Standing in the County Line
by Deji Wesey
“This ain’t funny so don’t you dare laugh; because it’s all about money ain’t a damn thing funny.” — Coolio, County Line
It’s 10:30 a.m. on a Wednesday in Los Angeles. I’m one of the 60-plus people anxiously waiting in Lobby 1 of the Department of Social Services. I’m not the only one here seeking government aid, but I’m 100 percent sure I’m the only person sitting here with a bachelor’s degree from one of the country’s top private Universities.
I’ve seen poverty. I grew up in South Central Los Angeles, and I’ve been sent to the store with food stamps by a relative. But, I never would have thought that I would be applying for food stamps and General Relief as an adult. The only time my immediate family saw hard times was when my dad, an engineer, got laid off from his job. As a family, we sacrificed eating out on Friday nights and our weekly family trips to the movie theater. After a grueling nine-month stint of unemployment, my dad was hired by an even larger international company than the one he had previously worked for. He saw a better compensation package, and increased responsibility.
I’ve been laid off for 21 months, and I’ve never really been anywhere near being able to afford to take care of a family. At the 18-month mark, my unemployment benefits extension was denied. I had to find an income solution — and fast — because I would soon learn that the last unemployment verification form I received that indicated I would be receiving one more check was sent in error. I wasn’t getting another unemployment check, regardless of the $3,068 that remained on my claim. Yes, they even sent me a letter telling me how much money was left on my claim that I wasn’t going to be receiving.
That’s not all: The Employment Development Department (EDD) also reported to the Department of Social Services (DSS) that I was going to receive that last unemployment payment. So, not only did they incorrectly tell me I was going to get paid, they’ve also told DSS that I was going to get paid. Because of this false information, DSS will be awarding me $14 in food stamps.
I discover this one day while standing in my parents’ kitchen, holding the letter in shocked silence. I think about all those hours I spent studying for my college exams. I think about all the time I spent working to keep a high grade point average. I think about all the sleepless, anxiety-filled nights I spent sending out resumes and cover letters. I think about how I spent the last month interviewing for a position, and how the company decided to go with an internal candidate. I think about all the hard work and dedication I gave to companies that appeared to disregard me at the drop of a hat. I think about the prayers. I think about the Occupy movement. And finally, I think about how I’m standing in a kitchen, holding a piece of paper that basically says, “You just hit rock bottom…again.”
That’s why I’m here on a Wednesday morning, “standing in the county line.” I’m trying to clear up all of the misinformation, and increase the amount of food stamps I’m eligible for. It’s now 10:45 a.m., and I’m waiting on an appointment that was scheduled for 10 a.m. I got here at 9:30 a.m., because when I scheduled this appointment with my case worker, she told me to be here on time, and that she would come right down and take care of my paper work. When I start poking around, I find out that she isn’t even in the office today.
At 11:30 a.m., I realize I just wasted more than two hours of my life sitting in a room with people who either don’t have the motivation, or the resources to do better. One guy is sitting next to me with his headphones on intensely reciting rap lyrics he had jotted down on his late model iPhone. There are also a couple girls sitting off in the back of the room playing R&B songs on the speaker of a smart phone. They turn Lobby 1 into a lounge as they loudly observe the “sexiness” of the other men in the room. Security guards are given the responsibility of corralling children who are running around wildly, and sending them back to their unconcerned parents. I don’t feel like I fit in with this crowd, or belong in a place where people who seemingly do not have “life skills” come to seek government assistance and guidance. As I exit the building, a woman with a name tag shouts at me, “job training!”
I head back home and think that I might be able to get out of this situation if I just stick with it, and apply to more jobs. In this day and age, it’s very difficult to get a job even if you’re qualified for it. You have to know someone on the inside, or find an edge, because the field is way too competitive. My Craigslist job search lands me right in the middle of a check cashing scam. I’m thinking I’ve found a way to make a couple hundred dollars a week to cover my cell phone bill and car insurance by running a few administrative errands, but these criminals are just trying to get me to launder money.
I log on to CareerBuilder, and find a freelance writing position that allows you to work remotely, only to find myself being prompted to buy something to submit my resume for the opportunity. Is this what America has come to? Is capitalism so bad in this country that exploiting people looking for employment has become a business? In this country, the underemployed and unemployed are being preyed upon for their need to make more money to survive. Someone actually sat down while creating a business/marketing plan and said, “The unemployed are an easy target.” No one should have to pay a company to hire them. Isn’t that the definition of a scam? Network marketing companies that make people pay to join their company and sell their products are a scam. All these companies are doing is selling pipe dreams, while bleeding marginal income from their members. I’ve seen many of my friends join these companies with hopes of becoming millionaires, and years later they’re still shoveling a good chunk of their income into buying products to support their so-called “own business,” but in reality, they’re simply solidifying profits for these companies.
I ask myself, “Where do I go from here?”
This is a very difficult question considering that I’ve only had one major interview in 21 months. I’ve sprained my neck trying to break into the acting world as a stunt man. I’ve sat in lobbies for interviews flanked by baby boomers with decades more experience than me. I’ve worked retail for $8.50/hour when my skill set is well worth an $80,000 salary. Going back to school seems to be my best option, but I know that a Master’s degree doesn’t guarantee income, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense to dig a five-figure hole of debt to get one.
I ask myself, “Where does America go from here?”
We’re in a death spiral that’s been getting worse for the last 10 years. When the people that are being affected by it the most speak out, the powers that be shut them up by making it seem criminal to want the American Dream. As a child of the ’80s, I can say that the American Dream was shoved down my throat every day, and I was lead to believe that all I had to do was get a Bachelor’s degree and I could get a nice job and live a nice life. Wrong — in this day and age, the American Dream is a fallacy perpetuated by substance-less reality TV stars. I used to have visions of BMWs and houses, but now I just want to make enough money to have a decent home and raise a family. How exactly is it that I’m going to accomplish this? I don’t know, but I’ll be contemplating it as I’m sucking up my pride and standing in the county line.
Deji Wesey was born and raised in Los Angeles, Calif. His many adventures around the world have given him a unique global perspective, which he seeks to express through writing and film. He’s the author of My Africa; A spiritual journey and cultural exploration. Photo: Flickr/Wonderlane