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.
Another resident of our wounded inn had a degree in accounting. She had worked her way through college as a cook at a girl’s camp. It took her some 10 years to slowly pay her path through school. After graduation, she got a good job starting out at an accounting firm. Less than two years later she had a stroke, a fairly minor one. The part of her brain that thought sequentially was permanently damaged. Doing numbers was beyond her now, as was the simple task of following a recipe.
She looked "normal,” but the emotional and physical wounds were deep. Though she tried many different tasks, she could adequately perform none. Living now on the public dole, is she a greedy taker or does her mending of other residents’ clothes, her baking of cookies and cakes for every community gathering say otherwise?
Another had been a farmer’s wife in Minnesota. When she was in her early forties her husband died, leaving her to run the farm alone. She tried, but soon was felled with a disease (unnamed 20 years later) that left her with speech impaired, wheelchair-bound, and putting on enormous weight no matter how little she ate. She came to Seattle to be near her handful of relatives but found them unwilling or unable to help her, so she bounced from shelter to shelter before arriving with us.
This woman in her wheelchair came to every social event we offered, always smiling, never complaining of her lot. Every day, just getting out of bed was an act of heroic courage that left all who knew her stronger.
One man, an immigrant from Holland who worked construction for years before his now-controlled alcoholism put him on the streets, found himself in the hospital with a heart condition. Before his illness, he was again working part-time as a night watchman in a downtown building. He had no health insurance. Though he is now qualified for Medicare, he did not when the illness struck him. His hospital bill wandered in the neighborhood of $25,000. His only hope was to declare bankruptcy, quit working at his $9-an-hour job, and be now an invalid whether he wanted to or not.
Do we need health care coverage for everyone? Does that cost society less than the care people need later if we do not? Is such subsidized health care taking or making?
This community of quite dependent people, many of whom, to my admitted amazement, still vote Republican and believe in some form of American dream, never ceased to astound me with their spirit, their spunk, their generosity.
When flooding hit New Orleans, they took up a collection and sent almost $1,000 out of their meager personal funds to the victims. They did the same when a tsunami struck Japan. Twice a year, we took a van load of clothes and food to a women and children’s shelter sponsored by the same community that sponsored our facility.
This group of the very poor gave away a far higher percentage of what little they had than most of us who have a salary, including myself. Meanwhile, they paid taxes for the public good on toilet paper, light bulbs, clothes. Sadly now, in Seattle, they have to pay to ride the bus to see a doctor, visit the public library, or get to Value Village.
All across Seattle, we see folks who would far rather sell a newspaper, Real Change, than simply beg — a paper worth far more than the dollar it costs us or the 65 cents they earn. Even those folks we meet at busy intersections, waving signs telling us, perhaps facetiously, but tragically, if true, that they are “homeless vets,” work harder than many others do.
I urge this honesty about our society, about each other. Over the past 20 years the split between the most wealthy and the most poor in our society has grown faster and wider than at any time in our history.
Much initial wealth is inherited. We need not begrudge those who take from and hopefully build on their ancestor’s achievements, but that does not imply harder work or more personal merit than those assisted by government or other social services. While we admire those who have worked hard and done well, we acknowledge that most are just a surprise accident, an unexpected illness, an unwanted family tragedy away from the unfamiliar, painful shoes of brothers and sisters so wrongly characterized as takers.