Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Public Assistance Mind-set, part 2

Yesterday I wrote that I did not consider myself a "Disadvantaged Youth in Trouble". However, that was not true the next year. I had medical problems: abdominal pain that never went away. I will spare you the details.

Suffice to say, I was spending a good portion of my paycheck on weekly or bi-weekly doctor visits. At that time, I took home about $330 every two weeks--about $5.00 an hour for a 40-hour week. I took every overtime possible. A doctor's appointment was $40.00 plus prescriptions, shots, and extra procedures. The doctor had me on a different antibiotic every week. The pain just got worse and worse. Pretty much I was working, worrying, and sleeping the rest of the week. It was a drag and I was uninsured. There was then, just as now, no credit at the doctor's office: I paid cash on the barrelhead.

This went on for months, until I passed out in the storeroom of the 7-11 on my way to use the head. I woke up with a lump on my forehead and the floor exhaust from the back-room freezer blowing on my skin. That was some scorching hot air in a very hot room, but I was shivering cold under the draft and all the sweat. Never fainted in my life before. Never have again.

I dragged my butt up and finished the shift. And I determined to get a second medical opinion. This doctor was a specialist. When I showed up with my empty pill bottles, and he saw the number of things already tried, he admitted me to the hospital the next day for surgery. Did I say I had no insurance? I was three weeks short of the entry for insurance at my employer.

After abdominal surgery, you are not allowed to lift anything heavier than five pounds for six weeks. I don't know if you've thought about this, but at 7-11 you lift things all the time. Milk crates. Beer cases. Shipments. This meant I could not work. Plus I had medical bills out the Whaz.

7-11 kicked in my insurance early, but that was months later. In the mean time, I had no idea they would be so good to me. I also had no income and I soon had no food. Every time I stood up I felt like the shit had been kicked out of me. Finally an older friend, at whose house I was eating dinner twice a week (but no more, to save my pride you see) advised me to go get Public Assistance. It took her a week to convince me. Finally she said, "I'd a hell of a lot rather have you getting my tax money than some deadbeat."

That partially bolstered my sore pride, and I went down. I qualified for Food Stamps, people! Unbelievable. The Social Worker was a nice lady. She said I was able to get $45.00 worth of food stamps, but they wouldn't ship for 30 days. Unless I said it was an emergency.

Okay, I said (kick me now) "No, no, it's not an emergency. I just need a little help."
"Are you sure?" she asked.
"Yes, yes, thank you. Not an emergency." I could not wait to get out of there.

If I had been more amenable to public assistance, I would have survived a little better in the short-term, don't you think? Or perhaps it was just denial, even at that stage of the situation. I can tell you that not eating has a way of prolonging your weakness and slowing your recovery.

As it was, I nearly became homeless. In six weeks I returned to work, still feeling like crap but medically cleared. When those food stamps came in, I was sure I was rich. I made a list and bought $45.00 worth of staple groceries which I then kept under the bed, in case of future emergencies. There was a beer box with flour, sugar, dried beans and macaroni, all carefully sealed up with wax paper and Scotch tape. I forget what else: I think canned goods and oil. But you talk about a near thing. Perhaps at that stage, I should have returned the Stamps. But no, I spent them. I was too afraid that I might get stuck again. Starvation was no longer an abstract idea.

To deal with temporary situations is as much work as constant ones for Social Services, maybe more. For one thing, the administration can't forecast its workload very well. And yet what we are wishing for is a system for self-help people getting assistance for acute situations. To get public assistance where we want it to be, it must encourage that "get up and get with it" that fortunately I had--and that S.S. reinforced by giving me a "temporary need" status.

In the previous post, I showed (faintly) how public assistance diminishes the capacity of those who use it. In this post, I show (faintly) how NOT having it can diminish capacity for individuals in society. I don't think I'm a representative case. But I do think I have had experiences that illustrate some part of the dilemma.

At this point, I remind you that I was single, childless, and had a correctable illness. For many, it would not be a one-time slump or confluence of situations. How can we afford to pay for twelve new S.S. hearings a year, for monthly food stamps, on a family perennially down on their luck? If we saw this family twelve times a year, what opportunity for training and counseling would we have? Budget counseling, for one. Reinforcing good behaviors. Yet it's cheaper (up to a point) and less government just to send the damn checks in the mail or (nowadays) credit the food stamp PlastiCard by computer.

But it's worth a thought when trying to divine a new solution. How many more S.S. personnel would we need? Do we want to pay for that instead--and unfortunately--in addition, at least for awhile?

The system is broken. For sure. But what will we do to change it? I offer my tiny examples as a starting point for new ideas. Otherwise, I would never tell you that once I accepted public assistance.
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The Bug said...

That was a scary time Anne T. - I'm glad you had a friend to help talk some sense into you. Somewhat anyway :)

When I was in college I came to Cincinnati (a coincidence, since that's where I work now) with a group of folks to do work in the Over the Rhine area - we helped with rehabbing houses, worked in the Free Store, helped in the soup kitchens. You know, do gooder stuff. I wrote what I think is some powerful poetry from that time about the sense of desperation and apathy I felt from the people who needed services & the people who were providing the services. And that was 25 years ago!

I might have to drag some of that poetry out...

Ann T. said...

Dear The Bug,
Thanks for the sympathy! I consider that time of life to be a real eye-opener. Afterward, I was mostly proud for getting through.

Do-gooding is really important work. But the apathy and despair, I think we all sense that this is the case. I would LOVE to see some of those poems. I would even feature them here, huh? Or link to them, surely.

We need more stories from the front lines. And the despair and apathy have to go somehow. I think it is part of the drag on our society, in every single thing we do, associated w/ poverty or not.

Thanks for a great contribution. This is, I think, what we need to know about the state of affairs.

I am grateful!
Ann T.

The Observer said...

Ann T:
Wow, that was a very near thing--I'm glad you came out of it OK.

There seem to be two classes of people who need help: 1. Those who really hate to ask. 2. Those who have no problem asking over and over.

We react very differently to these two groups, don't we? They also present different problems to the helper.

No answers here, at least at the moment. Thank you so much for telling your story--I bet it was not easy to tell.

The Observer

Ann T. said...

Dear The Observer,
Yes, it is not easy to tell. Thank you for noticing!

I do think again that this S.S. was a very nice woman, and again somewhat constrained by official language. You could say that both of us talked our accustomed language in a situation where the normal expectations were not valid. I needed S.S., and that was not normal. She was used to walling it off against those who would prefer to sail through life, and I was not normal to her.

In a way, these experiences have changed my view of poverty--but not enough to think that S.S. is preferable to a job, of course.

Thanks for writing in!
Ann T.

meleah rebeccah said...

Oh my goodness Ann! What a terrible time for you. How painfully scary and yet somehow you survived all of that!

I have had my own intestinal/stomach issues sans health insurance so I know EXACTLY what a nightmare it truly is to live through this kind of experience.

You are a VERY strong woman!

Ann T. said...

Dear meleah,
Thank You! It takes one to know one!
It looks like we made it through.

Ann T.

sparkcheck said...

What a harrowing experience! I'm glad you made it through... it's amazing how fragile the human body really is, and how much one little malfunction can turn your life upside down.

Ann T. said...

Dear Sparkcheck,
Thank you! I believe you have my main point all figured out. The sliding line between self-sufficiency and disaster is, for the working poor, very thin.

Those are the people I think we should help, praising them for trying hard, figuring out what they need to learn, and dispensing that along with the assistance.

Big pie in the sky Ann T.
Thanks for writing in!