Tag Archives: Poverty

What’s Wrong With This System? Larry Knows.

The best thing about about visiting Seattle’s Tent City #3 is getting to talk to people like “Larry”. He’s the kind of guy you run across at city bus stops and food banks, sometimes talking passionately to passers-by about whatever strikes his fancy, sometimes just talking to himself.  I hope you will take the time to listen to him in the video below – it turns out there’s a wealth of  knowledge inside his gruff exterior. Listen to what he has to say about bouncing benefits, and being kept in poverty by the system – if only our legislators could hear him!

Larry chose not to talk about how he landed at Tent City, or where he came from, but he was comfortable talking about his life since.  He is a longtime fixture in Seattle’s Tent City #3. Single, childless and unemployed, he qualifies for SNAP (food stamps), medical care, the free phone available to people on food stamps (though as you heard he chooses not to use it), and for a daily bus pass on Seattle’s Metrobus system.

As I mentioned in my introductory post about the tent cities, they exist in Seattle through agreements with the city and the churches that host them, and hosts are only allowed to host for three to six months, so the homeless are always on the move. Larry, and most homeless people I met, would prefer more permanent locations on city or state land, but Washington state, like most states, has ordinances preventing permanent homeless encampments on public property.

What this means for the homeless is a complete tear-down of their city every few months, and relocation to another part of the city, where they have to orient themselves to yet another neighborhood with different bus routes, food sources, social services and so on, adding more chaos to already chaotic lives. When Larry talks about asking the homeless what they need, instead of creating yet another committee to study them, this is one of the issues he means.

The most poignant moment in our talk came when he talked about how the system keeps people from getting ahead – he described how through the perverse logic of the system, getting any job means losing all your benefits – even he could see the impetus that creates, to just stay on welfare.  As he so eloquently says, the welfare system would prefer you stay in your donated apartment and eat your donated food, than make any progress towards self sufficiency.

Since embarking on this journey one of the thoughts that keeps popping in to my head is this: if our stated goal is lifting people out of poverty, why is the system actually designed to keep people IN poverty? Why do we cut off benefits the minute recipients make a dime over the poverty line, or whatever the means test is for that benefit? Why don’t we incentivize progress towards self-sufficiency instead?

Everyone I have talked to so far wants to work, and wants to be supporting themselves. Yet everyone is also aware that the minute they make any money they’ll lose their benefits, so they can’t save up for a deposit on an apartment, or to buy a car (which they can’t own anyway), even though those two things would get them on the path to self sufficiency. Even our friend friend knows how ridiculous the system is; and the sad thing is, he’s stuck in it.

New Orleans: Katrina, Isaac, and Disaster Relief

Next on my schedule: Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf Coast – I was looking forward to hearing the southern perspective on poverty and living on the dole. New York had opened my eyes to a level of welfare abuse I was still struggling to wrap my head around, and I was wondering what I would find in a gentler, calmer, and more rural part of the country, though an area with some of the highest poverty rates nationwide.

Unfortunately, Hurricane Isaac, much bigger and meaner than me, called dibs, so my trip ended up being a thirty-six hour layover in New Orleans before catching one of the last flights out before Isaac hit.

It was quite fitting that I ended up in New Orleans as it braced for the coming onslaught, because much of what makes New Orleans the New Orleans it is today is its devastation from Hurricane Katrina. Seven years seems like a long time ago, until you take a walk through the city, as I did, and see all the boarded up houses, all the houses with new siding along the bottom five to ten feet of their foundations, all the piles of rubble and new construction. This city is not now, nor will it ever be in the future, the city it once was. From all accounts, while it is rebuilding, it will carry permanent physical and psychic scars. Some parts of the city remain vacant, piles of rubble slowly being hauled off to dumps, soggy and rotting piles of detritus ample testament to the destruction wreaked when Katrina slammed in.

Talking to residents, especially on that day, knowing that another hurricane would soon descend upon them, you could sense the collective post-traumatic stress disorder, and it made the topic of this project take on a whole new dimension. For many in New Orleans, the hurricane took everything they had, and people who couldn’t fathom circumstances that would lead to ending up on public assistance found themselves completely dependent for the first time in their lives. Unfortunately, for too many this has become a permanent condition.

I met John while he was panhandling on a park bench on the riverside near the French Quarter. John is homeless, and has the kind of life story that will break your heart, and yet he was cheerful, upbeat, and so full of “God blessed me” and “I am so lucky” sentiments I couldn’t help thinking I could learn a lot about counting my blessings if I hung out with him for the day. Never married, John nonetheless had three children; his daughter lives outside the city, and his eldest son is in jail for life because he arranged for his younger brother’s murder in a botched scheme to collect his life insurance money. John himself was shot in the head several years ago, accidentally, during a hunting accident, and his speech remains impaired as a result.

I asked John what he lives on, and he acknowledged that he is on food stamps and has the free phone as well. In addition, there is a vast social service network that exists in New Orleans, and John has a hot meal every night if he wants one, knows where to shower and wash clothes, where he can stash a bag of clothes for a few days, and where to go to get medical care for the indigent. Homelessness in New Orleans is endemic, and vastly increased after Katrina. The number of homeless families is enormous, and on any given day the lines outside shelters and foods banks wrap the block. I had noticed many people sleeping under one of the underpasses in another area of the city, and John confirmed that that particular parking area is a gathering place to sleep at night, and if I went there after dinner had been served at the nearby soup kitchen I would see the whole parking area filled with people camping out for the night.

While talking to John, I couldn’t help thinking what a complicated maze he lives in, and what a challenge it must be to get through each day, and I also wondered how he will fare through Hurricane Isaac, though he seemed to have it all figured out, and knew exactly where he would sit out the storm. As we wrapped up our chat I asked him how he would describe his life, and  with the first sad look I had seen cross his face he looked me in the eye and said “I’m just surviving…just, surviving, that’s all. I’m not living, this isn’t a life…I’m just surviving, ma’am.”

And for me, this is the essence of  the critical, essential distinction that must be made, about what we are talking about when we talk about the role of economic aid, versus economic dependence. I think all Americans would agree that no one should ever have to face disaster alone – we certainly should lend a hand to fellow citizens who find themselves in the dire straits those who survived Katrina found themselves in. But what we should not do is relegate those people to a lifetime on public assistance – what we should do is give them a hand up, NOT a hand out for life. While what happened is god-awful, what it has spawned is much worse, and we must find a way to do better.

“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.