People talk to me. A LOT. About all sorts of stuff. Something that seems to have come up in lots of conversations is the subject of federal assistance and the people who utilize it. I honestly can not accurately count the amount of times I have heard that “poor” people are lazy, stupid, drains on society and so on. Interestingly enough, these conversations mostly came about during a time when I was firmly entrenched in that world. Did the people who were speaking to me realize it? Probably not, because they lived with the assumption (one that seems popularized by media and continuing stereotypes) that everyone in a certain “class” or income level looked and acted a certain way. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Here are some comments I’ve heard and what my personal experience has been.
Myth #1: Poor People Are Lazy
We’ve all probably heard this one. If those people would just work harder, their lives would be sunshine and rainbows! Truthfully, most people I know are incredibly hard workers. Sometimes, they work two or three jobs. In addition, many of them are constantly trying to find “odd job” ways of supplementing their income.
Do lazy people stand out in the rain for hours just to get a measly box of free food? Want to know what’s in that box?
A few pounds of roma tomatoes (some of which were moldy beyond use) and potatoes (some of which had been cut(?) in half previously), many boxes of Phillips brand probiotic stuff, and cold medicine (which could possibly get you evicted from federal housing), two heads of cabbage (both with mold filled cracks at the base), frozen pizza sticks, frozen pot roast (out-of-date by over a month), multiple bags of candy…almost as much as my kids get at Halloween and baby formula.
How many meals could you make out of that? Furthermore, why is it acceptable to give anyone moldy food? Keep in mind that the people who utilize this service are expected to be grateful and cheerful and humble when accepting this, even if the ones handing it out are smug, mocking or downright rude (which happens more than you think). How would you feel?
I’ll admit that there are *some* people who probably could do better for themselves with a little more effort, but these are the exception….not the norm. The families and people I have encountered (including myself) are not lazy, they’re defeated. There IS a difference and it’s huge. I’ll discuss this in a future post.
Myth #2: People Take Advantage of “The System” All the Time
Taking advantage of the system is quite a bit harder than we are told. Yes, it is possible. Yes, it happens. But not by the majority of people who utilize it, because they can’t afford to take the chance of losing it. Or having to pay it back. Or going to jail. The penalty for committing fraud is stiff and swift and unforgiving.
In this digital age, almost everything we do is traceable and the government agencies have access to all of it. In order to get assistance, you have to disclose all your assets. These are checked out by the case worker. If it doesn’t match up, nine times out of ten, it WILL get caught. Even when it’s an honest mistake, the computer will automatically reject the application or re-certification and the person will have to start all over again. Also, most of the assistance resources are connected. Want to apply for WIC? They’ll know if you’re also receiving food stamps, TANF (welfare) or Medicaid (state insurance). Food pantries? Same thing. THEY ARE ALL CONNECTED. It is nearly impossible to utilize one resource without the others knowing about it, and each one will require a driver’s license or some proof of identity, address, family size, etc.
Myth #3: People in “The System” are Drug Users/Addicts/Junkies
Again, this does happen….just not as often as we are led to believe. I was shocked when our state decided to give drug screens for people on assistance. Drug testing, especially for opiates and amphetamines, has a fairly high false-positive rate. Unfortunately, it is ridiculously difficult to prove a false-positive afterwards and not many are aware that false-positives are even possible until it’s too late.
Contrary to popular belief, many poor people are not on drugs. First, they’re working too hard to have time to drugs. Second, anyone living in federal housing is subject to random inspections with minimal notice. Third, most of them have kids that they love and want to stay with them.
I assume that most who have this train of thought have a picture in their head that goes something like this: Mommy/Daddy and some friends shoot up/smoke/snort America’s tax dollars (in the form of food stamps that have been sold or welfare) while little Suzy Q sits quietly in her room (which has nothing in it because all the money has gone to drugs), wishing for a dinner that consisted of more than the moldy romas and half potatoes her parents got at last week’s free food distribution.
As I mentioned above, it’s not super easy to get assistance. There is paperwork, a lot of paperwork. And appointments. Neither of these are easy when you’re high. Addicts are pretty flaky, have you ever noticed that? In addition, the ones who are so deep that they’re selling their food money are most likely pretty obviously on drugs.
During my time in federal housing, where practically every family was receiving food stamps and many were also receiving TANF, I met NO families where the children were going hungry due to their parents drug addictions. In fact, I only ever saw one family, ONE, that had some serious issues.
Myth #4: People on Assistance are Living “High on the Hog”
When I realized I needed to get out of my living situation fairly quickly, I called my local services office and asked what options were available to me, a mother of two who was looking for a job but wasn’t supposed to be driving due to a medical condition. I wasn’t being physically abused, so getting a temporary place to live was not accessible to me. I couldn’t get housing assistance until I had proof of monthly income and I couldn’t get TANF (welfare) until I was not living with my then-husband. When I finally found a job, my monthly income was around $600. Once I had received a few paychecks, I could prove my income and was then able to qualify for federal housing assistance, but I made too much money to qualify for TANF.
The families I met who *did* qualify for TANF, typically mothers who had very little children, were receiving maybe a few hundred dollars a month. This money had to pay the rent, electricity and any other necessities for the entire month. Could you live off a few hundred dollars every month? Contrary to popular belief, receiving welfare is NOT profitable for most. Even if rent is the bare minimum (in my complex, the least amount was $12) and food stamps are being received, there is still electricity, fuel/insurance for car (or cab fare for the many who didn’t have cars), diapers, dish soap, shampoo, toothpaste, towels, sheets, clothing, cleaning products and so on…
As for food stamps, you might be surprised to find out that one of my area’s top-paying employers (without holding a degree) has had more than one employee receiving this form of assistance. If families can not feed themselves adequately when making above minimum wages, what about the families making minimum wage?
I could go on and on, but this post is long enough. I will leave you with this:
Federal assistance is there so families don’t have to choose between paying the necessary bills or feeding their children. Often times, even with assistance, it is a tight squeeze. If you have never been torn between paying your rent or keeping the electric on, or worried about whether you were going to have enough food until the next paycheck came in, then you do not understand. It’s nothing personal, good for you, but you just don’t get it. No one chooses to be poor. Yes, some people choose to live below their means, but they don’t choose to not have enough. It is soul-crushing, devastating and incredibly difficult to come out of. It gets into your bones and changes you. It eats away at everything you are, do and want to be. It leaves no room for anything else but the weight of it.