‘Strategic Plan’ sign hanging in the Department of Public Social Services Rancho Park District waiting room describing their philosophy of service.
Nothing about me fits the average stereotype that one expects to find at the social welfare office. At 35 years of age I have graduated from one college and two universities of higher education receiving an Associate of Arts degree, a Bachelor of Arts degree and a Master of Arts degree. My last grade point average was 3.7, enough to graduate with honors. While having a varied career path with many starts and stops I have always held a job and achieved some moderate success. Before I left to pursue my master’s degree I earned close to 50-thousand dollars and worked steadily as a freelancer. I am white and yes that still matters in the U.S. Statistically white men make more money than woman and make more money than people of other ethnicity (Asian men are the one exception to the rule). On average I apply for 10-to-20 jobs a week through various online job boards. I volunteer at a homeless drop in center once a week and sometimes at an after-school program as a tutor. My health is good and I suffer from no disabilities. While I drank a lot in my twenties I put the drink down years ago when it became a liability. I can dress the part for any professional occasion or situation when needed. The majority of jobs I’ve held have given me glowing recommendations. The above reads like a cover letter for a job, or perhaps a personal description for a dating website if you throw in my height, weight and eye color. Nothing about my “resume” places me as a recipient for welfare.
In the first week of January right after the New Years holiday when the owners of the television production company I worked for called me into their office my back straightened in my chair and my eyes opened a little wider as a stillness crept through my limbs. Anytime the boss calls you in the office nervousness twists the stomach while at the same time the blood quickens with excitement and hope as two possibilities enter the mind: either you did something wrong meaning reprimand or you did something right meaning award. In this case I got very still and professional as the two instincts took over and autopilot kicked in at the meeting with a lot of head nodding in agreement, saying thank you as a general response to everything not a direct question, and in all respects attempting at the graciousness that society requires in situations such as these.
Two weeks later I found myself laying in bed Monday morning instead of at work. They laid me off from my job. They said certain TV network contracts for shows never arrived, and since I worked there only six months it was either someone with more seniority or myself. Three months later the other job I worked closed down, it allowed me free housing in turn for managing a group of apartments, but the owner leased the entire building to a residential rehabilitation program as a halfway house. Since then I moved into the living room of a friend’s apartment – no rent required. A month after that my California Unemployment Insurance expired and the usual $1,000 I had received every month since February ended the second week of May in a final check for $32. The whole long, drawn-out and painful process ended uneventful, unremarkable and quotidian.
The reality of it all set in one week later when I walked into the West Los Angeles / Rancho Park District office of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services for the first time in my life. I found myself in a role layered with social stigma. I went in looking for a few hundred dollars in food stamps and a few hundred dollars in what they term General Relief (GR). For the first time I went into a government office looking for a free handout.
The rest of the facts help reconstitute the picture like dried milk mixing with water. In 2007 before the economy crashed graduate school applications went out to various universities around the country, and in the spring of 2008 acceptance letters arrived and plans were made to move east from California. As classes started in the summer the economy started its descent into Dante’s infernal hell. Two years later upon completion of the program unemployment sat stagnate somewhere between 9 and 10 percent nationally, and above 10 percent in New York City. In Los Angeles the rate pushed 13 percent. Many young people just graduating college must identify at this point.
The rate of unemployment for people in the age group 16 to 24 easily doubles the current unemployment rate in Los Angeles of 10 percent, and almost triples the national average of 8 percent. The youngest people, especially those without a high school diploma tend to fall into a higher rate of joblessness than those with a diploma, and get the brunt of the “job problem.” Consider that most students graduating college do so at the age of 22 or 23. It’s easy to deduce that many graduates entering the workforce, especially those entering for the first time, find no jobs available. News shows, articles and the radio programs have all published reports that read like an obituary for hope. Graduates entering the workforce earn less than before. Many only find part-time work. In the long term picture graduates tend to experience depressed career paths. Depression can lead to suicide, and it’s as if all the great careers committed suicide in the summer of 2008. With the careers the idea of owning homes and raising a family slowly died too.
Many of my peers who envied me for the great jobs I landed a priori the 2008 recession still held the same jobs. Graduate school took that option off the table. It’s true also that the unemployment rate is lower today in 2012 than those highs in 2010, but the truth is I’ve been running just ahead of total disaster since 2010. I’ve been doing everything possible to keep a roof over my head, keep food on the table and keep the bills paid, including massive student loan debt. So it’s a shock to the system to stumble and fall now.
Ernest Hemingway wrote that the best times in his life were in Paris when he was young and poor living with his wife Hadley. This was before he wrote his first novel. Money came in only when he published stories in a serial or magazine so he basically lived from paycheck to paycheck. He theorized that missing meals and remaining hungry helped sharpen his perceptions and aided his writing. Today journalism and publications keep cutting staff and moving to digital formats. Like so many industries at the turn of the century the publishing industry experienced drastic changes and bled many jobs. Today writers blog and blog for little or no pay. The Huffington Post, a popular leftwing blog, built itself on the back of contributors writing for free, and when it started making money it still didn’t pay its contributors who still provide most of its content. The 1920’s in Paris seem an ideal time indeed. Writing this I won’t get paid.
After my unemployment ran out I missed my first college loan payment barely scraping together the rest of the money for my other bills. Car insurance, car payment, storage rental, credit cards – the bare minimum trappings of modern day society. Missing meals isn’t so bad, since I turned 30 years old I just seem to gain weight and gain more weight. My theory, while not as elevated as Hemingway’s keen perception, is not eating helps keep the pounds off for a few more years. Later in life looking back fondly I am sure I will remember this period of my life as ‘the lean years.’ Not figuratively but literally. The lean years. Almost as if times such as the great depression reached through history to haunt modern society with such simple three word phrases. Tighten your belt. Welfare to work. Stock market crash. A penny saved. Hard day’s work. Love is free. The working poor. The lean years. They sound nice on the ear but their literalness means nothing until you have nothing. This recession added at least one new phrase to the mix: Economic stimulus package.
DPSS collects all types and casts its nets wide to offer help when needed. Their offices dot the landscape of the county. Going to apply for welfare with a friend, who we will name Charlie as he asked for anonymity, we needed to decide between the office in downtown Los Angeles; the office near McArthur Park; or the office in West L.A. off Sepulveda (also known as the Rancho Park district office). Another friend of ours who recently signed up for GR and food stamps warned us against the downtown office, saying the one near McArthur Park was less crowded. Charlie a few years back signed up for services and he suggested Rancho, he hoped they still had his paperwork and that might help expedite the process. DPSS like all government agencies holds the same reputation as the Department of Motor Vehicles. Upon visiting, especially without an appointment, the best you can expect is a long wait while you hope that everything gets handled in a single day. Arriving early in the morning makes the most sense and brings to mind another classic platitude in the American lexicon – first-come, first-served. Take a number, take a seat and wait your turn.
We ended up at the Rancho office and it turned out a blessing. Sitting in the office and overhearing two people speak they talked about other offices in the area. The usual bemoaning was going on with complaints about the crowd, the lack of employees to get things moving, the long waits. So often the workers at public offices and the costumers square off like two sport’s teams. Each staring at the other with skepticism as the day goes on and tension slowly mounts. Eventually something snaps from the pressure and a member from one of the team loses their cool and starts to talk trash to the other team. Once that starts sometimes the referee needs to intervene, and in most government offices that is a security guard or police officer. If it gets really bad someone gets ejected from the game. In most cases the one who starts the argument and the one ejected isn’t the public employee. That’s why I wasn’t surprised about the complaining, but happy when they complimented the light crowd at the Rancho office compared to the McArthur Park office. I was glad we decided on this office.
The most striking thing about the DPSS was the number of young people waiting for help. Statistically this shouldn’t be a surprise, remember that about 25 percent of young people are unemployed. All of them looked as if they were in their early to late twenties. Some of them were punk rockers, some hipsters but most seemed your average young person. A few women, a few men, some were black, some were white, some with kids, a smattering of Asian, and some Hispanics. Classifying any of them into a stereotypical group other then the youth of America would be foolish. After that came the middle-aged people (I fall into this category). As the youth looked hip we just looked rundown and out of money. Most of the women looked better off than the men, or maybe they just cared more. For instance, I didn’t shower and threw on whatever I wore the night before. Perhaps because all the negative projections from politicians, the media and society made showering for the welfare office seem unimportant. Or perhaps the idea of not showering was slightly gratifying, almost as if it was some perverse idea echoing the sentiment of needing government aid. Maybe I was depressed. Or maybe I held some misconception that I would blend in better if I didn’t shower, that it would be mostly street people anyway. Surprisingly very few people looked like they were living on the street. A testament to the other social services our country offers.
DPSS statistically lumps people into the age group 21 to 59 with close to 400,000 people receiving food stamps, and 90,000 people receiving General Relief. For food stamps, or CalFresh as they call it the county offers $180 with an extra $20 of federal stimulus money equaling $200. If you also qualify for General Relief you receive an additional $200 of straight cash. Food stamps like their name only allows for food. GR money the benefactor can spend on anything from soap to a night in a hotel if needed. Of course other services exist such as housing vouchers, work programs, medical assistance and something classified in the statistics as ‘refugee.’ Refugees from the American Dream gone wrong? Or maybe refugees from the war that the U.S. started overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan? With so much violence everywhere almost anyone could qualify for the refugee label. In the 1990’s when areas of Los Angeles led the nation in murder rates most kids in the public school system experienced a drive-by shooting or witnessed someone stabbed in the street and left for dead, so they’re refugees of the 90s. Maybe refugees from the war on poverty turned upside down as federal money disappears and cutbacks affect federal and state budgets. In reality it stands for the Refugee Employment Program and helps foreign refugees and asylees acclimate to the job market in the U.S. Maybe refugees from the American Dream describe them better today.
We arrived at the office between 9 and 9:30 in the morning. That early already the place held few open seats, and people sat on the floor or stood in the corners. Government agencies solved the problem of having people stand waiting in lines long ago. One short line to check in and then you wait until your number is called. That gives you time to fill out any necessary paperwork needed. It also allows for time to look around the office and in this case mull over what circumstances created the need for welfare. Most people’s faces read blank expressions either from the long wait, or the hardships of life, or the unknown period of sitting time. Maybe a combination of all or none of these things cast the blank pallor, the slight frown and the stare off into the distance.
Charlie went through the whole process years ago. Since his early twenties he’s dealt with an alcohol and drug addiction. We’ve known each other since high school and his struggles I know like my own. He knows my own struggles and has seen me at my worse too. Mostly he manages to stay sober, but after a few years clean he falls back into drug use. Three years clean, six month getting high, two years clean, a year getting high, four years clean, six months getting high, and like a broken record the trend keeps skipping down through the years. Two years ago he applied for General Relief and food stamps for the first time after sobering up from a round of using drugs and alcohol. Without a job after his bout and attempting to pick up the pieces of his life it helped him get on his feet. Of course this wasn’t the first time he came off drugs without a job but before he always managed to get help from his family and quickly get back to work. This time though with 99 percent of people feeling the strain of a horrible economy his family didn’t have the same resources and neither did jobs. Even the generic coffee shops that always hired before the great recession today have more than enough employees and don’t readily hire. Charlie got his life back together, came of food stamps and enrolled back in school. After staying clean about a year he spent another year getting high. No one knows better than him how devious addiction acts in the lives of people who suffer from chronic addiction and / or alcoholism. Ask him during his sober periods if he enjoys his addiction and likes to need things like food stamps, and he will say the same thing as he always does, “What the fuck do you think?”
It’s easy to blame Charlie for his faults, but in most medical estimates that would be the same as blaming someone dying from cancer for getting cancer. Of course in grief we all blame those close to us for dying, but do we blame them for cancer? If the cancer took all their money and they needed welfare afterwards do we demonize them? If they got better but slowly the cancer came back and they needed government assistance again then do we demonize them? Charlie has his faults but we might as well blame the alcohol companies for selling booze. We only hope that this time he will stay sober for good.
After they call your number and you turn in your paper application for assistance they enter it into the system, and tell you to take a seat and wait for them to call your name. At this point you sit next to the people with scheduled appointments and compete with them for the limited number of caseworker’s time. Remember this is the ‘Great Recession,’ nothing worse but the ‘Great Depression,’ and so that means cutbacks everywhere. Today it means less caseworkers. Every so often a one appears and calls out a name or a sequence of names. They peak from behind a closed door and often they call out a name that nobody answers. Then they call out another name, or slip back behind the door. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.
Next to Charlie sat a gentleman who complained loudly about an 8:30 appointment. At this point the clock edged up toward 10 a.m. He seemed disconcerted about waiting, and kept telling people he arrived for a mental health evaluation. Almost as if the threat of a mentally unstable person having to wait might get a caseworker’s attention, someone who’s possibly a danger to himself or others, who just might lose control or leave without his evaluation and possibly lose control somewhere else. At this point the office was crammed with people, hot and only getting hotter as the central cooling system for the room was turned off for some cruel reason. It had begun to smell like the few street people in the office who carried the decay of the streets with them – rotting garbage, rotting clothes, and rotting feet. Enough to make a stable person uncomfortable and annoyed, possibly enough to send the unstable over the edge. The gentleman waiting for his mental health checkup every so often heard a similar name to his own called and jumping to attention would shout out his name across the room only to have someone near him say they weren’t calling his name. Afterwards sitting back down his complaint about having to wait for his exam started again and he echoed his own words about how he’s been waiting since 8:30. The moral of this story: an appointment at the welfare office doesn’t mean you will get seen at the exact time of your appointment.
DPSS doesn’t require a mental health evaluation to receive welfare, but does require waiting. The state provides CalFresh food stamps even if you have a job, a car, a place to live and a bank account. A simple process really. You must earn under $1,200 a month (the exact number is $1,180) if you are a single person, and of course if you own stocks, bonds or have too much cash in your bank account that voids your eligibility. For expedited CalFresh, made available that day or within three days, your income must be less than $150 for the month, and you must have less than $100 in your bank account or be unable to pay your rent and/or utilities. General Relief is even harder to receive since the same requirements for expedited CalFresh must be met; except you must have no more than $50 cash in the bank or on your person; you must qualify as indigent; and if you own any property worth anything or an automobile worth more than $1,000 you must get rid of the car or property before GR is available, even if you don’t actually own the car and make payments to a finance company who actually owns the car. Is it enough to say that I was expedited for CalFresh benefits only?
Many parents can apply for CalFresh for their kids and it gives added benefits to the household. Parents also bring their kids to the office. Of course their kids don’t need to be with them, but like so many people paying daycare costs or finding people to watch their kids while they spend all day at the welfare office isn’t feasible. It is only the youngest kids who haven’t started attending pre-school, or kindergarten that show up. Kids old enough to demand things with words, walk around and cause trouble, but not old enough to realize that they might not eat dinner if their benefits get denied. One kid played with a quarter while he waited. He would throw the coin up into the air and when it landed slap his hand down fast enough to keep it from rolling away, or maybe he was trying to catch it but his coordination only allowed him to throw it up and then quickly retrieve it off the ground. A cute young boy playing with money on the floor while we waited in line for the real payoff. Another youngster ran in circles around the front of the office, running and running as fast as he could as his mom attempted to answer the clerk’s questions at the front counter. Every now and then she would reprimand him and he would answer with a laugh and run faster. Shortly after that another kid came in with her parent pushing her own stroller. Looking at these kids standing in line and hanging out in the waiting room of the welfare office, watching the one push the stroller, the one play with money, a thought silently formed: these kids are growing up way too fast.
Most likey they won’t remember going to DPSS, I know I have some vague memories from my youth of waiting in government offices but I can’t remember which office and where. I never asked my mom who raised two kids by herself in Los Angeles if we needed welfare assistance, I guess it is enough to know that we struggled. Perhaps the children in the welfare office like myself won’t remember what government office they visited, or why they needed to wait for hours on end in a cramped, hot room that smells. The embarrassment from the stigma of welfare they won’t remember. That slight nag at the conscious to run and hide when they see someone they recognize in line next to them at DPSS, and the further humiliation when neither party acknowledges the other choosing instead to ignore the whole welfare experience all together through ignoring each other. They won’t experience the reluctance to use the food stamp debit card at the grocery store for the first time wondering what the person at the counter will think of them. The first moment of panic, as if someone found out their secret, they will never feel when something they buy isn’t covered by food stamps, and they need to return it or pay for it separately. They won’t have to hide the whole experience behind a smile that though sincere won’t stand up to any scrutiny or direct questions about how things are going in their life.
At noon they sent Charlie upstairs to see the caseworkers that handle General Relief. Around that time the air conditioning kicked in and cool air slowly replaced hot air that seeped out. The smell of the office still lingered. The man waiting for his mental health evaluation met with his caseworker an hour and a half before that and around 12:30 my caseworker stepped out to hand me more paperwork to fill out, a large stack this time and let me know he will see me right after lunch. That gave me a chance to eat lunch myself. Charlie came downstairs and we ate hamburgers down the street. I arrived back with plenty of time, and the whole welfare-office day was going just fine. Even some very pretty women showed up at the office in the afternoon and I fantasized about getting their phone numbers and scoring a date. Conversation starters such as “You’re here for food stamps, or medical services?” or “What brought you here?” or “Hey baby maybe you and I can use our food stamps together at the store sometime?” mulled around in my head but with their appeal lacking I never got around to testing one before my caseworker around 2:20 called me into his office.
Everything went fast after that and the only remarkable thing happened when I asked my caseworker how many people receive food stamps. He replied without missing a beat, “It seems like the whole world is on food stamps these days.” At 3 pm I picked up my CalFresh debit card with $180 on it since they prorate the days that already elapsed in the month. I agreed to come back a week later with proof of my poverty and proof that I’ve been looking for work. Charlie wasn’t so lucky, they place closed down before he met with his caseworker. He ended up having to go back two days in a row before he got everything settled. Something about needing to meet with an employment counselor for GR put on the extra day. In the end though we both got what we needed. Charlie took me out to the Subway fast food chain and bought me a sandwich the minute he got his food award. He owed me a few lunches. Nothing like the generosity of those who have nothing; and similar to the tramps in Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row” we try to share everything though we have nothing. If it got in our minds to throw a party for each other I am sure we would do that also.
The Los Angeles Times printed an article recently about cutbacks to the federal food stamp program that the Republican held House of Representatives looks to make in the hope of trimming the deficit. They report that 1 in 7 Americans currently receive food stamps, or about 45 million people in the United States. For about 500,000 people they want to cut benefits by $90, and if able they will cut the program more. One Republican Senator is concerned people have become overly reliant on government assistance programs and he worries food assistance might not be encouraging people to be productive. Hemingway might agree with him regarding the productive part, missing meals helped his perception of the world around him, aiding him in describing what he saw as truth and adding to his writing. Might it do the same for all struggling adults, heighten their perception of the world around them making them more productive? How it applies to children I don’t know. As a beneficiary of the $200 allowance I get from the state I know I struggle with stretching $50 over 7 days. The lean years.
One woman at the DPSS office provided a ride for a friend needing aid. She herself worked and supported herself. She came for her friend. Talking with her she listened to my story and it struck me how ludicrous it must sound. I work in TV production but the past five months have been very slow with no work, I normally make anywhere from $150 to $200 in a day, I have a MA degree from a high-ranking university, my unemployment just ran out, and I keep reiterating to her how work eventually shows up and it could be tomorrow. I wonder if she believes me, or thinks maybe I am cracked up. At the end of my story I made a simple statement that she agreed with as it also applied to her friend. I said that I could probably survive without food stamps, but having that few extra hundred dollars available for food means no matter what I won’t starve this month, and takes off a lot of pressure. She agreed it makes things a lot easier and gives you a hand-up in these tough times.
Since that visit to the welfare office a few weeks ago work showed up for me as it always does, maybe a little late this time but better late than never. The month of July I won’t receive food stamp benefits as I did in June since I will be earning too much money. In away I am glad that I only needed $200 from the government, and grateful that the program exists. Grateful that the young tragically hip with tattoos and wearing black showed up at the office the same time I did; grateful that people with kids have a place to go in need; grateful that middle-aged men like myself might find love with a beautiful woman in a desperate place like DPSS; grateful that they evaluate mental health for people worried about their mental health; grateful that my friends won’t starve if they fall on hard times; grateful that street people get help if needed; grateful that the elderly get help too; and most of all grateful for the help. This isn’t the first story about the welfare office nor will it be the last, but it is my story and what I found is that DPSS represents a glimmer of hope to each and every person in that office, and whispers soothing words that everything will be okay.
Thinking back to those years when I wasn’t old enough to attend school and my mom was in her early 20’s, they must have been the hardest financially for our family. As time went on and I grew older she put herself through college and found a career. Back then our single-parent family was upwardly mobile as our standard of living and the neighborhoods we lived in always improved, and eventually my mom remarried when I was in my teens, but by then we had escaped on our own the absolute poverty of those early years. My mom was like superwoman when I look back, raising two kids while establishing herself in the world singly by herself, well … maybe with some help from the government in the form of loans and grants for school, and while I never asked if we received food stamps I easily see how we did. It’s startling to think that what my mom accomplished back then might not even be possible in today’s recession. That for the past four years the idea of moving upward died along with such things as careers.