Poverty Battle Royale: a commentary on welfare (Part 1)

Note:  I wrote this post originally in August, before my husband lost his job.  Now that we are on food stamps and Medicaid because of our mutual lack of employment, my reasoning and rationale behind this post is even more personal than it was before. I have added references to my own experience in blue.  This is intended to be a multi-part commentary. Links at the bottom to subsequent posts.

Sometimes you meet some winners on OKCupid.  Earlier this month I met one the winners out there.  The self-assured, confident guy who is also sensitive, caring and intuitive (putting it lightly).  I have no idea how well that connection will turn out, but I’m willing to let it settle in a bit to see if it moves forward.

Then you meet some true assholes.  In fact, I’ve held off responding to most messages in the past few years because frankly I just don’t want to spend much time slogging through the waste of messages that I get on a daily basis. There was a time I replied to each and every one of the stupid messages I got, but now I’m much more comfortable with the delete and block feature.  First impressions count.  I put a lot of thought into how I approach someone before I rattle something off to them in the hopes they will reply back.  And if it doesn’t seem to fit, it’s not a biggie.  It means we likely weren’t going to hit it off in the first place.

However, every now and then, a message arrives and sometimes you have no choice but to relentlessly make fun of it.  I’m not normally a fan of mocking someone’s effort to find a special love, but sometimes the approach is so filled with hubris and presumptions that it begs to be publicized so we can point to it and make an example of it.

And in this case, this message from…let’s call him Timmy6917 (apologies to anyone with that username) was so arrogant, misguided and off-the-mark, that I felt obligated to spend a day researching my response which is posted below.

See, Timmy made three very crucial errors:

  1. He never once introduced himself, asked a question or even pointed to some commonality that might explain why he contacted me;
  2. He trotted out a lazy, conservative trope about welfare to a woman who is very clearly far left of center politically;
  3. He describes himself as “intelligent” and “sharp” in his profile, which sort of begs the question–who is he really trying to convince?

I needed to make sense of the rage I felt when I read his messages so I researched and I wrote.  I wrote 8 pages and could keep on going.  Writing out my thoughts on an issue that deals squarely with poverty and policy “suggestions” that rely on prevailing myths about poverty, I felt the need to expand even my own privileged horizons on this topic.  It was more cathartic than I ever thought it would be, or so I tell myself to justify the full day of work and sleep that I lost to this project.  It brought me back to a sense of pride for my political prowess.  All knowledge is worth having, I suppose. 

Disclaimer:  I did not actually send the following message to Mr. Timmy as he forever shall be known.  No, instead, I posted it as information for myself and my Facebook followers, many of whom know this subject far better than I can hope to emulate.  What Mr. Timmy got in reply was a curt notice that he failed to state an argument with his conclusion and that anyone who hopes to be a partner with me must demonstrate a minimal amount of kindness, respect and humanity.  I told him blatantly that the problem is not abuse of the welfare system, but rather limited and narrow viewpoints that shame those who live in poverty.  I have since gotten a reply from him, but haven’t read it because…well, I’ve already wasted enough time on someone that I never, ever want to meet much less fuck.  

Dear T,

Let me start off by saying that I’m not entirely sure what your basis is for the conclusions you’ve drawn.  You say Medicaid “is easily one of the most abused programs available”.  Okay?  Abused in what way?  Is it abused by the administrators of the program, those who receive benefits or the doctors/companies providing services?  And by cash programs, it would depend on which cash program (I’m going to assume Federal) that you’re talking about.  TANF? Unemployment?  WIC? Disability? Is your beef with the federal program itself or the state administration of these programs?  Or is it a state program you have an issue with?

But I hope to god that you’re not basing any of these broad opinions on the oft-debunked yet relentlessly persistent myth of the “welfare queen”.

I readily admit that I am not an expert in this area.  I have studied civil rights law and state/local government.  I have written and passed legislation in my state.  I have spent my entire life engaged in conversations and causes to improve equality and social justice.   I did take a class in law school called “Poverty Law”, worked with low income kids for most of my adult life and even taught constitutional law to high schoolers.  I volunteer  for a program that provides free legal services to those with no income or with disabilities.  None of this creates an expertise in this area of the law and policy, but it does demonstrate a keen interest in providing adequate services to this population.

Now, before we discuss what I have learned during my career and training, I’d like to address one thing first: Etiquette. Despite the fact that you mock those of us who write more than 2 paragraphs in our personal “summary”, by saying, “I guess they dont like questions. lol”, did you realize that you failed to ever ask me a direct question?  You could have phrased your views any number of ways, but here is how our “conversation” has played out thus far: 

YOU: (July 19) On the topic of fixing the system, I have ideas about a few institutions, but I am curious to hear what some of your ideas are.

ME:  (July 22) Which institutions are you most interested in reforming?

YOU: (July 22) Honestly the Medicaid system. It’s easily one of the most abused programs available. 

YOU: (less than 24 hours later) I also think that the cash programs need to include incentive to earn, so people are less likely to survive solely on government benefits.

Do you notice that for someone who prides himself on his “intelligence” and “willingness to ask questions” you actually failed to ever ask a question in our little exchange? Not only that, you phrase everything as if we’ve been talking for a long time about these subjects—we haven’t—this was my first introduction to you.  You could not even be bothered with a courteous hello.  Yet somehow you justify hitting me with assumptions and blanket statements as an appropriate way to make an introduction.  To top that off, you started by stating your conclusions, without actually identifying the issues or putting forth any arguments to support your opinions or even defining the problem. That’s just sloppy and unimpressive.

However, let me humor you, since you did say that you were curious about my ideas.

In terms of cash assistance programs if you’re talking about TANF it already has incentives to earn: work requirements as well as job training or education requirements that were put into the act back in 1996.   As I understand it, each state administers the program differently: some allow for job training and education to count in the work requirement, some do not.  However, like all federal programs, the money has strings attached both for the states and the recipients.  So, I guess I don’t understand where you find there is no incentive to work built into the system.

However, perhaps you are distressed that a recipient doesn’t work or doesn’t keep a steady job. Okay, for the sake of argument,  let me introduce you to the things that may interfere with a recipient’s ability to work.

At the start,  most families applying for TANF can expect a waiting period before benefits really start.  I admit, I didn’t research to see how long that waiting period is, but it’s fairly well accepted that a check isn’t automatically generated when someone calls for assistance.  And according to some families that waiting period doesn’t even start until after they’ve navigated an hour of being placed on hold over the phone or waiting in a lobby for sometimes a half day. Plus, numerous follow-up phone calls, visits, and documentation procedures that follow the same pattern. 

It took us two weeks to fill out the online application because the website kept freezing up and wouldn’t let me put in my oldest son’s information. I made four calls to their online help desk and left messages each time.  I sent three emails. I never got a response. I started four separate applications and encountered the same bug each time.  Finally, two weeks into the process, a new application magically went through because I entered my youngest kid into the system first. I got a call the next day (Tuesday) to make an appointment.  The only choice in time that they would give me was 11 am on a Wednesday.  When I called back realizing I had a doctor’s appointment that day, I was on hold for 30 minutes, missing a call from a potential client only to be told that they couldn’t find my application in order to change my appointment (and couldn’t find the original appointment). So, we just kept the original appointment.  Fortunately, our doctor didn’t charge me a late cancellation fee when I called him that afternoon to cancel.

At our appointment, we waited an additional 45 minutes until we were called by a worker to review our application.  During that time I noticed several parents with kids waiting in the lobby, many of whom did not have appointments and wouldn’t be seen as fast as we were.  Once we were called back into an office, the worker and her assistant, neither of whom were proficient with computers, were able to find our application.  We were asked a few questions, submitted documents for ID and social security cards (which we had for two of us but we are still in the process of obtaining them for the other two since they’ve been lost).  We were approved for food stamps and Medicaid, but not TANF since my husband’s unemployment payment would put us over the income limit for TANF.  We were told a complex list of things that we needed to submit in addition, but never given a written copy as promised.  We were sent to the Quest office downstairs for our food stamp card and sent on our way.  

Since then we can count on spending at least 30-90 minutes in line to obtain or submit a document (including submitting document as they come in–you can’t bring in your own copy, you have to show the original to a clerk, copy it on their machine, fill out a cover sheet and then get it signed and verified by the clerk before you can submit the extra documents). My husband’s Medicaid card still hasn’t been sent and my oldest (step)son, the one with meds, hasn’t been approved yet because of an absentee parent and a social security office that refuses to accept our identity documentation. 

This is precious time that could be spent working or looking for work. Imagine taking time off of work to wade through this process.  What employer will give you the necessary open-ended time off just to minimally complete this process? (Answer: the kind who pays enough that you wouldn’t need welfare at all)  But if they want their families to be fed, this is a necessary evil in the process.   Let’s face it, it takes at least some level of commitment to wait that long for the opportunity to have your life, your choices and household finances examined just for the mere benefit of getting up to an extra $1000/mo (the maximum monthly benefit that I was able to find in my one day of research).  Then to be expected to continue to show up as a means of justifying their ongoing need to busy and jaded officials.  As one family I worked with put it, “I had a part-time job just trying to apply and keep benefits.  I want to work, just not for them.”

But somehow I don’t think you figured those costs of time or energy in your “incentive to earn” scenario.

Click here to continue to part 2.


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