The characterization of individuals receiving public assistance as "takers" is uninformed, sometimes cruel, almost always heartless. My life alongside women and men reliant on public assistance is replete with stories that say, loudly, otherwise.
Early in my years working at an inner city Jesuit parish, St. Leo in Tacoma, I met literally hundreds of people coming for food, rent assistance, or emergency health care who were exceedingly hard-working, motivated, educated women and men, if down on what can only cynically be called their “luck.”
I think of a nurse with three children whose husband had depended on her salary. When her arthritis made it impossible for her to continue nursing, her husband disappeared, as did her health insurance, her rent money, and her ability to feed her children. This already well-educated woman needed enormous public and private assistance to keep her and her children alive while she retrained for a job she could do partially crippled. She hated taking help, but her children’s lives depended on it.
A low-IQ janitor at the vocational school next door to us worked six days a week to afford his modest, subsidized studio apartment and, when he didn’t have to work, he volunteered around his church.
Our church thrived on elderly people who — living in subsidized housing, dependent on small Social Security checks and Medicare — volunteered in myriad ways in our feeding programs and other social services.
Over the years, since Gov. Dixie Lee Ray, purportedly a Democrat, decided that folks with mental illness should not be in state institutions but, "living on their own," Western State Hospital, south of Tacoma, became a revolving door.
After episodes of manic or depressive behavior or a more serious bout of schizophrenia, when no longer judged a “threat to themselves or others,” myriad patients are released. Many barely manage to temporarily survive in or around downtown Tacoma on modest public assistance and multiple private services. Are they takers? Lazy? Unmotivated? Or are they people deserving whatever human dignity this, the Earth’s most-affluent society, can afford them?
I think of the many, many homeless veterans who frequented a downtown drop-in-center before we used the term PTSD — men who, while serving their country and us, developed drug or alcohol dependencies for which they now desperately needed treatment only sparsely available. Did they deserve assistance or were they simply burdens on our public coffers?
In later years, I was privileged to work in low-income senior housing near Seattle's Pike Place Market. Every tenant there depended on a combination of food stamps, rent subsidy, and minimal social security, VA benefits, Medicare, Medicaid as well as enormous private agency assistance. Most in public life and many voters appear unable to imagine what it is like to survive on $300 to $600 a month.
What is such survival like? Who are these dreaded takers?
A professional musician who spent years playing for a band on cruise ships, then became the maître’d at a high-end Seattle restaurant, lived well, bought a condominium with his girlfriend whose name, for tax purposes, was on the lease. At 40, he had a massive stroke. The girlfriend invited him to leave "her" apartment.
For two years, he lived on the streets of the city he had proudly walked before. When he found housing with us, he limped along, using his old computer with one hand, told marvelous stories of his earlier life. He did receive those food stamps, which some would have us believe are so easily and lavishly dispensed — actually a quite finite amount of money, put on a charge-type card each month. His allotment was $42.
Since he had to depend on community meals, the senior center, the food bank, and handouts for most of his meals anyway, he took that $42 once a month and bought a good steak, a baked potato, a bottle of fine red wine. It was a “feast” to remind himself of how he once had lived. I always admired that reckless behavior.
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