Falling Through Layers of Bureaucracy, Hoping For Financial Support

This morning, Mike suggested you read Spencer Hall’s essay “Broke;” follow it up with Kerry Headley’s “No Way Out at the Welfare Office,” which I read yesterday at The Rumpus and can’t get out of my head:

Before it was you who needed to apply for food stamps, you understood that people who work full-time don’t necessarily earn a livable income. You knew because your own wages often fell short. Hell, you conceded, you probably qualified for food stamps multiple times over the years. But you never considered it. Instead, you learned to get by with less. Food stamps were for desperate people, people with no way out.

Now you’re here under conditions much worse than for which you had been prepared.

The story begins simply enough: Headley, a massage therapist who lives in a “no-bedroom apartment” and is just on the edge of earning a middle class income, injures herself while on the job. Then she begins to fall through the layers of bureaucracy. First, workers’ compensation:

“You know,” they said, “some people can’t even wipe themselves.” They said this as a marker to which you ought to have compared yourself and felt comparatively healthy and grateful. They said this as if they were revealing the moral of the story intended to encourage you to pretend you were well enough to go back to work. They all said this.

Then, the spa’s attempt to provide reasonable accommodation:

Jennifer was instructed by the spa’s insurance company to provide modified duty — an impossible directive since massage therapy is, by its nature, physical labor. So you took reservations and collected payments from clients. Jennifer didn’t need another front desk person — not one she was mandated to pay at the massage therapist rate. Your front desk co-workers, who had years more experience than you, helped train you so you could get paid twice as much as each of them. For you, however, it was a significant pay cut because you usually made tips, which often doubled your hourly rate.

Then a state-sponsored retraining program, then an unpaid internship, then the food stamp office, where Headley learns that she is ineligible for food stamps because — as a full-time student in this retraining program, for which she is still required to take out student loans — she also needs to be working 20 hours a week. And no, the internship doesn’t count.

The look of contempt on [caseworker] Gwen’s face is unfathomable. The scorn in her voice makes you feel actually crazy. Because how is it possible that you’ve brought this onto yourself? How can it be that the system — the one you paid into for twenty-plus years — doesn’t have remedies for people like you — normally highly employable, but momentarily in need of assistance?

Read the entire thing. It’ll stick with you — both the shame Headley feels for having “gotten herself” into this situation, and the understanding that it could be any of us in that food stamp office someday.

Photo credit: Lee Coursey

Support The Billfold

The Billfold continues to exist thanks to support from our readers. Help us continue to do our work by making a monthly pledge on Patreon or a one-time-only contribution through PayPal.