all!

 

Moving forward. I’d like to talk about government benefits, national attitudes toward “the poor” and a bunch of other things that end with me and gesturing wildly and scowling.

Perhaps I  will punctuate my sentences with a long drag on a cigarette from a pack- a carton even- which I bought with my EBT card at the gas station while you were waiting in line behind me angrily crushing your paper money with your hardworking fists.

I’ll pause often in conversation to chew thoughtfully on my Lobster in Red Bull Sauce. It’s a rare delicacy that we, the Welfae of Welfaerie Valley, feel completely entitled to.

Truthfully, I am not a faerie queen. I know. It’s hard to believe. I am receiving government benefits, though. My children and I are covered completely under MassHealth. We receive some $500 in SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits, or “food stamps” as they used to be known, each month. We also qualify for something called TAFDC, Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children. It is a cash grant that is deposited twice monthly to my EBT card.  I can use the card at an ATM to withdraw the cash portion of my grant, and my SNAP benefits are accepted basically anywhere.

It took me months to secure these benefits. I had to provide proof of citizenship, residency, immunization and all manner of identity for myself and my children. That’s perfectly reasonable, or it seems perfectly reasonable until you’re trying to obtain said proofs and you’re actually a homeless lady with three kids, no car, no valid ID, no bank account- not that you need one, since you have absolutely zero income or savings and you are existing on the undeserved (?) kindness of family and friends and riding the coattails of the guilt power that your cute children can wield over your blood relatives. That was me, that was I.

It is worth mentioning that a good amount of my important legal documents were in a storage unit in some town in the middle of nowhere Texas that looks and feels like it’s been parboiled. Also my baby was born there and it would take 8 weeks minimum for them to process a request for his birth certificate, and the state of Massachusetts absolutely required the official form before they’d enroll any of us in their system.

Even though they already had his social security number and his medical records proving his birth on US soil, which were won in a heroic battle against the yawning receptionists at my crapass former insurance carrier in Parboiled Texas and their even less interested third-party records department.

Even though my caseworker gave me a magic form that should have essentially waived this requirement due to hardship, and I got it signed and notarized and sealed with the blood of a Single Mom Dragon like I was instructed, but then the bored looking clerk at the documents window laughed quite meanly at me and wouldn’t accept it.

“Where did you get THIS? No, we need his-actual-birth-certificate, no exceptions.” After a pause she said, “Do you need an interpreter?” in a way that let me know she really meant, “Are you some kind of moron?”

My voice was low and husky because I was Not Going To Cry in the Welfare Office. Not that day, not after I’d allowed myself a little bit of hope that this stupid form, finally, was going to be the thing, the last hurdle, and I would be able to feed my kids and get some sense of normalcy back into their lives. I was going to make all their favorite dinners and German pancakes with strawberries for breakfast. They could help with the brown sugar cookies like they used to. I could make my aunt’s ginger chicken tortellini soup with a big loaf of crusty bread and grumble while picking up the bits of dough they flung around the kitchen while “helping”me knead.

Maybe I’d get those fruit snacks that I used to buy as a treat in Texas all the time, before their whole world was tossed upside down. I was making a grocery list in my head one minute and the next I was saying, “…but it…she said this was OK…the official form costs thirty five dollars…I can’t…I don’t have eight more weeks in me…”

And she said, “Excuse me? You’ll have to speak up ma’am!”

And then some mortifying, strangled sob-voice came out of me and I shouted, “I don’t HAVE thirty five dollars! I don’t have ANY dollars! That’s the whole reason I’m even HERE! Oh my god…Oh my god!” And then I stormed out of there looking as crazy as I actually am, which is not a good look.

This was somewhere around December 2015-February 2016 and I still today could easily start falling to pieces just thinking of how helpless I felt and how surreal it all was. Going through each step and expecting a result- getting absolutely nowhere if I was very lucky, but most of the time actually falling through a trap door and landing further back than I started. My license had expired and I couldn’t renew it until I paid overdue excise taxes, and then some fees for being late with those taxes. Then the registry was synching with some other registry and I had to go to the social security office and fork over more money that wasn’t mine to get some other form from some other Forms Czar.  Hurdle after hurdle. During this time I borrowed a vehicle from a friend, I begged babysitting favors off of people that were long tired of my grief and crisis. I was housed and fed by people who already had enough to deal with just housing and feeding their own families.

If it weren’t for all these people and all my unearned privilege in being an English speaking white woman with a background in business and an impeccable phone manner, I have no idea how any of this would have been possible.

I lucked out. It sort of came together in the end, and for a few months I could go to the grocery store and say “Yes!” when my kids asked for juice boxes and pepperoni slices and whatever animal cracker their little hearts desired. You bet we’re getting the big apples, kid. As many as you want, that’s how many.

Once my SNAP and TAFDC cases were approved I was able to apply for childcare assistance, which is like the Olympics of Welfare and I earned that gold medal. I got my baby into a day care and extended my big girl’s preschool hours so I could go to work, at a real job like a real person. I bought Isla this little Hello Kitty lunch box and nearly cried in Target when I realized it was the first thing that I had purchased for her on my own in probably a year. I am pretty sure Fight Song came on the radio while I was driving home, and I punched the power button and muttered to myself about how corny the writers for my dramatic life-crisis miniseries can be sometimes.

Expectedly, everything went to shit after a few months because of things that are minor annoyances to regular folks but which cripple Poor People who are barely hanging on as it is. My SNAP and TAFDC cases were closed because of some red tape nonsense and my childcare vouchers weren’t renewed as a result of that. Now I’m back hacking away at the same red tape, jumping through hoops and having a really hard time trying to stay positive and imagining that one day I’m going to be a regular person again.

When I think of what it must be like for another family to navigate these systems without the random luck that I walk around with every day, a pit forms in my stomach. My struggle is nearly killing me, but it is nothing compared to the struggle of a mother trying to do this work with a language barrier or a disability, one who could be fleeing an abusive situation, one who works two minimum wage jobs and simply cannot afford to take the afternoon off to wait and wait some more to be seen at the DTA Office, which of course isn’t accessible by public transportation.

It’s similar to how Voter ID Laws sound perfectly reasonable, until you consider that obtaining a photo ID is a lot harder for those populations that are already shamefully underserved; the elderly, racial and ethnic minorities and us poor folks in general. If that’s not you, or someone you know and love, you can shrug and move on. As a society, symbolically and actually, we have already done that. By the looks of the upcoming election, there is an alarming and growing number of Americans that are looking at people like me and seeing an enemy. A thief. A lazy con artist that doesn’t deserve their tax money.

Thankfully nobody has said any of these things to me, not in person anyway. I’ve been around long enough to know the kind of hate and fear that people have brewing. I know the things they say on message boards and in the comments sections of their local news sites. I know the way they bristle with rage because I saw them all the time when I used to work in a grocery store back when WIC issued huge checks instead of the WIC card. They’d sigh loudly as women and girls sorted their little piles of food and placed the giant checks on top of them like flags. They’d throw up their arms and yell, “Jesus CHRIST!” to nobody in particular if they were waiting in line behind a WIC recipient. A woman trying her very best not to cry as she realizes she has the wrong size cereal box, or that the brand of juice she was getting wasn’t covered anymore and we’d have to void the whole thing, or hold the line while she ran to get the right one. I held the line happily and flicked my light off a few times, and I felt proud and happy to be able to do that for someone that was clearly having a bad day. I was fourteen when I started working there and it seemed like common sense (because it is) to just not be a dick to people.

Now I’m an adult and I’ve been in a situation like this myself, thinking I cannot handle another goddamn hurdle, and certainly not while suffering the indignity of some stranger Looking At me and completely hating me for making an understandable and harmless mistake. What is this emotion that is ringing all around my chest at the idea of having to apologize to someone for my own bad day? Humiliated rage. That’s a new one. Being broke means you learn something new about yourself every day! #blessed

Poor people aren’t allowed to make mistakes, you know. That’s the point.

We’re already pissing everyone off just by going and living our lives and having problems right in front of regular, decent people’s faces. Just filling up our carts with whatever we want.

The idea that good food is only for some people and not others really blows my mind.

It is insane to me, truly, that some people think they have the right to decide what another human being deserves to eat. 

Think about that.

You get to decide which meals a mother can make for her children? Which cookies they can bake, which spices will always smell like home to them? What about an adult man who works full time but can’t make ends meet for his family? Is he allowed to have enough protein to sustain his body so he can keep breaking his back to provide for his family? Do the kids get fresh fruits and vegetables? Does the baby get whole milk? Do their bodies and brains matter at all? Their chances at a better future? Their humanity?

What is the criteria for being afforded a little dignity in a life that is already so devoid of it? Who gets to be a human?

Is it them? Is it you? Is it Donald J. Trump sitting on his actual golden toilet? (Did you know that he’s actually a pile of rotting, knobby gourds that someone scooped into a suit?)

It’s all of us, actually.

Every single one of us.

Even those among us who will grumble that nobody deserves a handout and that they themselves would never make the same mistakes or be the wrong sort of human, they would never be the kind of person that needs help.

Even those among us who think that poor people don’t have problems, but that poor people are problems.

We can look at someone in a difficult circumstance from a safe distance and easily point out their mistakes. Each piece of their humanity we dismiss is another brick between their reality and our own.

Well you shouldn’t have had so many kids. 

Well you should have just sucked it up and not had major depressive disorder.

Well you should get three jobs then. 

Have you considered not being poor anymore?

It’s too hard for someone else to figure out a solution, but it is super easy for them to pick apart your flaws.

It’s so frightening to look at people in need that we instinctively run as as if we could catch their disease. We hurl insults and place blame. We agree that companies should not have to pay taxes because they need to create JOBS. You know, the things that are increasingly difficult to come by, inaccessible to a lot of people, are being phased out by new technologies and don’t pay a living wage (not that we’d let that happen, am I right? Bootstraps!)

We vote for welfare restrictions. Our state governments reject Medicaid expansions and call it liberty, while their people suffer, proudly, because they don’t need handouts anyway. This is a free country, you know. We have rights.

When did we decide that we didn’t have the right to be humans?

Was it when we did everything by the book and found ourselves solidly middle class but still the insurance co-pay from our company sponsored plan was too high? Was it when we had to budget meticulously to be able to afford food for our family AND the car insurance to be able to get back and forth to our offices, where rumors of layoffs are constant and nobody’s seen a raise or bonus in years?  Was it when we stood in line behind some freeloader who just gets to have whatever they want and never have to suffer like a Real Person does? It’s enough to make a person lose their mind.

medicare-keep-your-hands-off-my-medicare

This person has had ENOUGH. The little scraps they have could be yanked away at any moment and that is terrifying to them. Never you mind that Medicare IS government funded health care, and that it falls woefully short of what it could and should be.

 

I have no clue what the answers are. I don’t know how to fix any of it. I am only doing my best to point at the broken thing in the dusty corner and convince other people to get over here and look at it with me.

I write these things to raise awareness. I write these things because I want someone to know that I am a person, that my children are people, that this stuff matters. To these bloated systems, my children and I are nothing more than a data set. We are a number in an endless sea of numbers. There is not enough money devoted to these programs to sustain the great needs of their recipients. There is not enough money to be able to employ enough people, to migrate old systems into something more technologically relevant, to anticipate the needs of the state’s most underserved populations and respond with a system that actually works.

A system that doesn’t trap people in cycles of poverty, that doesn’t have such impossibly low income caps for families to be considered eligible for SNAP benefits that millions of people, good people who work hard and love their families and deserve the nourishment of good food and the stories it weaves through their lives, are silenced. They simply don’t get an ounce of help. No consideration is afforded to these people in the gaps. I know that because I lived in the gap for a long time, paycheck to paycheck. It was really scary. I wasn’t poor enough to qualify for any help, but the idea of budgeting $500 a month for food for my family would have made me laugh out loud if you suggested it to me then. I skipped a lot of meals. I let a lot of bill go past due. I know that my story isn’t unique.

The gap is full of regular people, 47% of Americans are $400 away from ruin. These are employed, educated, tax paying citizens. Nearly half the population. Why don’t we talk about these things?

Why do I get the feeling that some of you reading this are embarrassed for me when I say that I’m using food stamps?

That’s a lot of people that are cutting corners and freaking out over having to get new tires and praying their kids don’t outgrow the shoes before they can get another pair.

That’s a lot of people trying to exist and grow and learn while also kind of dangling over a cliff and knowing if they fall, everyone is going to blame them for their own problems and look down on them if they reach up for help.

We have to do better. We all deserve better, if for no other reason than that fairytale of a shared human experience.

 

 

 

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4 thoughts on “Working the System: Tales of a Welfare Queen

  1. Maneuvering through the red tape as a single person with one kid was hard enough. Getting back up on my feet is still in the works. I do not understand why so many people just don’t understand how the system is totally and completely set up to defeat those who try and to keep the poor in that state for as long as humanly possible. It’s discouraging and I’m so sorry this is currently your reality. I know it’s temporary and I know it will get better, and I know that being able to see that right now is probably impossible. It’ll get better, because it has to. *insert cliche Internet hugs here*

  2. Thank you, Polly. I’m sorry that you’ve had to live this reality but it is good to know I am in good company 🙂
    I’ve been shown a lot of kindness while I’ve been bootstrapping this past year-it’s nearly always the people who went through hell that are the first to offer a hand or a kind word or shed a little light on the path for me. When you say it will get better I believe you, and I hope I can turn around and tell someone else the same thing one day.

    I am so glad you’re here!

  3. Hell yes. To all of this. You’re amazing. And life is hard. We all deserve to be People. Also, WIC cards? We’re lagging behind here in PA.

  4. Pingback: Uncovered | That's Not What I Mean

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