Sunday, April 19, 2015

Of Food Stamps and Smartphones - part 2

Rogue Valley Roasting Co.
12oz Soy Cappuccino
Vegan Pumpkin Bread

All editing and no blogging makes Chandra a something something...  I'm just not right in the head unless I'm writing.  Which is saying something sad about my standards for being "right in the head."

Okay, firstly - fuck you Kansas.  Sorry - fuck you Kansas government.  Fuck you on behalf of the people of Kansas and economically disadvantaged people everywhere.

So much for my policy of speaking kindly and open-heartedly to others.  And so much for my policy of not using excessive profanity lest I turn away potential listeners.  Well, they're more "goals" than "policies" anyway.

What are far worse policies, of course, are the new policies just passed in Kansas regarding public assistance.  If you have not heard already, new restrictions were approved that would prohibit people receiving public assistance from using that money on cruises (wait, what?), at movie theaters, nail salons, concert venues, and the like.  They have also taken the extra measure of restricting the amount of money Kansans can withdraw from an ATM per day to $25 so they cannot circumvent these prohibitions.


I first found out about this because I have (statistical smarty-pants people) on my Twitter feed, and they did a break-down of what these restrictions mean.  First, there's a $1 fee for every ATM transaction use.  So that $25 per day goes down to $24 per day of actual assistance.  Second, there's a good chance that the person with the card doesn't have a checking account, meaning they don't have a bank.  And if it's not your bank, then the bank that owns that ATM will almost certainly charge a greater fee on top of that first dollar.  The average bank fee (they referenced the Government Accountability Office here) is $2.10, bringing the actual amount of assistance received down to $21.90.  So, if you don't have a bank (and it's very common for low-income people to not have a checking account), and you're going to have to pay your landlord in cash, they calculate that it would take 28 days of making the maximum withdrawal to pay your $600 rent.

They also show that the maximum monthly benefits for a family of 4 is $497, so they'd only have to make 20 withdrawals to extract all the available assistance.  They'd also lose $62 in the process.  (And we're assuming magical ATMs here that dispense both singles and coins).  So... a family of 4 has to give up an electric bill every month (a spring electric bill, mind you, when the weather is nice and electric usage is way down) so that they don't go to the movies...?

The truth is, poor families don't go to the movies that often, if ever.  They cannot afford to divert a cent from all the numerous worries they have to grapple with every day.  They don't have $62 to spare - period.  And remember that it costs more to be poor, from those extra bank fees and extortionist payday lenders, to the simple inability to buy the bulk pack of toilet paper because you just can't seem to save up enough at one time to buy more than the 4-roll pack.  And after all, those food stamp cards don't actually pay for all the food you need for a month (neither do they pay for any sized pack of toilet paper), so you're going to have to dip into that "wild money" the government doles out.

What bullshit.

So, what is the point?  What is the actual point?  It does not save the Kansas government any money directly to impose these restrictions - the amount issued is the same, just the amount received by the people in need is directly diminished.  The theoretical argument is that people who are receiving assistance either will be discouraged by not being able to "indulge" on "the government's" money or will be more focused on spending their money more prudently enabling them to save(?!) enough and they will finally break their cycle of poverty and get back to work.  They also think people who are working or already eligible to receive benefits will see that they won't be able to abuse this free money system and will, therefore, decide to stay in their current job or suck it up and go get a job.  Thus, they will keep people off The Dole and make them productive tax-paying members of society.

The problem is this is a complete fantasy.  There is zero - ZERO - data to support any of these presumptions.  Poor people, as a rule, don't even receive enough to get by on government assistance, let alone indulge on it.  And if you subtract ANY money from an already inadequate amount, you only exacerbate the problems endemic to the cycle of poverty and make it more likely that the person STAYS ON WELFARE LONGER.

So why do this?  Firstly, the only ones sure to make money are the banks.  I'm not sure these stereotypes that lead to policies like this would exist if banks were unable to pay for the politicians who put this type of legislation forward.  If no one were allowed to make money off of poverty, my guess is we would have an economic structure that made sense and tried to eliminate poverty instead of stoke it.

That is not to say that many of these politicians - and bankers, for that matter - don't believe in these anti-poor people stereotypes.  They are in a willful denial about their own culpability into these circumstances - first they create the poverty, then they blame the people who experience it.  Poor people aren't poor because they failed - they're poor because they have succeeded in participating in our economy, just the wrong end of it.  Poverty in our country, in our time, is not exclusively the result of exceptional circumstances, as it should be, but the expected result of the design.

If you set minimum wage below the cost of living, you build poverty into the very structure of the economy.  And remember what the cost of living is.  It is not just your month to month cost, which, in almost every place I've lived, minimum wage won't cover for even a single person.  Your true cost of living includes savings.  We are supposed to be saving up enough money to cover down-payments (for apartments, vehicles, a house someday, right?), deductibles and co-payments, retirement (Ha!), clothing, furniture, our children's education (and down-payments and deductibles...), replacing all the things that wear out over time, and all those other eventualities - the S-sub-h in the equation of life: Shit-happening.

And did you know that, depending on where you live, to receive assistance, you might have to be in some kind of work program which may or, more likely, may not be good for your situation.  Or you have to pay back the government for the welfare or other kinds of assistance you received?  What asshole came up with that idea?  The only thing worse than poverty is debt.  Debt is one of the all-time best ways to ensure that someone never gets ahead.  Especially when there are no restrictions on the interest rates someone can be charged.  And since wages are so very inadequate, debt is pretty much a certainty.  Where is that in the Budget now that you're working again?

And what are the numbers for cancer rates in this country?  A quick Google search says 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women will get cancer.  The cost, generally, is in the tens of thousands, even higher, and the patient, by design, should be paying some portion of that.  Those numbers are over a lifetime, of course, but there is no timer on cancer, no excluding by race or economic status (though there is a skew that follows race and economic status and your likelihood of recovery).  Where is that calculation in the overall equation?  And that's just cancer.  There are innumerable other ailments that can be permanently debilitating, or temporarily incapacitating.

And where are your dreams in the American financial budget?  The idea is that you work extra hard to achieve your dreams - save up enough to start a small business or buy some piece of equipment or tool you need to do something that becomes your life's passion (maybe buying a laptop on credit because you are infected with that crazy American optimism and you think you can actually become a writer).  You put in the extra hours of practice or study and you get the pay-off on that investment.  That's the sales pitch.  That's not the product we own.  The reality is that we have been robbed of our capital by people who probably don't even know they are the thieves.  Partly, by ourselves.

If our almighty American Work Ethic is our inherent capital to achieve our Dream, then we no longer have the ability to spend that capital on ourselves.  We have to work far more than one full-time minimum wage job just to get by in the here and now, and if the smallest stumble keeps you from achieving escape velocity (maybe you developed a mysterious chronic illness at 21 or decided to keep the baby at 30), then you are screwed in the long-run because these numbers are not out-runnable.  We cannot save the money to invest in ourselves, and we have no time left to invest in our skills-development, in our families, in our basic human happiness.

People who have personal social nets, people who can lend them money or a safe place to stay for a little while - and a little while is all you need when you have safety nets like that - and people who have already moved on from the lower economic levels, often have nothing but condescension for the people who aren't up there with them.  Because they don't know.  They honestly just don't know that things are not how they used to be, and maybe they weren't all that great back then.

I know I've said all this before.

Tuesday April 14, 2015
Mellelo Coffee Roasters
Soy Cappuccino
Amaretto Bearclaw

So that was Sunday.  I cut my ranting short so we could take the boys to see a movie - their second ever at "the popcorn store."  It was a great experience (we saw "Home") except for the giant poster of the evil clown from the new "Poltergeist" movie which was staring at us  from all the way down at the end of the long, yellow hallway we had to walk down to get to our movie.  Poor Oliver was still sobbing in the theater, til Daddy got him some popcorn and they started the pre-show commercial reel.

(I say "reel" as if they use actual film anymore.  Sigh... I miss my theatre days sometimes.  I still have an old 3-minute trailer for "Pan's Labyrinth" in a box somewhere that I plan to, one day, unroll from the top of a very big hill.  Maybe some time when they have the downtown streets closed for a parade... Hmm...  Any-hoo!)

I went back and read one of my first posts ever, "Of Food Stamps and Smart Phones (Part 1?)".  I stand behind the premise of my argument, that bullying and shaming the poor is a far worse economic strategy than being supportive and encouraging of people who are struggling because of all the costs that bullying generates.  However, something I wrote bothered me a lot:

"If we were to rally around these people - and their smart phones and their bad choices - and encouraged them, instead of beating them down, then we would see a return on our investment..."

As if having a smartphone were indicative of poor decision-making.  That's not what I meant.  Granted, it was late and I was tired, and I am not one to go back and fix things much once the blog has been posted.  First, there are all kinds of reasons you might see someone with a food stamp card who also has a smartphone, or a nice car, or even a designer handbag.  Chances are, the nice thing was purchased prior to their economic hardships, was purchased cheaply (I have a friend who has to use food stamps because she is unable to work because of a work-related injury, and she actually did find a Prada bag at Goodwill for a dollar.  And, having a husband who takes donations at Goodwill, I can say it is totally believable that a less experienced employee failed to recognize it, put it behind glass, and price it accordingly.  Most of the time, however, the bag's a knock-off), or was purchased by someone else, maybe for work (because, yes, people on food stamps are more likely to be working than on Welfare) or maybe as a gift.  Maybe they inherited the decade-old Mercedes when their grandfather passed away.

And it's pretty damn likely that, unless Grandpa happened to live in town, they didn't get to say good-bye before he was gone, because taking time off during the holiday shopping season and traveling hundreds of miles to make sure you're children got to meet him at least once in their lifetimes - that's a luxury.  And if you're poor in Kansas, that's not a decision you can make for yourself anyway.

The bottom line is that nobody owes you a fucking explanation.  You don't own a person because you give them a paycheck, or because you happen to not be receiving some kind of government assistance and they are.  Chances are, they've been paying into taxes for years prior to whatever circumstances they are experiencing now.  Chances are, it won't be very long before they are back to putting money back into the Community Chest, if they aren't right now.  Chances are, you are going to be drawing on some kind of government fund or other before too long.  That's because that is how our economy is structured to function, and because there is no fundamental difference between who that person is and who you are.

And that's what I meant when I said we need to rally around these people and their bad decisions, because we are all people and we all make our own mistakes.  The only difference is that the poor have little to no margin of error and have to be careful to make fewer mistakes than most people.

When I lived with my old roommate in Silicon Valley, he paid more in taxes than I made gross.  He was very hard working and very intelligent and deserved his six-figure income.  And in some ways, he was more of a fuck-up than I was.  The difference was that our opportunities to recover from a mistake, or just a run-of-the-mill eventuality, were not equal.  When he got his car towed for unpaid parking tickets, it cost him hundreds of dollars (and one of my afternoons as I drove him from police station to DMV to impound lot), but he got his car back.  If I had been so careless (and all he had to do was bring the parking tickets to his employer and they would have paid them!) I would have lost my car and one of my jobs, which would have made it impossible to keep paying off the car loan for the next few years.  And the consequences just spiral from there...

Sunday, April 19, 2015
Mix Bakeshop
Decaf Soy Cappuccino

There's one more thing I have to cover before I post this rant of rants: the Fight for $15.

Last Monday, there were strikes across the country by fast food workers and others to rally for a pay increase to $15 an hour and for a union.  If you're one of those who think they don't deserve to make that much compared to people who make that much right now, I think you are generally right.  But you forget that the only thing keeping those who make $15 an hour now from making what they actually deserve is that those striking now do not make what they deserve.

The screwing of the poor screws the middle class.

If you start minimum wage at the point that reflects the real cost of living, that incorporates the cost of human dignity, then those just getting by on their advanced degrees or privileged career choice (not all of us can or should have to be in tech support) would start to feel more than just a stressed-out "okay" but maybe really satisfied and secure.  And, yes, we can afford it.  And, yes, the wealthy do deserve to lose some of their money, not because they are inherently nefarious, ill-gotten gains, but because the system which produced that wealth is inherently unfair and skewed to their advantage.

You cannot say that anyone has earned their fair compensation when the economic cost is the health and happiness of millions of other people.


Seven years ago, I came back to Ashland to stay.  My future husband followed a few weeks later.  We cobbled together a few jobs between us and found the cheapest decent apartment we could manage.  As we lay in the darkness on our newly-bought $50 bed, I sang "Blue Skies" to him.  Because I love irony.  And because, deep-down, I am an optimist.  I promised him that, despite my panic attacks and forebodings, I would get better and we would be okay.  Together, we were going to make it.

After seven years... a lot of the time, I don't feel like I've lived up to that promise.  I cry a lot.  I spend way, way too much going to coffee shops.  But he knows it makes my head better somehow, so he encourages it.  And besides, we're not broke because of my coffee habit.  We're just going to be broke longer (unless I can make up for it by selling lots and lots of copies of this stuff I've been writing here... wink-wink, nudge-nudge).

Everybody needs something to make being alive worthwhile, to take the edge off life.  We are alive now.  We don't know how long a lifetime we're going to have, and we don't know how long we're going to be struggling to be okay.  You have to have those little bits of joy - whatever it is that gives a little lightness to your being, puts a smile on your lips or a fire in your belly - and you have to have that joy, even when it doesn't fit in your budget.  You have to have something or what the hell are we living for?  That's not a rationalization to indulge and be irresponsible.  But if you don't have something, you just aren't human.  We, the Poor, don't need to be taught how to be responsible with our meager income, wherever it's coming from.  We need to be trusted to make our own decisions and left alone and not asked to justify our entire life story, of which you have only had the merest glimpse.

Because we are grown-ups, asshat.

But on a day like today, when the skies are ridiculously blue... despite Henry having a meltdown because the doors at the shoe store were not closing properly, and stressing over whether or not we should use the credit card or see how much more we could fit on the debit card, and over how much is left on the food stamp card, and how this one blog has cost three coffee trips... I still feel like I can't complain.  Oh, the system is screwed - I'm not going to stop complaining about that.  But I have two beautiful, caring children, a faithful and resilient husband, a roof over our heads... and damn fine coffee.

Today, that's enough.  I'll keep speaking out.  I'll keep trying to be better, to make things better.  But I'm going to take today and keep it, too.  It's a good day.

But, still, fuck you Kansas.