Today and Tomorrow: Two Anecdotal Reports on Public Assistance, with Two Different Viewpoints:
I don't know if I blogged about this before or not. It's a little bit about political correctness I suppose and a little about me. My main point will be, though, that public assistance comes with an attitude. When that attitude is pervasive in your life, I think it is deadening.
A long time ago, I worked for 7-11. At that time, companies such as this were eligible for supplements from the government for hiring people that fit a job-training criteria. Therefore, all of the employees in my district were sent, with pay, to the local Social Services for an interview to see if we were part of 7-11's job-training contribution to American society.
Now this program probably had the intention of rewarding companies that taught job skills, and making it easier for small businesses to hire people who didn't have those skills in the first place. At the same time, it seemed ridiculous to me. This company was nation-wide, and was doing okay. Why give money to a corporation when there were so many people walking around with real problems?
I didn't get it. It was about teaching people how to fish, instead of standing in line for the Dole.
My appointment (although I didn't realize it at the time) took up time for local S.S. (social services, not storm troopers). Multiply that by every clerk in every convenience store in town. We all know that S.S. workload is huge and heartbreaking. Conversely, it is a system dominated by a civil service mentality. So long as Some progress is made, then it's progress, so do your work steadily, slowly, and avoid burnout. I am sure that my appointment looked like a huge waste of time to the S.S. that interviewed me.
At the end of my interview, she told me that "Yes, I did look like a disadvantaged youth in trouble" to her and so would be eligible for the program. I couldn't believe she said that to me. Was that what I was interviewing for, the position of "Disadvantaged" and "In Trouble"? How could you call a person like me disadvantaged? What about all the amazing steps I was taking, to pay my own rent, get to my own job, fix my own car for the first time in life? I had a royal blue phone and the bill was paid on time. What was so damn wrong with me?
I cried all the way to work. Shouldn't have been driving, really. My boss was flabbergasted.
"They called me a disadvantaged youth, like I have nothing going for me at all," I sobbed.
This (the same guy who told me to use napkins on a bleeding-to-death shooting victim, because they were not on inventory) got mad. "Those Assholes!" he stormed. "You're perfectly good just as you are. I'm calling the f*ing District Manager! None of my people are going to go through this. I'm telling him."
I would like to think that he supported me, but nowadays I wonder about the extra hours he was putting in while we all went to be interviewed. That may have been a major part of his ire.
My main point is this: the language of classification in Social Services is not empowering. It is a language that documents our weaknesses and not our strengths. How could it be otherwise, if they are addressing social gaps? We aren't planning to give assistance to the able-bodied that don't need it (except, well, 7-11?). The only way to avoid this weakening language is to use number categories, which are even more dehumanizing, and--always come with a verbal explanation anyway.
Somehow I fit that description, and though I was insulted by it, it wasn't wrong. If major disaster had struck (as it did, a year after) I had no cushion. Yet I found the process demeaning, dismissive of my humanity, and onerous. If a "disadvantaged youth's" parents learn to operate under this demeaning, dismissive, and onerous categorization, what does he or she learn? They are more disadvantaged than me, have more to overcome. We talk about generations of people on Welfare, but we don't see how the system itself can be weakening to its participants from the get. And yet starvation and joblessness are far more weakening still.
There must be a way to involve the language and actions of strength in the public assistance process. If we can do that, we can probably get people out of the bottom of the barrel and into a better world. By doing this, we strengthen our citizenry, and our efforts are more likely to gain us a win-win outcome.