Friday, November 13, 2009

Just shut up and obey.

Ah, long time, no post. Sorry for the radio silence over here. We're in the middle of a rough patch right now--same rough patch that either 9.6% or 17% (depending on your source) is in, so nothing unusual. We're jobless right now, which is both making it difficult to work on Adapting in Place, and at the same time making me very grateful that I have been working on Adapting in Place. More on that later, though. Right now, snark!

Currently, myself and many of my friends are on varying forms of state aid. Taking public assistance is a daunting thing to do, generally incredibly depressing, and just all around no fun. Many perfect strangers are happy to criticize you for your dependence, regardless of the fact that they have no idea what your actual situation is.

With this in mind, I've compiled a simple list of rules (or perhaps, "guidelines") to help minimize the embarrassment and discomfort of taking public assistance. This list has been created based on my own experience and the experience of friends. Please note that contravening any rule in any way does grant legal rights for every person who sees you to judge you (out loud or, if desired, in print) on any or all of the following: your lifestyle choices, your parenting, your personal hygiene, your laziness, your education, your intellect, your lack of patriotism/apparent Frenchness, your very existence as signaling the certain decline and fall of our entire civilization, or any other topic of choice. So please do be careful out there!

The Rules:

1. Don't be dirty. Present yourself in as hygenically-perfect a condition as possible. You should have no visible dirt on your person (including fingernails), clean and well-kept hair, freshly-laundered clothes, no rumples, etc. This goes double-extra mega for children. Any signs of uncleanliness in your children could be considered grounds for busybody supermarket shoppers to call DFS on you.
2. Don't be clean. But remember, you are poor. You shouldn't be able to afford things like shampoo, or fresh laundry, etc. If you're too clean, you are obviously wasting the taxpayers money on frivolities. Do nothing to breach the carefully-maintained prejudices of the public who believe that people on assistance are dirty, lazy slackers who really enjoy living on $250 per week.
3. Never engage in any luxury activity at all, ever. Remember, you are currently taking public aid, which means of course that you must never, ever, find any way to enjoy your life that costs any amount of money at all. Do not ever do any of the following: go to movies, rent movies, go to the theatre, go to a restaurant, take your children to amusement/skating/other fun activities, or anything else that might cost money. You are poor--you don't deserve a moment's enjoyment of life. If you did deserve it, you wouldn't be poor, right?
3a. In addition to money-costing activities, also remember that free activities that you might enjoy are also forbidden. Every moment you are enjoying yourself is a moment you are not spending trying to find a job, keep a job, find another job, or find a third/fourth job. Obviously this must be your only focus. As such, all of the following activities are also forbidden: walks in the park, taking children to the playground, having a picnic, sitting on your porch with friends, visiting family, going to parties, etc.
4. Never possess any item which could be construed as you spending money. This rule is a bit confusing, so examples might serve well here: do not let your SIL give you a manicure for your birthday, or fix your hair in any fancy way. Do not dress in business clothes, even purchased secondhand. Do not borrow your parents/in-laws nice car to go to run errands. Never dress your children in the expensive clothing purchased for them as gifts by loving relatives. Do not use public aid to buy your child a birthday cake and soda, which was the only thing they asked for for their birthday. Obviously, if an upstanding, tax-paying citizen sees you in a grocery store with nicely done nails & hair, driving a nice car, and buying a cake and soda, they are entitled to decry loudly (and post everywhere possible online) how abusive you are being of the system. Just because they have no idea how or why you have these things is no excuse--it is your responsibility as a poor person to never make taxpayers have to think about, well, much of anything.
4a. To maintain the personal moral indignation of the taxpayer to our situations, it is acceptable to on occasion breach rule #4 in limited fashion. This allows the taxpayer to continue with their prejudices, which is crucial for our status quo.
5. Only purchase things deemed appropriate by the surrounding consumers. Again, the guiding principle here is that you are poor, and obviously incapable of making educated decisions (otherwise, again, you wouldn't be poor now, would you?). You must only buy products that other tax-paying people think are appropriate. As this can vary somewhat sharply by area, it is often helpful to pass out a brief questionnaire to other shoppers before attempting to shop yourself.
6. Maintain an acceptable number of children. This number will vary between zero and 4, depending on your location--please find out what is appropriate for your own area. But the core here is that, as a poor person, and a person on public assistance, it is inappropriate for you to make childbearing decisions on your own. Poor people attempting to actually bear and raise children is considered an unconscionable affront in many places. It is immaterial that poor people are just as capable as taxpayers of raising happy, well-mannered, well-educated children. In our society, poverty is a sign of moral failing--if you can't buy your child a PS3, what business do you have raising children at all? If you need help paying the cost of children, no matter how loving and wonderful parent you might be, and no matter how unlikely it will ever be that you'll be in "an appropriate financial position" to have children, you must not do so. If you already have children, use various methods for hiding them while in public.

If you follow these simple rules, you should lead exactly the joyless, grinding, depressing life you are meant to lead, while simultaneously having any sense of self-worth or pride expunged from you forever. Remember, if you work very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very hard, you may be able to get a job that will allow you to pay taxes, and then you can decry all the other people on public assistance for not "taking every opportunity to get yourself out of that mess like I did!" If you work even harder than that, you might someday be able to afford your own health insurance!


  1. That is absolutely brilliant. Thanks for that post!
    I don't agree with social assistance in its current state, but I believe that even those that give willingly have those same kind of prejudices to others that the tax-payers now do.

  2. Thank you for articulating this so well!

    My mother worked for St. Vincent De Paul in a big city, and she used to hate it when people tattled to her that they had seen a client using their food vouchers to buy steak or cigarettes. She firmly believed that everyone was entitled to a treat once in a while. One of the things I learned from SVDP, and have tried to put into practice in my own work, is the importance of respecting the basic humanity of the people we serve.

    I am following in my mother's footsteps, sort of: Part of my job includes administering a fund that provides occasional financial help for residents of my city. The first step is always to sit down and listen to what the person has to say, and then help them follow their best instincts. Because our fund is unrestricted, we can help them with basic expenses or, very occasionally, with something more.

    Right now, I'm trying to organize some way for teenagers in our city to have a thrift shop or clothing swap, because while everyone loves to give to Toys for Tots, there isn't much there for teenagers—who often have to deal with a host of issues on top of simply being teenagers. Sometimes a Hollister T-shirt, or an extra supermarket voucher to pay for a birthday cake, can make a huge difference in someone's life.

    We also don't demand perfection from the people we serve, although we do ask them to take responsibility for their problems. Having made quite a few mistakes in my own life, I don't feel entitled to judge other people.

  3. Too funny in a scary sort of way. I'm on pregnancy medicaid and also receive some food assistance for the pregnancy and I have these guidelines running through my head every time I go to the grocery store. I'm already in an odd situation because my homeschool son is with me - and then I pull out those vouchers!

  4. One thing to add, or maybe this is unique to my area only but never, ever wear the engagement ring/wedding band you've had for 52 years, no matter how modest they may be. This rule is especially ironclad if you happen to be the widow of the person who gave you those rings.

  5. @Suno: good heavens, why? Are poor people not allowed any jewelry at all? Well, I guess one should sell off every possession they have before taking aid, so maybe that does make sense...

  6. I've had problems with stores not wanting to accept food stamps (or electronic debit food stamps) for:

    - herbs, spices, & flavorings
    - seeds & plants (editable)
    - items from deli case
    - holiday candy

    Oh and how about the fact that with the new food stamps - debit stamps? - unless your local farmer's market is high tech, no fresh local foods for you.

    You wouldn't believe the number of people who look at you weird for wanting to by things produced in the USA or organic while on food stamps. Like I can't be concerned with things like that?

    Also lots of people act surprised or put out by the fact that I use coupons. I got my daily stipend of $5 per person, ain't I allowed to stretch it? You would think this would be a good thing!

  7. This is a great post Robin. I wonder if all the sanctimonious condemnation of the 'undeserving' poor is a kind of protective distancing, ie 'that could never,ever happen to me, because I'm a)harder-working, b)less wasteful, c) a non-smoker, d) insert claim to virtue here.

    It seems to me to be a kind of denial.

  8. The sad thing is it hasn't changed in the last 15 years. When my husband and I divorced 15 years ago, I had 1/2 a college degree and 3 kids ages 4 mo, 2 and 3. So I went on assistance, at first just to survive, but my goal was to finish college.

    That summer when I requested the paperwork from my caseworker so I could go to college, she refused, telling me my kids were young and I didn't have to go to school or work. I had to threaten to go to her superior for her to give me the paperwork.

  9. I hope Bigid sees this:
    In Anchorage we have a shop called Plato's Closet which buys used clothing and re-sells it. It is very inexpensive and only features teen clothing. Here is the link to their site. It is just what she is looking to do!

  10. On the wedding ring thing...if you are pregnant or have children with you, don't be seen without the ring either, or you are clearly an immoral single parent.

    (I had this problem when I was pregnant with my first, while riding the bus to grad school. My fingers swelled up, so I could not wear my wedding ring on my finger. I wore it on a chain around my neck instead. I also consistently look about 10 to 15 years younger than my actual age (very inconvenient when I was 26).

    If I had a dollar for every remark made by someone on the bus, I could put my son thrugh college...or maybe buy him a good plot of land.

  11. Robyn, I am glad that you are blogging again.

    Adapting in Place is not just for peak oil but for the displacement of work that results from our current economic times.

    You have much to share from your current circumstance that can be useful to others in your situation.

    I hope you feel you can share more.

  12. Thank you, Fleecenik. When you put it that way, it's pretty obvious that this place can still be useful to many (myself included). I think the main cause of dead-blog has just been a mixture of exhaustion & depression. Joblessness really sucks, ya know? But even that could be fodder for blogging, and might help me get into a better mood, or at least get some good ideas. I know that my husband has been helped a lot by participating in NaNoWriMo this month... So thank you again for the encouragement. I hope you'll see more of me soon! =)

  13. Well said. i've been there, and moved on, as I'm sure you will. Don't accept the shame society offers. You are a normal person, in a society that is broken in many ways.

  14. For many it's so much easier to assume and condemn than to walk a mile in the other person's shoes.

    Unfortunately it's those who do try to beat the system that induce this kind of thinking.

  15. Robyn, I'm so sorry to hear about your troubles. Like you said, joblessness sucks!

    But I appreciate your being able to keep your sense of humor about the whole situation. I hope you'll think of this blog as your place to share what's happening, because like others have said, experience is a good teacher :).

  16. Yes & thank you. God I hate shopping with the WIC checks because I have to get my other groceries on a separate order, which means people get to judge me for using WIC & for buying toothpaste! I hate it. Matt often goes and cashes two WIC checks at once so we can be done with it faster. Also, we will only do it if we have 1 or 2 kids with us - not 0 or 3 -
    and let's not even start on the medicaid....the state we were formerly in went to great lengths to file everyone into an HMO so every time you went into a doctor's office with your card it would be an HMO card and not a big Red M on your kid's hat. But 95% of the doctors' offices we went to the receptionists felt compelled to loudly exclaimly "OH! This it the MEDICAID HMO, right?"
    Yes, right, lady, thanks. I'll sit down here on the floor and grovel now, do you have any sack cloth or ashes I could use?

  17. I have come from this situation and am thankfully on the other side of it now. I know all of these pressures are real and hard to deal with. I found that most of these feelings were coming from shame that I carried for my situation. Whether you are rich or poor there are people on the other side ready to judge.

    I had 3 children with the state's assistance, have used WIC and food stamps. I have been there. The most important thing I learned was one of the truths our country was founded on. We all have the right to life, liberty and the persuit of happiness.

    I struggled every time I had to renew our "benefits" and felt shame when we went to the grocery store. I really had to search myself and be honest about what was best for my family. It was definitly more important that I receive care during my pregnancy than not. And my children did need healthy food. When I changed my thinking I was able to go to the store with confidence. I bought the things that were healthy and made our family happy. When I found my pride and self esteem within myself I no longer needed to be concerned about the way people were judging me. I knew that I was not a free-loader, and that this was not going to be my situation forever.

    I hesitate to say this for what might seem like a lack of compassion, but feel it is important to inspire hope. My husband now has a great job, we have had our fourth child without assistance from the state and are now able to have a grocery budget that does not come from the state. The things I learned during those hard times have been vital to the happiness of our family.

    Go to the park. Wear the clothes you have. Take pride in who you are. Remember you are in charge of your own happiness. While joblessness is not what we struggle with right now, there are always going to be hard things we face. Your attitude is one of the only things you can control. I pray this is short-lived for you.

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