I Want My Kids to Say “Mommy Took Care of Me”.

“Kate” and I met outside a subway stop near the Nike store in downtown Manhattan; she was on her way to a job doing hair and makeup for an off-Broadway show. Kate is a single mom with two kids; a seven year old son and five year old daughter. After living in a homeless shelter for two years, they all recently moved back in with her mother, who  found an apartment big enough for the four of them.

My interview with Kate is a fitting end to this summer’s journey, embodying everything I’ve come to expect from those I’ve met along the way. Though she is grateful for the help she has had from the TANF and SNAP programs, and medical assistance and housing, she clearly doesn’t want to be a ‘welfare mom’. Her most telling moments are when she talks about what she wants her children to remember about her when they grow up.

“I want them to rely on me if they need something, not the system, so when they grow up they’ll say ‘Mommy took care of me’, not the government.” She is currently planning to enroll in college and work 2-3 jobs, so that when her TANF runs out she is in a position to support herself and her kids. One impediment is the current job market, which is especially challenging in New York City.

Kate has the determination and drive to make it out of the system, and I would like to imagine her five years down the line, off of TANF for good, with a living wage job and a college degree under her belt. If anything holds her back, it certainly won’t be a lack of determination or work ethic on her part. What may hold her back is being on welfare in the first place.

As a TANF recipient, employers will find out she is on welfare and either offer her lower wages, or not hire her at all because they think she’ll be unreliable and unprofessional.

The stigma of welfare is real in the job market. First, when applying for jobs, because welfare case workers get involved, discussing their clients with prospective employers, thus tipping the hand of applicants and making employers aware of their background. Second, when negotiating for wages; employers know that welfare recipients need to take the jobs they are offered, and there is little incentive to offer them high wages. Third, since welfare recipients are able to qualify for continued housing and medical assistance and food stamps if their wages stay low, there is an incentive on the part of employers to forgo offers of benefits such as health plans and retirement funds that will push welfare recipients over the poverty line. The result is a pool of disadvantaged applicants at the mercy of employers.

Looking back on all the people I’ve met this summer who are struggling and surviving on welfare while wishing and dreaming of a better life for themselves and their families, I’ve given a lot of thought to what our country could do differently for its poorer citizens. For the disabled, for the elderly, for the children, a safety net is clearly called for. But for the rest, who just want a chance at a better life, and who just need a little help to get back on their feet after setbacks, layoffs, unexpected pregnancies, and the like, I can’t help wondering whether our current safety net isn’t in fact a safety ‘trap’ that becomes difficult if not impossible to escape. I’d like to believe we can do better.

Trapped

“Drew”, a Georgia native, has a couple of years of college under his belt, and now works a part time job as a child care provider for the local school district. He lives at home with his father, but is eager to move in with his girlfriend.

Unfortunately, neither of them makes a living wage, so until they find a way to cover their living costs Drew stays at his parent’s house while Brittany lives in a cheap hotel with her father, who is on disability, and Drew helps with their rent when he can.

Drew is an active Role Playing Game (RPG) enthusiast, which is how he met Brittany, and he spends his weekends acting in a local version of the “Rocky Horror Picture Show”.

We only had a few minutes with Drew before he headed to work, but I wanted to include him because of his thoughtful insights not only on his current situation but on the design of welfare overall. Drew once belonged to America’s middle class – an avid churchgoer, he volunteered as a tutor in the local ghetto, “The Trap”, a neighborhood so notorious it earned its own urban dictionary citation. As Drew says, “it’s called the trap because if you end up there you never get out.”

Drew has a good handle on one of the big reasons these programs that ‘trap people in poverty’ continue to exist; bureaucracies have a way of digging in for the long haul, and employees of social services, like employees of many bureaucracies, have stable government jobs they aren’t eager to give up. Drew notes that even the programs with the best intentions end up more interested in perpetuating poverty than ending it.

His observation that caring for one another should be voluntary and without profit is worth considering – he notes that he was once one of those who gave to his community, and is now in need himself. Would communities function better if they took care of their own instead of relying on government programs?

Fed on Food Stamps

I ran in to “Kenneth” on the sidewalk outside a strip mall on the outskirts of Atlanta, taking a break from his job as a cook and server at a small restaurant. Affable and easygoing, we started chatting and he mentioned that he has been on food stamps for years.

Kenneth’s monthly food stamp allotment of $200 doesn’t carry his appetite to the end of the month, so he supplements by working in the food service industry so he can get at least one meal a day at work. This also helps him get more nutritional food into his diet, because as he readily admits, when he goes shopping he goes for calories over nutrition, the ubiquitous ramen noodles taking center stage.

Kenneth tells a story of receiving a cash gift from his aunts at Christmastime, and how the cash, used to pay utility bills, was seen as ‘income’ by his case worker, and caused him to lose food stamp benefits. Because of rigid asset tests to qualify for benefits, gifts like this one can cause more trouble than they are worth, and pose a real dilemma – accept the one-time gift from a well meaning friend or relative and risk being bumped from welfare programs, or refuse the gift and slip deeper into poverty.

In what is becoming one of the grand memes of this journey, I found myself contemplating how we have come to have able bodied, willing workers who can only afford to feed themselves by going on the dole. Kenneth doesn’t want to rely on food stamps – what he does want is a job with a living wage, which despite his best efforts he has been unable to find.

When asked what he thinks of the food stamp system, he said ‘it is great in theory’. This can be said of many of the welfare programs we have today – they are all great in theory – feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, and healing the destitute are all noble causes.

But does that mean we should we be thankful regardless of the fact that we do a poor job of it,  or should we be wondering how the programs got so big, so pervasive and so wasteful, and start trying to get people back on the road to self sufficiency again instead? I think it is a valid question.

 

 

 

Disabled, Giving Back

I was visiting a food bank in DeKalb County, Georgia when I met “Jane”. At first I mistook her for a client – she was watching me out of the corner of her eye, and kept hanging around the edges of the conversation I was having with the director of the program.

As I left she caught up with me and asked if she could share her story. In her former life she was a figure skater, teacher and judge, and also worked as a japanese translator. She owned  her own home and car, and enjoyed a typical middle class life. Then one day she was bit by a tick and developed Lyme disease.

During the process of being diagnosed she tried desperately to find her birth mother, in order to get detailed family medical history that might help with her diagnosis. Though she was ultimately successful, it was a laborious and costly process she believes should be streamlined in case of medical need.

Her health has steadily declined, to the point where she has now lost most of what she had, and is living on SSDI. She has a service dog who can sense when she is going to have seizures, providing her with safety, piece of mind, and companionship. The costs of the service animal are covered by SSDI.

Jane finds living on disability and food stamps humiliating and demoralizing. She has come to terms with her disease, but it is doubtful she will ever come to terms with how she is treated, whether it is at the grocery store or the doctor’s office. Because here disability is invisible, people assume she is gaming the system, and treat her accordingly. She often has to defend her right to use a service animal; people see only a woman with a dog, not a disabled person with a lifesaving service companion.

Despite all the setbacks in her life, though, Jane has found ways to stay busy, volunteering a considerable number of hours every week at food banks, homeless shelters, and soup kitchens, just as she did when she was affluent. Though she is frustrated by the fraud and abuse she sees every day, she continues to volunteer because it inspires her to get up and out of the house, and she feels good when she helps those who are legitimately in need.

This attitude, and approach, to charity, I found most pronounced in the South, where I kept meeting people who were very active in their charitable giving, be it in their churches, their schools, or in non-profits serving various causes. Churches especially  do a remarkable job of coordinating charitable activities, including providing food, shelter, housing and social services.

Part of this journey has included the inevitable discussions about how to replace the welfare ‘state’. Some argue that the poor, mothers and children, and the disabled, will fall in to abject poverty, but having seen the vast network of private charity at work nationwide, I dispute that notion.

After all, when welfare appeared on the scene, replacing private charity with government-provided care, charity didn’t disappear. I wonder what would happen if welfare programs were reduced dramatically and communities returned to taking care of their own. Certainly the likes of Jane lead me to believe Americans would pitch in and take care of each other, regardless of their status in life.

“They Keep You In Poverty – Where They Want You”

“Brittany” and her father, both unemployed, are currently living in an extended stay hotel in Georgia; rent is paid in part by Brittany’s boyfriend Drew, and partly by whatever odd jobs Brittany can scrounge up on Craigslist and other job posting sites. She also works occasional day labor on a construction site.

Brittany’s story starts when she was thrown out of high school for taking the fall for a fellow classmate who brought a weapon to school. She developed agoraphobia and became housebound. Not only were her benefits cut off when she didn’t show up personally to renew her food stamp benefits, she and her father were told they had to repay the previous month’s benefits because they hadn’t renewed. She has been without food assistance since, and is afraid to re-apply because they don’t have the $300 to pay back the California debt.

Now twenty, with her agoraphobia under control, Brittany and her father have relocated to Georgia to be closer to her boyfriend, Drew. the two met online,  in a role playing game (RPG), and are now trying to make a life for themselves, starting with this move. Her father used to be a machinist and mechanic, but a series of injuries and an allergic reaction to industrial chemicals have left him out of the full time labor force for years.

Brittany recently tried to sign up for benefits in Georgia, through the state and then through United Way, which has a contract to process welfare applications using contracted ‘case managers’. The biggest shock came when the case manager told her the best thing she could do is become homeless, get rid of everything, live on the streets for six months, and then come in and apply. The message: any success would count against her, and help is only available once you have hit absolute bottom.

Brittany is a bright, thoughtful and articulate young woman who has given a lot of thought to the reasons welfare programs fail, and she is also very realistic about what happens to people who end up trapped within them. As determined as she obviously is, we find ourselves convinced that she will find success and work her way out of poverty, and yet even she admits that her odds are slim.

Is this the best we can do? Here is a young woman whose whole life lies ahead of her – young, ambitious, bright, and hardworking, it is hard to understand how it makes any sense to put obstacles in her path and drag her into further poverty. Better to reach out and give her a hand up so she can take care of herself and her ailing father. She knows what that hand looks like – it’s the hand of an employer welcoming her aboard, not the hand of a social worker.

“I Don’t Want to be on Welfare”

The sun was setting fast in the Bronx, and by the time “Sylvia” and I settled down to talk at the local park I knew we wouldn’t get much video, but she had a few things to say that I thought we should hear. Unfortunately we had to leave abruptly when a disturbance broke out nearby, so the video is short, but the point is clear – Sylvia wants a job, not a life on welfare.

A Puerto-Rican American resident of the Bronx, until recently Sylvia lived with her baby in her mother’s apartment, along with a couple of her brothers, while her husband lived with his mother in an apartment nearby. Financially, it made more sense for them to live in their mother’s homes and earn separate benefits than it did to try and afford living together.

This is one of the frustrating things about welfare – often, there is a financial incentive for parents to stay single and live apart, rather than move in together and create a household for their children. In Sylvia’s case, she and her husband eventually decided to bite the bullet and move in together, and their benefits have decreased as a result.

Sylvia recently graduated from college with a degree in Web design, but has been unable to find a job. She gets food stamps, WIC, and Medicaid for herself and her son. She and her husband would love to get in to public housing, but the waiting lists in the City stretch into years, and there is a good chance they will be off of welfare completely before their number comes up. As it stands now, they are finally living together but the rent and utilities are eating up the lion’s share of her husband’s part time income.

Sylvia seems as baffled by her situation as I am; here is a young, bright, college graduate with a degree in a highly sought-after field, headed for a life of welfare dependence that was the last thing on her mind when she went off to college. A realist, she is grateful for the money, but welfare dependency rubs her the wrong way – in fact, any economic dependency frustrates her. She doesn’t like to ask her husband for money, even for groceries, and would much rather be paying her own way and earning a paycheck. Her child keeps her busy, but she knows that it won’t be long before school takes over and she’s left with empty days.

What Sylvia is most afraid of is ending up on welfare for life. In her neighborhood, this is the norm – she knows few people who are not receiving food stamps and other benefits, and feels that the cost of living in New York City is so high that most will never be able to afford the leap off of welfare. She is also frustrated by the abuse of the public housing available – as she put it, “I have relatives and friends who have lived in the same public housing for decades, and they shouldn’t even still qualify, but they stay and no one checks up on them, and they are tying up those units for people who actually need it and legally qualify – that’s why there’s no public housing, not because the apartments aren’t there, but because they are tied up by people who won’t give them up and aren’t told to move out.”

Like most of the mothers I’ve met this summer, Sylvia doesn’t want welfare, she wants a job – she knows what a life on the dole looks like, and it is not for her. It seems to me we should be trying to capture that work ethic and put it to good use, instead of providing such Americans a life of subsistence and calling our job done.

 

Homeless and Struggling in Brooklyn

“Rosie” wasn’t always homeless – there was a time when she was living ‘the American Dream’ – husband, two kids, a house, a car, a good job, and money in the bank. But then the bottom fell out – she got divorced, lost her job, lost her house, and then, to ensure her children’s fiscal security, gave custody  to her ex-husband. He turned around and sued her for child support, bankrupting her. She found herself homeless, living on the streets in New York City.

*Please note: Audio is a bit sketchy, it was very crowded and windy at the park; a transcript can be found at the end of this blog*

Rosie is very resourceful, a trait that has held her in good stead during her time as a homeless person. She quickly learned how to find public and private charities that provide various services to the homeless, and how to make a few dollars here and there to supplement her food stamps, which are her only income. Since her background was in the medical field, it was easy for her to find part-time gigs providing services to some of the seedier doctors in town.

She shares stories of an extensive underground network that relies on poverty-stricken patients to generate billings to insurance companies, paying a small portion of the profits to the patients and keeping the rest. Whether it is sleep studies or pharmaceuticals, there are plenty of willing participants, and plenty of doctors who have found easy ways to milk the system.

Rosie turned to recruiting fellow homeless New Yorkers for these studies, earning herself a small underground income. To that she added visits to a dentist who would pay her $20 per unnecessary filling, pocketing the rest of the payment from the insurance company. This same dentist connected her with a denture manufacturer who extracted two of her teeth to use in new dentures, paying her $600 apiece – healthy human teeth are at a premium for patients who can afford them.

Rosie’s story, at least for now, has a happy ending. She has recently married, and knows that if her disability application is denied again (she is bi-polar and has been trying to get into the SSI disability program) she still has her husband, who has vowed to take care of her. Finally, she is off the streets, and his wedding gift to her was two false teeth, to replace the ones she sold.

Is this the best we can hope for for Rosie? Here is a woman who by all accounts is a hard worker who wants to work, and continued to piece together an income even after losing everything. It seems to me we would all be better off if Rosie got a hand up, instead of struggling through her days in the shadow economy. She has ambition, a strong work ethic, and a desire for a good life.  As she says, the system sets you up to fail, and leaves you in a constant struggle to survive. It would appear that the best welfare system in the world is incapable of providing anything but the bare means of subsistence. There must be a better way forward.

TRANSCRIPT OF AUDIO:

What is your background?

Well, both my mom and dad are on public assistance, we didn’t have the luxury to not be on welfare.

What about your parents?

Well, my mom got a job so they took her off welfare, she got a job in a factory, and my dad got odd jobs.

Have you worked in the past?

I had my kids, well, I was 19 when I had my daughter, she’s 16 now, and my son, he’s 13. So I mean, I did start on public assistance, and gradually I went to school, and I graduated as a medical assistant, so I went off of it, and I went to work at Sacred Heart Hospital.

You and your boyfriend moved to New York, then what happened?

I didn’t work out, so I went to Al Camino, that’s a couples shelter…so then the couples shelter, we were there for 18 months. Went back and forth, everyone denied us, we even went to hearings in the courts, they denied us, so …

They wouldn’t let you in?

They wouldn’t. Because they couldn’t verify one address…because it was a lot of moves, and the landlord would change, you know, so just because they couldn’t verify that one address, they couldn’t give help.

So how do you verify an address when you are homeless?

They needed…they wanted to people to see, like say if I was sleeping on a bench, they wanted me to get signatures of people actually seeing me on the bench, like sleeping and things like that, I mean, that’s not possible, so I couldn’t do that. So, um, his mother, my ex’s mother, she lived in Florida. She gave us…we went over there, she gave us a start. He got lazy, I left him, and I went to Philadelphia by myself.

In the last few years you have been homeless and in and out of mental facilities, but now you have a husband and a new home?

It’s been a struggle, you know, when you don’t have no family, you’re just into it, it’s a struggle. And recently I met my husband, we’re newlyweds, and that’s um, that’s the best thing that’s happened to me with my housing and everything, and he’s a good guy and he doesn’t dope or anything, and I recently to converted to Muslim. I didn’t get dressed today [wear a scarf], because some people are racist and don’t know who I am.

So… but, my life now, is turning out for the better, and I thank God that, you know, I could have got raped so many times, or turned to drugs, but I didn’t go down that path, I chose the path to do right.

What was it like living on the streets?

It was tough. You know, guys, you’re walking down the street, they’re hollering at you, it becomes so easy to become…you know, to sell your body, but I never went down that route. I just had self dignity for myself. Some women do take that route, and I have run into women in that way, and they’re young women, too, but me, I look the other way..I mean, it’s… I kept myself clean, and well groomed, and people didn’t believe that I was homeless, they said “You’re not homeless” and I said “Yeah, I am”.

I have my sisters, and they say like that, one time they took me home, do stuff like that, it’s, you know, I mean…God sent you on a path, and He knows how much to give you, before he pulls you out.

Is working for a living important to you?

….they call the cops, tell them they’re boyfriends are beating on them, you know, it’s a domestic violence shelter…a lot of women do that here [to get housing]. But I’d rather work. I’d rather work.

Me, I developed anxiety, I developed bi-polar, by being on the streets. By being on the streets. And it’s a shame, you know, it really is, because I’ve suffered personally. But you know, little by little, they helped me, social services helped me, they helped me to find a job, they helped me when I went to work and everything, so I’m just here, I’m here waiting to hear from Social Security on the retro money, you know the retro money, [retroactive payments if she ends up on disability for her mental condition] that could be thousands, going back four years, but you know, if they deny me, I’ll go back to the medical field, I’d rather work because, let’s say they give me $50 dollars, in cash, that don’t go a long way.

Does everyone live on that?

Some people, um, some people, cash their food stamps for cash. $100 in food stamps will get you $70 in cash.

Are you allowed to save money while on public assistance?

If they give us the money that we are supposed to have, and even if you put $20 in an account, and leave it… like, we were accumulating, something to fall back on…no, they want to know everything, even if you have a bank account, they won’t give it to you, they won’t give it to you. They won’t give it to you. And I think it’s a set-up, to, it’s, the way they have it, its a set-up to fail, so they, so you can go back on the system. That’s the way I see it.

Like, when I first signed up for housing, for, when I was in the shelter, this one lady, she was living there, I didn’t know, if you give one address, and they verify that, then you’re good. I didn’t know that. I gave them, I was honest, I gave them all the addresses that I was, and I got shut down. This lady sitting next to me, she knows how the system works, and she got in, and I didn’t.

What about medical benefits?

Medical…ok, when welfare gives you medical, the medical card, what they do.. I did it.. I didn’t do it, but I worked for a doctor, that was giving stress tests, and for every patient, for every person that I recruited I was getting paid $70 per person, I was, I was in the shelter. So, I’m like, okay. So what happened, a guy recruited me, so he liked the way I was a bee, and really, you know, determined, so, anyway, and so these doctors  they were outta Jamaica, Queens. I would get up at 5:30 in the morning, I would go to the methadone clinics, where I knew that people need money, to the welfare office, where people need money, so I recruit these people, and out of the $70 the doctor was paying me out of the purse I would pay the people $30 out of my money. So every day I’d recruit seven people to get a stress test. And what happens is that the doctor writes off to the insurance company, and, you know, a stress test costs a lot of money for the insurance company. They pay me $70, I’m giving them $30. So I’d get like seven, eight people. I was holding cash, I had cash like $230 in my pocket every day, and I was in the shelter, you know. And I was living on food stamps, and to live…to live.

One time, and then one time, I was working for this other doctor, and,  this dental doctor, and I didn’t have no food or nothing, and I didn’t know what to do, and this guy recruited me, but he chose me, he would say “We’ll give you a filling, and we’ll give you $20.” So my thing was that, it’s kind of embarrassing, but this is true life, this is what it is…um, I had to sell two of my teeth. They gave me $600. My teeth were perfect. But I had to do that because I needed the money.

How do you feel about selling your teeth?

You know, to this day, I’m not going to forget, because these two teeth, I got $600.

What about drugs?

There’s doctors, they’ll give you whatever medication you want, doesn’t matter what you want. See, in the streets here, Clonapin, a bottle, you can sell a bottle of 90 pills, you can sell them for $200.

What if you get caught?

They’re people walking around, they did these things, they cut you off, the medical program will cut you off the insurance. They won’t give you public assistance, they won’t give you , they’ll never give it to you ever again.

What have you learned living here in New York?

Well it’s just one thing that I’ve learned, you don’t trust, you don’t trust, you don’t trust, you don’t trust a lot of people. There’s always someone watching you here. Even if you think they aren’t watching, they are watching.

Does the welfare system work?

I think that they should give you a little bit more money. Because $150, it doesn’t go a long way. I know people mess it up for other people, but at least they shouldn’t. And, give you the encouragement that you can go to work…like not try to live on that, and on food stamps, knowing that you, that there’s no way possible…I used to make $30,000, $40,000 a year in medical assistance working at a hospital. To this? It’s like, wow…so .

I’ve been on both sides, you know, like, my kids’ father filed for child support, so they basically, I went in front of the judge, and I told the judge, and I brought, I have all my papers since I was homeless, I have all of them, so I brought ’em in front of the judge, the judge put it on hold, because he knows I’m trying to get my life together, I’m not, it’s not I don’t want to pay. He put it on hold, and, and, and, and turned it to, every three months, I have to go in, and, and, he gets my medical papers on me, you know, and so, you know I’ve been doing fine, I think I, I’m proud of myself, and I think I’ve come a long way, and I’ve learned a lot of things along the way, and now I’m more cautious.

Is it possible to be happy on welfare?

Never. Never. Never. Because everything is a struggle. You struggle  for every day. You struggle every day. You struggle every day. You struggle every day. All the time.