“Please don’t treat me like I’m stupid when I ask you questions about things I don’t understand,” I said quietly as I shifted around in the uncomfortably hard chair trying to find a comfortable way to sit that didn’t trigger the pain.
“I’m not treating you like you’re stupid,” she responded with a slightly exasperated sigh while clicking through screen after screen of information trying to find what she needed. “I just don’t have the answers to your questions.”
“That I can understand and accept,” I replied as I watched her. She couldn’t have been much more than twenty-five, and I could hear the tension in her voice, so I slipped into my comfortable teacher mode and commented, “You must be very stressed.”
“You have no idea,” she murmured as she sunk low in her chair and leaned forward to rest her head in her hands.
I was sitting across the desk from the Department of Health and Human Services case worker who had the power to make it possible for me to get the food stamps I desperately needed, and having been on the other side of the desk as a teacher, I knew that life on that side wasn’t any easier.
How I wound up here is a whole other story, and one that I will be telling over the next few weeks, but on that chilly Tuesday before Thanksgiving I took the bus to Evanston and sat in the holding pen with hundreds of other people who were waiting to see case workers.
A Chinese woman who was close to my age, asked me questions about health insurance and whether I had it (I did, thus far). She said that she’d had good health insurance, until she’d gotten sick and the premiums skyrocketed to the point that she could no longer afford them. She was there to see what kind of help because she said she was scared of what might happen if she didn’t have any insurance at all and I nodded, knowing all too well what could happen even if she did have insurance.
I smiled reassuringly and told her everything would be okay; that she was smart to be proactive.
What else do you say when you’re sitting in an open room full of worried people being monitored by bored security guards who’ve become immune to what’s going on around them?
My new friend was called in first and smiled nervously as I waved goodbye and wished her luck.
My turn would not come until after I’d watched two Eastern European teenagers whisper and text a cute boy on one of the girl’s phones while a harried mother hauled two small children up to the front when her name was called. The toddler looked like a tiny sausage stuffed in a royal blue casing precariously perched on a pair of thick-soled winter boots, but he managed to giggle and dance his way to the front infusing the room with a bit of joy before everything returned to business as usual.
When I was called in for my appointment, my case worker held the door then pivoted and briskly marched toward her cubicle as I lagged behind. It struck me that the office resembled one of those mazes that scientists use to train rats, and I suddenly felt sad for the people who had to work in it.
How does one maintain the ability to treat others with dignity while working in an impersonal institutional environment like this?
It wasn’t until after we’d gone through the basics and she’d corrected errors on my application that I made my observation about her stress.
She told me that she’d seen a drastic increase in middle-class Americans who need help with food, housing, and health care. And told me about people with advanced degrees who’d lost their jobs and were living in homes without heat and whose children relied school lunch programs for at least one meal.
I asked her if she got to follow up with the people whose paperwork she processed, and she replied, “Oh no! I only process the paperwork. I don’t actually get to work with people outside of the initial intake.”
I asked her how many cases she processes per day, and she said, “On a good day maybe nine or ten.”
Suddenly I understood her stress and frustration, not only was she processing more than one case per hour, but she was also seeing people like herself on the other side of the desk. On some level, it must have been easier to help people who were impoverished, homeless or drug addicted because they seemed so different (or so she thought), but when educated middle-class people are out of work and can’t feed themselves or their children, the precariousness of one’s own position suddenly becomes apparent.
There was something oddly reassuring and profoundly disturbing about this discussion as it made me realize I’m not alone. I’m not alone.
According to the 2012 documentary A Place at the Table, 50 million Americans are labeled “food insecure.” These people often do not know where their next meal is coming from and, even when they do, are failing to meet basic nutritional needs on a daily basis.
While I didn’t reach this level before I received help, I was way too close for comfort, and part of what kept me from reaching out was that I didn’t come from a family that was food insecure, I am educated and, from the outside, I don’t “seem” poor, so I didn’t feel like I qualified for help.
But the situation I find myself in right now has been a perfect storm of unexpected medical issues compounded by corporate insurance policies that are designed to preserve profit at all costs and leave thousands of people like myself in desperate situations every year.
The truth is that I have felt ashamed, embarrassed, scared and humiliated to be in this position, and I didn’t want anyone to know.
However, as I’ve drafted this blog entry, I’ve been reminded over and over of my constant preaching about “being the change.” I have shared uplifting quotes or stories that have turned the darkness into something brighter with friends and family, and as they share their quotes and stories, I have been reminded that this is not forever. This afternoon, as my finger again hovered over the save and post button on this entry and I told myself that it could wait another day, a very wise and kind former student wrote a public message on my Facebook page that made me realize I cannot no longer remain silent.
I am one of the many faces of public assistance in America.
While I am incredibly grateful for the help, I find the reasons why I (and millions of other people) am in desperate need of it absolutely unacceptable.
And if I am going to live up to the expectations of the people I love and respect, then I am going to make darn sure I will be part of the change I want to see in the world.