there are some things you don’t think about

I’d like to write more here about poverty as I’ve experienced it this year. I think I’ve resisted because  when you talk about poverty people seem to think you’re inviting them to argue with you. I’m not trying to whine on my own behalf or to argue for or against any specific policy, action, or belief; just hoping to communicate a change in perspective and maybe inspire a little compassion.

My mail makes several stops before finally landing in my hands. It turns out to be a surprise letter from my friend at boot camp, and a surprise letter from the Department of Social Services. It is postmarked February 28 and contains a form that must be returned by March 10 if I am to continue receiving SNAP (food stamp) benefits. Today is March 8, too late to mail the thing.

Fortunately it is a sunny day outside, and I leave work early on Fridays. I fill out the form, copy my most recent pay stub at work, put on some walking shoes, and head downtown. It is a mile to the DSS offices, housed in an enormous building with other county departments.

The suite number addressed on the form is not a place I can go, so I make my way to “food stamps undercare” on the building directory. I open a door, turn a corner, and am confronted with an exact replica of the waiting room at the Department of Health or my own food pantry – at least 50 people of all colors sitting in uncomfortable chairs while three exhausted-looking bureaucrats try to explain forms and rules over objections, excuses, language and literacy barriers and special circumstances. Babies squirm and fluorescent lights fluoresce. I stare for a few seconds, know at a glance anyone I try to talk to will tell me to get in line, turn around and leave. The woman I find in the office on the next floor up first directs me back to undercare, but I explain myself in a couple of sentences and she offers to send my form via interoffice envelope. Barring an administrative snafu, my grocery budget is safe.

All’s well that ends well – for me. I had an enjoyable afternoon walking through my city in the sunshine. But I’m lucky I had the afternoon off and could get my form in before the weekend.  It was a small inconvenience to fulfill the requirement of submitting a pay stub; I had to go home and get it and bring it back to work to copy it; but it’s a good thing my office has a copier I’m allowed to use. I’m lucky I live close to downtown and had no trouble walking to the DSS. Perhaps luckiest of all, I am competent and assertive in an office environment. I knew how to find a shortcut around the waiting room, and was not afraid or unable to succinctly explain what I needed to the person I finally apprehended. I consider her my equal and expected she could help me.

The world is filled with gatekeepers who exist in equal parts to help you and to keep you from disrupting the system. Getting what you need from them usually requires a complex set of skills and attitudes – respect and patience, but also confidence, firmness and persistence, as well as a general ability to communicate what you are asking the person to do for you. Those are skills and attitudes I learned watching my mother talk to doctors’ receptionists and bank tellers, and working in the offices of my high school and college. They are not skills everyone possesses. An office environment can be incredibly intimidating, especially considering the high levels of frustration often apparent on both sides of the desk for an issue as vital to a family as food stamps.

If I had not been able to turn the gatekeepers’ “no” into a “yes”, I would probably have had to take a number and sit in the waiting room. Assuming the office had not closed before they reached my case and received my envelope, the hour or two I would have lost may seem like just an annoyance. However, time is a resource many people cannot easily spare. You miss your bus; you’re late to get the kids from after school; you forgo your cheap or healthy dinner for a quick frozen pizza; you can’t get through all the homework help; there’s always another form to fill out.

I’m a no-excuses kind of person, but it’s the little things that make you feel powerless. Your mail comes late and suddenly, unforeseeably, your food budget is threatened by invisible powers with computers. Those bad days when things pile up and you’re overwhelmed by everyday life? That is, far too often, the life of the poor.


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1 Comment

  1. These are definitely things we don’t think about especially when you bring up the time cost to a person who has to juggle public transit and childcare.


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