Continuing our theme this week… Almost seventeen months ago, my husband lost his job. We had our six-months reserves, we had our cars and student loans paid off, we had our food storage and our credit cards were empty. We did everything we were counselled to do. We cashed in our 401K, pared down our expenses and tried to stretch our dollar, making our six months savings last almost a year and half. In these months, we’ve also accumulated over 300 rejection letters for the jobs my husband has applied for in three states.
Today, we are out of rope. The savings are gone. The 401K is gone. The unemployment insurance is gone. We don’t know what comes next. But here is what I can see from where I stand…
Study One:State Department of Health and Human Services (hereafter DHS)
First Visit.We gather all our papers- social security cards, bank statements, insurance and paystubs- and head down to the DHS offices. We have an appointment, and we think this means something. It does not. An appointment, it turns out, only means they will see you sometime that day. There are no guarantees- it may be at 10 a.m. or at 4 p.m. So be prepared to sit and wait.
There are dozens of others sitting and waiting in the poorly-lit windowless office. There are not enough chairs, and people are scattered on the floor as well. It’s undignified, whether by design or by funding, I don’t know. It’s also dirty. I don’t mean a value judgement, but factually, it is a dirty place.
We wait for our names to be called for over two hours. All the “windows” are walled with gray-painted boards, and there is a small opening through which you talk to your “case worker”. We provide all the information requested. Our Case Worker informs us that we with our unemployment compensation, we make exactly, to the dollar, the cut-off for assistance. We are also told to quietly sell one of our cars, and it will help our case. Otherwise, the will count our car as income and make us claim it. We are hoping for medical insurance for our kids, since the COBRA from my husband’s job is almost the same as our mortgage every month.
After almost another hour, we are told to go home, that someone will contact us with information regarding our eligibility. They do, and our kids get medical insurance. We are grateful for this. We are eligible for no other aid.
Visit Two: A year later. Yesterday. Our resources are gone. We have no savings or cash. Since unemployment has run out, we wonder if we might qualify for other aid or services. Our income is now $0. 00. Because it made no difference before, we skip making an appointment. We again gather our papers, get a sitter for the kids and go downtown. A large sign greets us at the check-in kiosk informing us they do not see walk-ins on Wednesday. Knocking on a board “window” I ask a woman if she can help me. She tells me she cannot officially “help” me, but maybe she can answer a few questions
I learn: If I were not married, I would qualify for about twice the aid I do as a married woman with three kids. If I were unmarried and pregnant, I would qualify for even more. If I lie on my form and say I only have one car, they will give me more. To receive aid, I must be willing to go back to work, at which time they will provide the funding for daycare. But only if I work. They will only pay someone else to watch my kids, not me.
My husband and I fill out the forms and drop them in the box. Since we don’t have an appointment, and no one can officially help us, we now wait for a phone call to give us an appointment so we can go back down and wait all day.
We left the DSH offices and sat in the car. We were quiet, unsure of what to say- it’s humiliating to be in the position of needing help. It’s worse when you’re not even seen as a person. It becomes almost funny dealing with a bureaucracy as inefficient, mind-numbing and soul-deadening as the red-tape welfare system.
Study Two: Church Welfare and the Bishop’s Storehouse
I’m biased. Right up front. I am. You can read about my experiences at the BSH here, and about struggling with humility here. I have a testimony of this church, and of the work it does, and nothing will shake that from me.
Recently, I had the privilege of talking with a local authority on the charitable mission of the Church. I was expressing concern over our need for assistance and being a burden, when he stopped me. He told me to set aside my worries. In a recent training session, he had been told all work, all temple building, all production of media would be set aside before any cut in aid to the poor and needy. Aid to the poor and needy was the single most important mission of this Church, and they would continue to provide that aid long after funds for anything else might be cut.
He also asked me if I knew the difference between the “Poor” and the “Needy”. The Poor are poor of spirit, and are needful of the Gospel and the love of Christ, while the Needy are those who know Christ and are simply in need of temporal assistance until they can again help themselves. It is the Church’s mission to care for both, without discrimination.
So, when my husband and I left the DHS offices yesterday, we drove to the Bishop’s Storehouse. We tied on our aprons and got to work. We cooked a meal for 30 people, and then sat down and broke bread with our brothers and sisters who were there to serve each other as well. Periodically as we ate, another family would come in, and some of us would excuse ourselves to help prepare their order, while another offered their place at the table so the family could eat a hot meal while they waited.
When we get home, there is a message from our bishop. He knows our situation, and wants our mortgage information so the Church can take care of it for us this coming month. He assured us in his message to not worry, and that he will meet with us on Sunday.
In one day, we see the best and near the worst. We see misguided and failed attempts at a social safety net, and we can a truly family-centered and carefully run program that actually helps real people with real needs. We see one program contributing to the Poor and ignoring many Needy. And we see another program helping not only the Needy, but working diligently to alleviate being Poor altogether.
So we can theoretically argue all day over what social welfare means. We can discuss the pros and cons and whys till the cows come home. But what is a dispassionate discussion of social policy to some, is something I am passionately living every day.