Interlude: Welfare

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As politicians in the United States debate the future of the social safety net, By Common Consent Press is proud to present the following excerpt from Tracy McKay’s forthcoming memoir, The Burning Point: A Memoir of Addiction, Destruction, Love, Parenting, Survival, and Hope. This remarkable memoir will be available on July 1 in both paperback and ebook formats. The Kindle version can now be pre-ordered here.

 

SHE PARKED IN THE LOT outside of an unassuming glass office building. She was grateful that the offices were in a nondescript complex, where she could have been for any reason. She felt shame again at her stubborn pride. She had done as much of the work possible prior to actually visiting the offices; this was the last step in qualifying for assistance. Next to her was the necessary paperwork, and in the backseat were the three squirming children she was also required to bring. She understood why—DSHS wanted to ensure not only that they were real, but that they were being cared for and were not visibly abused. More humiliation. In asking for help, there were a million unanticipated but unsurprising indignities.

She got the kids out of the car and hoped that her son with autism would manage to hold it together under the stress of unfamiliar surroundings and strange smells while also picking up on her own anxiety, as always. Her youngest was still struggling (with limited success) to master her bladder, so she shoved an extra set of pink clothes and a pull-up in her bag. Her oldest helped herd the younger kids toward the reflective doors that slid open as they approached.

Inside it felt a lot like the DMV, only with more crying children and tired women filling the seats. There was a kiosk where you entered your case number and waited for your number to be called. She appreciated that they didn’t need to queue up. Lines and close personal proximity to strangers were not good for her son with autism.

There were some baskets of neglected-looking toys and torn books, but she’d brought things to occupy her kids. She didn’t want them getting sick, so she steered them to a corner where she hoped it would be easier to contain and entertain them. She knew the wait was going to be unpleasantly long.

When her number was called, she gathered her papers and nervously approached the window. The social worker greeted her with a friendly smile. She seemed well versed in calming nervous mothers and generously explained the process as she double-checked the paperwork against what she had in her computer. This small human kindness might have seemed irrelevant in other circumstances, but finding it in a welfare office while applying for assistance renewed her faith in humanity.

“Here are your papers. Your caseworker will call you in a few minutes.” The kind woman smiled and pointed her and the children back to their corner seats.

After an hour, she’d gone through all of the snacks and toys in her bag; out of desperation she resorted to letting the kids play with the basket of neglected toys.

The caseworker finally called her number and led them all back to a small cubicle, where there was another basket of somewhat less neglected toys. The kids sat on the floor and dumped them out. The caseworker began by going over the basic information she’d already provided and then began to ask more in-depth questions. She was asked about David, about child support or spousal support. She was asked about any bank accounts, savings accounts, or retirement accounts. She was asked about cars, boats, assets, homes, or other places money might be tied up, and she was asked to provide documentation on the value of her vehicle, on any bank accounts, and on the foreclosure of her home.

She had all the paperwork in her folder.

Had her car not been already paid for, she would have had to sell it. Had her car been worth over a certain amount, she would have had to sell it. Had she had any assets, she would have to liquidate them or she would not qualify. For the first time ever, she was glad her car was older and paid off. Please please please just keep working.

She told the caseworker that she did not need to apply for housing aid and then had to explain how her church was helping with her rent. She was only applying for state medical coverage for the kids. The caseworker explained that it was procedure to submit the application for all available services and see what came back, but that they would need written verification regarding the rent on official letterhead.

She added another item to her list. Call church.

Her bishop had counseled her to apply for whatever aid the state could offer. Her situation was pretty bad on paper—displaced homemaker, three children, addict ex-husband not paying support, foreclosed home. She wanted to protest, to explain that she wasn’t that person. But she was. And she was so keenly aware, now stripped of artifice, of how easily anyone—and so many women with young children—could become that person.

The caseworker thanked her for being so organized and complimented the children on being well-behaved. She’d be hearing back from DSHS regarding her application in a week or so; if she had any questions there was a number to call.

She gathered the kids and walked out the shiny sliding doors into the cold. They skipped ahead to the car, unaware of anything except their happiness to be back outside. Lost in her own thoughts, the woman opened the door of her paid-for car and the children buckled themselves into their seats. That’s one good thing about them getting older, she thought idly, they can buckle themselves.

She felt confused, conflicted. She didn’t want to be a “welfare mother.” She didn’t want any of this. She didn’t want to lay bare her personal and financial dire straits to strangers, and she didn’t want to need help. But she couldn’t pretend she didn’t need it.

She found herself oddly impressed by the safety system in place. Previously, welfare had only been an idea to her, something she heard about on the news or that people talked about with derision. She hadn’t necessarily shared the derision, but she had absolutely internalized the stigma, and her pride had made her resist help longer than she should have.

The people at the welfare office had been professional, kind, and very thorough. The offices were not lavish, but they had been clean and efficient and were staffed by people who devoted themselves and their careers to helping others. Her impression of what welfare meant was changing in real time as she leaned against the car that chilly morning.

The enormity of what it had meant to think of a class of sisters and brothers as a monolith hit her. Labeling people who qualified for public assistance as “them” had allowed her—and allowed society—to distance themselves, believing they could never be them.

The humiliation she felt earlier returned, but it had shifted and was no longer about personal pride for her situation. She felt a deeper shame for failing to understand what it meant to actually love and serve her brothers and sisters.

Realization washed over her in a giant wave. Despite the sometimes-catastrophic consequences of agency, there were mechanisms and safety nets and hands outstretched waiting to help. She lost her home, but because of the legal system she was able to protect herself and her kids. Her children’s father was swallowed by addiction, but there were laws, judges, and courts to ensure that her children were protected and that their father was protected too—from himself and from doing further damage. Addiction was a nasty, slouching beast, but there were programs and therapies everywhere dedicated to slaying it. She may have been suddenly impoverished and without child support or hope of receiving any, but there were welfare programs in place for people just like her.

It was hard to navigate, and it was difficult to prove qualification, but there were people who dedicated their lives to protecting the poor and needy and did so without huge salaries. She couldn’t provide gifts for her children at the holidays, but people cared enough to make sure that children like hers were not forgotten. She was in the process of trying to qualify for low-interest student loans to get an education, to lift herself out of need. This would require work, but it was work she could not have done had there not been aid available. Her pride? Obliterated. But also obliterated was any lingering notion that life’s blessings were somehow owed or earned.

There but for the grace of God go I was tattooed on her heart, right in the parking lot of a nondescript office building while her kids finished strapping themselves in the car and started yelling that they were hungry.

Comments

  1. The mark of good writing for a reader is forgetting where you are as you get into the world of the book. Well done. There but for the grace of God go I as well.

  2. Jason K. says:

    Thank you, Tracy, for your witness.

  3. Carolyn says:

    Wow. Goosebumps. Thank you.

  4. Sobbing ugly tears at work. Thank you for this.

  5. Thank you Tracy. This is such important work you’re doing — chipping away at the stigma our Mormon culture places on being poor and needing the assistance of society’s social safety net.

  6. Tiberius says:

    Brought back memories: our office lost our paperwork twice, and the third time I showed up with our three rambunctious kids in tow they dragged their feet until it was almost closing time. I finally just let the kids lose it on the main floor and sat amidst the chaos I was so used to but they clearly were not. That’s finally what it took for everything to go through and for us to get on SNAP.

    Also, if anybody tries to talk about “free riding,” it’s actually the childless who are free-riding because they aren’t contributing to the demographic base that will pay into old-person support. This has been quantified by different researchers; each child (after deducting governmental help and such) is worth about $250,000 to the government; in the end society owes Tracey 3/4 of a million dollars for her three kids.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    As powerful as I expected it to be. Well done.

  8. Christopher Jones says:

    Thanks for this, Tracy.

  9. So absurd that people are forced to go through all that (and more!) in order to prevent “fraud”.

    This country is rich enough to provide housing and food and medical care to everyone, whether they “deserve it” or not. Matthew 25 has some things to say about that.

    Marvelous, if terrible, account. I look forward to the book!

  10. These stories need to be told, over and over. And this is good writing too (not that I expected anything less).

    In an analytic mode, Mormon culture is heavily invested in “agency” and “choice”, and addiction and poverty are both challenges to that way of thinking. I think the false logic is “you could have made a different decision 10 years ago that would have led to a different place today.” But even if that’s true (a dubious proposition itself) the real world stories make us see that we would probably have made the same decisions at the same time with the same information, and ending up in today’s place is very much a “but for the grace” kind of thing.

  11. We are all that person. The gospel of Christ–and the Book of Mormon in particular–calls us to recognize that we really are all beggars. We are all “that person.” And not just that we all depend on God for salvation in a metaphysical sense, but that in a real, tangible, temporal sense, everything we think we have can be stripped away in an instant.

  12. Kevin Barney says:

    On the radio today driving home I heard a woman matter of factly mention all the fraud as a justification for the President’s Budget sharply cutting aid to poor families.

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