passerine: Picture of Sparrow from Dykes to Watch For (Default)
[personal profile] passerine
[Consider this trigger-warned for Everything Under The Sun, at least in passing, though mostly for mental illness-related Fail.]

I have had ENOUGH of the anecdata about public benefit “abusers” and poor people in general, ENOUGH of the assumptions that one can tell what a scammer a poor person is just by looking at her, ENOUGH of the “my less-stigmatized benefit is legit, while your more-stigmatized benefit is not!” nonsense that so often dominates these debates, and FAR MORE THAN ENOUGH of the mentality that equates PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY for the poor with an unlimited supply of spare time AND spoons.

The thing is? You DON’T know what’s going on when you look at someone.

I have plenty of anecdata I can throw right back at you. Everything that follows is an experience of mine, an experience of someone I know, a composite of many similar stories from multiple people I know, or something I have encountered in the course of my various social services employment.


Let’s work with the Welfare StrawQueen first. (Never mind that this person is probably not even ON “welfare”, i.e., TANF as such.) She’s visibly overweight with a few kids in tow, driving a “nice” car, she and/or her kids are wearing expensive-looking/designer clothes, and she’s paying for her groceries with an EBT card. (Oh, and the groceries are something that you, as the arbiter of The Food People SHOULD Buy, disapprove of quite intensely!) Tsk tsk tsk.

She’s fat and therefore socially unacceptable, and it’s worse because she’s on “welfare” and therefore it means she’s overeating and lazing around all day, right? Well, actually (just as with anyone of ANY income level who is fat) you don’t know that. You don’t know “why” she is fat. It could be a genetic predisposition, that this is actually the weight that is “normal” – FOR HER. It is possible that a medication that keeps her from being depressed.as.fuck or near-immobilized from pain (and thus unable to care for self or offspring) is one of the MANY such medications that has weight gain as a likely side effect. She might have one (OR MORE) of the many vicious circle medical problems that both trigger and are worsened by weight gain – hypothyroidism, PCOS, sleep apnea, certain joint problems, etc. (She might not even know she has said medical problem.) She might have a serious eating disorder that medical providers won’t notice or bother to treat because ED = superskinny in their minds. Or maybe she quit smoking and traded her cigarettes for candy bars. She might be physically inactive because she is working multiple relatively sedentary jobs, or combining work and school for very long days with lots of sitting down.

Or it COULD be something about her eating habits, as you deduce from whatever is in her cart that you so vehemently disapprove of. Consider this, though. She will cook and eat what she knows how to cook, what she has the facilities to cook, and what she and her kids are able to eat. She might be buying lots of convenience food because her schedule leaves her no time to cook, or because her kitchen is missing one or more major appliances. (Ever live in an apartment or a house without a functioning stove? I have!) She might be buying food in very small quantities at a time because she has a housemate who steals food or because she does not have sufficient storage space to “stock up”. She might be buying the expensive version of something because the cheap version contains an additive or ingredient that someone is allergic to, or simply because the expensive version is healthier or doesn’t taste horrible. Conversely, she might be buying the cheap stuff that is comparatively non-nutritious so that her money will go farther.

(Go to your local supermarket sometime and compare the price of 100% whole wheat bread to the price of white “enriched” bread, or the price of milk to the price of generic cola. Oh, and go to your local convenience store sometime and consider the quality and price of the fruits and vegetables there, assuming that there are any such things in said convenience store at all. Lots of poor folks have logistical circumstances such that getting to an actual supermarket happens rarely if at all, and the convenience store is the source of whatever food is in their house.)

That nice car? It could have been bought and paid for in better times. It could have been bought when she or a family member finally won a Social Security appeal and she got her back payment but has to prove that she used it within six months so that she can keep her SSI and (most importantly) her Medicaid. It could be an inheritance. It could be a car that is older than it looks and was very well-maintained. It could be the vehicle from when she was married to or living with Mister Abusive, that was used when she and her kids fled from Mister Abusive. It could be her current place of residence! It could also, conceivably, be Not Her Car – borrowed from extended family or rented for the day so that she could run the errands that just don’t work on a bus, especially with kids in tow.

The expensive clothes? More often than you might think, Uncle Moneybags or Grandma or a non-custodial parent will happily buy designer clothes and expensive toys for the kids but will not help out with actual cash or with the day-to-day necessities of life. To do so could be a source of humiliation and strained relationships on the side of both the giver and the recipient, or sometimes the giver thinks this is how to do something nice for the KIDS while not doing anything for the disliked MOM. The clothes might also not be as expensive as you think – you’d be surprised what turns up in thrift stores and at garage sales, and for how little. If an adult or older teen is wearing them, it might be because she works for Expensive Clothing Store and is required to wear their clothes to work. Expensive shoes might be for someone who is on her feet most/all day at work, or for someone who has particularly hard-to-fit feet and HAS to go to the expensive store to get wearable shoes at all. (Ever try to buy shoes in Toddler 5XW? That was Tori’s size when she started walking, and the ONLY places we found that size were Stride Rite and eBay.)

Why “so many” kids if she “can’t afford” to take care of them? Mister Abusive could have insisted on it, if she had the misfortune of being involved with a Mister Abusive. She might belong to a religion that mandates it. (For extra ouch factor, Mister Abusive might have been of a religion that mandates it, and she finally decided that the risk of going to Hell was better than the earthly Hell she was living in with him.) She might have had the kids in better times, or with a partner who promised to stick by her and by their offspring and then changed his mind. Contraceptives fail, abortion is often logistically unobtainable even if she does not have personal beliefs preventing her from making that choice, adoption is nowhere NEAR “that simple”, and parenting an unplanned child thus becomes the default choice for many women. (Not that this is always a bad thing! I love my surprise daughter who was born while I was a broke student on Medicaid every bit as much as my planned daughter who was born in much better economic circumstances.) Oh, and she might not even BE Mom. She might be Grandma or Aunt Jessie, who became guardian because Mom is currently not fit to parent, or who is taking the kids on errands for the afternoon to give Mom a break and/or to earn a bit of baby-sitting money her own self.

The thing is? You don’t know which, if any, of these possibilities might be the actuality when you see a woman with kids in tow paying for her groceries with an EBT card and loading them into a car that’s any nicer than an ancient rustbucket.

You. Don’t. Know.

The same logic applies when you know someone makes $X, which sounds like an awful lot of money to you, but is “always broke”. Sure, they COULD be incorrigible wastrels. It’s possible.

It’s also possible that there is mental illness at work when the expenses are “obviously” frivolous, but the “it’s not a manic episode if you’re RICH!” rant is probably its own post.

Again, though? You don’t know. What seems like a “bad” economic decision to you can have some very good reasons to the person who made the decision. I rail against people’s obsessive desire to buy homes in Lake Woebegone School District all the time, but I had to do rather a lot of backing-off on that subject when a friend whose beliefs are generally aligned with my own on this topic, and who was very much putting her money where her mouth was, abruptly sold her house and fled from a local urban district to our local Lake Woebegone. You see, her young daughter was sexually assaulted by older boys in her elementary school. The school district refused to sanction the boys or even so much as allow the girl to get AWAY from them by attending another elementary school in the district.

It’s possible that the house payment that was well within reach with the initial rate of a 5/1 ARM and the good job that the buyer had at the time is unaffordable after the perfect storm of ARM reset, job loss, and eventual finding of another job at a much lower salary. Or the apartment that was a great deal when split three ways becomes a near-unbearable burden when two of the would-be housemates skip out on the lease, leaving the third responsible for the entire amount at least until replacements can be found, and that the remaining person is sufficiently upset by the experience that she fears finding replacements who could very well prove to be equally unreliable. It's even possible she was walking down the street, minding her own damn business, and woke up in the hospital days later with broken bones and no memory of how she got there, thanks to someone who is recklessly operating a motor vehicle - or worse, she could be the widow of the person who was walking down the street minding his own business and who is now dead thanks to a drunk driver.

It's possible that she may have a disability that others are unaware of, and must constantly weigh in the balance whether she should disclose it (with all the stigma that entails) or keep it to herself (and hope she NEVER EVER needs accommodations EVER for any related reason because then they'll ask why she didn't disclose it sooner). Suddenly, she's out of a job because her body physically will not do what her boss orders it to do, or because the boss's need to have a task done is more important than her need to avoid anaphylactic shock. Or the nice social worker demands to know what physical disability is keeping her from Just Getting A Job, less than a week after she explained to the nice people in the psych ER, over and over and over again, that resisting the voices in her head telling her to seriously injure or kill herself was taking almost every bit of conscious effort she had available and begged the shrink-on-duty for something that would make it stop. Or she hauls her "underachieving" ass to the doctors as an adult, because her parents didn't "believe" in ADHD and/or it wasn't something that bright girls had ever, only to be told that she is obviously an irresponsible drug-seeker, and the spiral of shame and self-sabotage goes down yet another level deep.

Maybe she calls the local NAMI and DBSA and all the other acronym groups that are supposed to HELP when one's life partner goes inpatient psych, and they insist that this kind of thing doesn't just happen, so clearly he wasn't taking his psych meds (even though she SEES him take them EVERY FUCKING NIGHT). Or she calls for help when her child with a rare form of developmental disability has become violent because he has the coping skills typical of a child one-fourth his chronological age and does not know his own strength, and get a lot of platitudes about community-based services and how he's a sweet kid who can't really hurt anyone and maybe she's just a bad parent because she can't control her own child and is looking to have people come in for free to fix the kid that SHE supposedly broke.

Maybe she doesn't call anyone because of what happened when her parents or her sister or her best friend called - a response like the above, or something even worse. Then, something makes it obvious that she isn't holding it together well, and the first thing everyone wants to know is WHY she didn't JUST ASK FOR HELP?

Maybe she's the one who IS called for help, and all the people who encouraged her to go to college and Make Something Of Herself are bewildered by the need she feels to help her parents, her siblings, her boyfriend, her pals from the old neighborhood, and remind her that she's dragging herself down. Or maybe she refuses to help and gets told what a horrible person she is for that refusal, and finds herself without even rudimentary family connections as a result.

You don't know why this stranger or passing acquaintance is doing whatever she's doing in such a way that you feel you can sanctimoniously declare that she is Doing It Wrong and that, furthermore, HER doing it wrong is wasting YOUR tax dollars. (If you are inclined to think that way about it, you also probably don't know that whatever tax dollars are spent on her observable "Doing It Wrong" are fairly likely to be preventing some much larger expense from being necessary instead. Seeing as how figuring out the financing for The Programs For When All Else Fails is such a big part of What AJ Does At Work, I can tell you in more detail than you ever want to know what those numbers are like and why. Suffice it to say that actually funding the nonexistent stereotypical Welfare Queen will in most cases STILL cost less than the "orphanage solution" certain politicians love to advocate, in just plain present-day money, let alone any of the social harm that is done. This makes me all headdesk-ish.)
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