Tag Archives: anti-poverty bigotry

Small World, Small Minds

Note: I started my volunteer gig on Monday.  My very first day, I sort of got in trouble for reporting a problem that the “powers that be” subsequently told me wasn’t a problem.  

So, I am going to avoid situations where the “not-a-problem” comes up, in order to stay clean if the shit hits the fan.  Because I take these kinds of “not-a-problem” things really seriously and will not risk my reputation – such as it is – for social reasons and to “get along”.  

Yesterday I atoned for it by repackaging 160 bags of candy for resale.  And was chatty and pretended to like being bossed around by 80 year old women who get sarcastic and mean if things are not done “just so”.

I marveled at the fact that they were able to sit and stand for much longer periods of time than I was. Physically, these first days were hard on me.  The walk to the bus stop to go home is uphill and difficult.  I fell asleep both days during the hour-long trip on the bus going home.

Thankfully, I have today off.

Today’s blog post is about something that happened last week on the van…

I recently wrote a blog post called “Free Garbage is Still…Garbage”, in which I mentioned that many people do not understand how poor folk live in America.  I was writing mainly about people who have never “been there”, people who never think about unpleasant things like hunger and poverty, or people who basically think that being poor is self-inflicted.

Well, I ran into another representative of a group of people who like to complain about people who live on disability – that small but vocal percentage of people who are on disability themselves, but who deserve it!  Because they’re really sick!  They really can’t work!

But those “other” lazy bums, they can!  It’s not right!

I was riding the senior van to a facility, going to my volunteer gig orientation.  A very obese man sat in a wheelchair behind me and started the conversation with, “I used to be in a workfare program, and they were supposed to hire me at the job I worked after 2 years, but after 4 years I hadn’t been hired so I demanded that they hire me!”

“Uh oh,” thought I, “a real charmer.”

“Of course,” he continued, “they said why should they hire me when they can get welfare to pay me?”

By now I am rolling my eyes.  Because you just know that no one said any such thing.

Aside #1: It may have actually been true, but I don’t think they would have told him that to his face – that kind of stuff results in lawsuits.

So he was embellishing somewhat, ok.  We all do it sometimes.

“But then I got arthritis,” he said, “and I couldn’t work.”

He paused, then angrily stated, “It doesn’t matter anyway, because you have to know someone or be related to someone in order to get a job here.  I even went to go see the guy I used to caddy for, and told him I needed a job, but he wouldn’t hire me!  I told him he could either hire me, or pay my way through his social security payments!”

Yeah, because that will surely convince someone to give you a job.

Aside #2: Again, there is some truth to the idea that, in provincial Altoona and in the even more provincial surrounding small towns, you have to know someone/be related to someone to get a job. Mostly because everyone around here is related to someone, or knows someone who is connected to them in some way, who is in a position to hire them/give them a reference (or talk unkindly about them being a troublemaker, in my case).

He was on a roll now. “But you know what makes me so mad?  All these bums on social security who say they can’t work because they have drug and alcohol problems.  They just have to set their minds to not using or drinking, and go back to work!  They’re just lazy!”

Ding ding ding – hot button pushed, right there.

“Now wait a minute,” I objected, “people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol do have a hard time holding a job.  They have a problem that needs to be addressed.”

“Yeah, but it’s all in their heads!  They could work if they wanted to!” he argued.

I sighed.  “You would agree that these substances affect your brain, right?”

“Yeah,” he replied.

“And you would agree that your brain is the thing you think with?  So these substances cause an impairment in the way people think,” I tried to explain.

“Exactly!” he beamed.  “That’s why they can just set their minds to not doing it anymore, and go to work!”

I gave up.  He clearly wasn’t going to get it.  I tried another tactic.

“Welfare and social security fraud is only at about 2%, that’s less than just about at any other government program.  So it’s not that many people,” I stated.

“I know TONS of guys who just sit around all day.  Why, just look at THEM!”  He pointed to 3 guys crossing the street.  They were all about 30, I guess, and were not white.

“Do you know them?” I asked.

“Well, no, but they should be at work!” he exclaimed.

Ok, this guy was just not going to get it.  He has decided that any minority person who is ambulatory and “doesn’t look sick” is just scamming the system.  People like him never seem to change.

So I dropped the subject and stared out the window at the scenery, annoyed.

With all the problems this guy has – health being the major one – he is worried about people he thinks might be taking advantage of the opulent living we on social security disability have?

But he himself is on social security disability.  Surely he knows this ain’t no “high-on-the-hog” living.

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Like Raindrops on Cobblestones

I used to live in the Republic of Ireland, in Dublin.

Nearly every day that I lived there, I would stop and deliberately commit something to memory, because I knew that at some point, I would have to go back to the US.  And I didn’t have a camera.

Even if I had had one, I don’t think I would have been able to capture what it was I was seeing and feeling.  Certainly there is no camera that can reproduce the scent of burning peat on a winter’s morning (in Dublin), and contrast that with the scent of burning coal on a winter’s morning (in Belfast).

At any rate, some of the things I loved were the cobblestones in Dublin.  And the rain, which, after years and years, made the cobblestones worn with an indescribable patina.  Slowly, drip by drip, the rain changed the face of cobblestones without erasing their very nature.

And so it is with people, I think.  Experiences that, over time, change our faces – not just our physical ones – but hopefully not our natures.

From Ireland back to Memphis, and then to Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania…where I live now.  Where I came to find a better life (healthcare), and ended up in a nightmare from which I finally escaped.  I have been healing, and trying to decide where to go next.

When I have the funds to do so (or win the PA Lottery heh).

This doesn’t feel like home to me.

And I had an experience last week that I would not wish on anyone.   It was in the grocery store.  It put me in mind of raindrops, but not because of the weather.

I use foodstamps, in the form of an EBT card.  That morning, I had checked my EBT balance to make sure I had enough for food – having bought the bulk of my food that previous Saturday – and then paid $6 to go to the grocery store.  $6, to someone who is on disability, is a lot of money.  In my case, it was my last $6 until the next check.

But I needed meds, and milk, so I went.

I carefully counted up the items in my cart, in order to make sure I didn’t go over and have my card declined.  You know, I am that person who tries to stay out of your way while I am parked to the side of an aisle, staring at my cart and counting in my head.

That person to whom you say “excuse me!” in a rather loud voice, to make me move, even if you can get around me anyway.   Because I just happen to be standing directly in front of that exact item that you need right now dammit.

Heaven forbid you do what I usually do, which is either wait, or get something else and come back to the item I need.

Drip, drip.

I am that person in the check-out line who buys organic food, you know the kind of food you claim you cannot afford.  To whom you say nothing, but loudly comment to the person you’re with that you wish you could afford organic food but your paycheck won’t cover it (with extra emphasis on the word “paycheck”).

Drip, drip.

And last week, I was that person whose EBT card was declined.  With 5 people in line behind me.

That is one of my big fears – having my EBT declined.  It is one of the most embarrassing things a poor person can have happen to him/her at the grocery store.

So, in addition to the ‘normal’ indignities that come with being a foodstamp shopper in the grocery store (in the suburbs), I had the additional horror of a declined EBT card.

My EBT card has not swiped in years.  Meaning that cashiers have to key in the numbers.  My speech is always the same to them, “I’m sorry but my card won’t swipe and you have to key it in, and they won’t send me a new card, I’m sorry.”  (My previous caseworker had told me that, no, I can’t have a new card because mine won’t swipe.)

So the cashier, who I think was new, keyed it in.  A screen I had never seen before popped up, and I won’t go into detail but I am sure it’s not the right one, so I mentioned that to the cashier, who just looked at me blankly and said, “Put your PIN number in.”

I did.  And it got declined.

“But this can’t be,” I protested to the cashier, “as I just checked my balance and it is $33.56!”

Cashier hands me a receipt that says “0”.  It has the last 4 digits of my EBT card number, but not the whole thing, so I have no idea what he keyed in.

I asked him to try it again.

“Your balance is 0,” he said.  “You don’t have any left on your card.”

I showed him the store receipt from the last time I was in the store, a few days earlier, that said $33.56.

“You must have spent that between then and now,” he said.

He wouldn’t try it again, he just kept repeating that my balance was 0.  And then called a supervisor to void the transaction.  By now, my face was bright red.  Could it be I was mistaken?

(You may recall that I did check the balance right before I went to the store.  This story just shows that, when treated like a less-than-human, you begin to doubt yourself.)

I went to the front of the store, sat down on a chair, and called the EBT hotline.

“Your foodstamp balance is $33.56.”

Now I was angry.  Clearly the cashier had not keyed it in correctly, or had pushed the wrong button, or something.  So I went to the customer service desk and tried to explain.

I say “tried”, because they just. wouldn’t. listen.

The front end manager took my card, stared at it, then did something with the keypad on her phone.  It wasn’t to key in the number, because she wasn’t looking at it while she messed with whatever it was she was doing.

“Your balance is 0,” she stated, looking at the 2 receipts I showed her (one from that day that said 0, and the one from the previous trip that said $33.56).

“But I just now called them, ” I replied, “and the recording said my balance is $33.56. Either your cashier keyed in it wrong, or something’s wrong with your system.”

“There’s nothing wrong with our system,” she shot back, rather disdainfully.  She continued, “Our system goes directly to the Dept of Welfare,” she explained.

“No, I’m quite sure it doesn’t,” I replied, getting irate now. “Your store probably has a system that connects to something, but it doesn’t go directly to the EBT place.  I just called them.  Want me to call them again so you can listen?”

“Your balance is 0,” she said.  I guess she thought if she kept repeating it, it would somehow be true.  Or she thought I was lying.  Or both.

“So you’re telling me that, somehow, between the time I just called them, to just now, you guys lost $33.56 of EBT credit?” I asked, trying to get them to see how stupid they were being.

“We didn’t take your foodstamps,” another woman who works there, who suddenly appeared to butt in, told me.

I knew it was hopeless so I just told them that I was an uppity foodstamp recipient and would be complaining to their corportate headquarters.  I left, red-faced and very upset.  And out $6 that I couldn’t afford to just throw away like that…or, rather, that I couldn’t afford to pay for the priviledge of being treated like dirt.

Drip, drip, drip….

I got home, called around and found out that, no, their store doesn’t connect directly to the EBT place, they contract that out to some other company.  And that, yes, EBT cards do often get declined if the cashier keys it in wrong.  And, I was surprised and angry to find out, it’s very easy for a caseworker to order a new EBT card for someone if that card won’t swipe.

Which my (new) caseworker did.  So now I can’t buy any food until 10 days from now or so when I get my new card, but at least I won’t have to put up with idiot cashiers who treat EBT customers like they’re the stupid ones.

I sent a long, irate email to the corporate offices of Martin’s Foods, and got a call from the manager of that store the next day.  He asked again what happened (sigh), and then apologised.

“We were wrong,” he said.  He asked for descriptions of the employees, and I am sure they will get written up or at least get yelled at – I used to work in a grocery store, and I know how the managers are.  He asked me to come in again and ask for him personally, so he could apologise in person.

I don’t know if I am going to do that.  I have not felt that rotten in a very long time.  I felt embarrassed, and ashamed, and I wasn’t even in the wrong.  I don’t think I can handle entering that store again.

And, like the rain on cobblestones, the drip drip drip of those little humiliations, those attitudes that treat you as “less than”, they can wear on you.  Day after day, year after year, they can change the face you show to the world, or even to yourself.  They leave a patina that isn’t attractive – it’s a tarnished patina, worn down to the point where the substance of who you are is barely visible at times.

I am not writing this looking for pity.  I write this to remind people that it’s often those little things, those snide remarks, those allusions to “those people on foodstamps”, those sly and dirty looks that you think we can’t see, those assumptions that people on foodstamps will do anything to “get over”, the complete and utter lack of understanding and empathy…these things take a toll.

They take a toll on us, in the form of stress and all its consequences.

They take a toll on you, by hardening your heart, thereby making you the one who is “less than.”

Be kind.  Please, please, be kind.   And may you never, ever be in the situation I find myself in today.   Because even if you have an advanced degree, a good job, and a decent life, something can happen to change all that in the blink of an eye.   Like it did to me.

Tragic circumstances happen to everyone, if they live long enough.  So treat other people as if they were you, or related to you, and cut them a break.  I know this sounds corny but…

Be the sunshine, not the raindrop.