Whose job is it to help?

When I decided some 15-16 years ago I wanted to work in the social services sector, I was still a pretty idealistic 20-something year old. Granted my own path had been rocky, after all I was married at 18, a mum by 19 and headed towards divorce court by 20 but in that idealistic way that is a defining trait of the very young, I thought it would be great to help others. Sure, the pay sucked and I actually left the beginnings of a career that most certainly would have been far more lucrative but being someone who does good in the world at a very basic level was very important to me.

My first gig in the helping realm was actually as an Americorp Vista, serving as a community organizer to an area on the far north side of Chicago where noon day shootings across the street from the office were the norm. That agency in many ways was very similar to the agency I now serve as Executive Director, an agency that offered a wide array of services to locals and did a lot of good in the lives of the people it impacted. For the first time in my working life and considering I started working at 14, I had some experiences under my belt, I felt alive in my work. Sure the local gang bangers were none too pleased about the work we were doing and I admit I often sprinted from the office to the el station, as it was not an area for leisurely strolls. My love of being in the helping profession was cemented.

Over the years, I have worked with all types of people though the bulk of my work has been spent dealing with homelessness , but pretty much there is not a population that I haven’t served either through direct service or as an administrator. But I am about to tell you a secret that most in the social service/human services realm know all too well. You get burnt out and this work makes you look at people in a very hard light. For all the great individuals you serve, there are many others that make you wonder why?

Often times people think of social workers and other related allied professionals as being open minded and liberal, after all we serve people in the need. Yet over the years, I have seen more and more colleagues become rather conservative politically, generally settling down and ending up as Republican lites or Libertarians. It’s a secret we don’t share but really it’s the work that changes us.

Recently both online and offline I have ended up in discussions where people outside the profession have shared with me that they feel the government should do more to help people. For some reason I have been stuck on the thought what more should the government do to help people, better yet what is the government’s role in helping its citizens. Look, I am hardly a bootstrapper; I have freely admitted on this blog that in my early adult years, I needed assistance to live. I was thankful for that help at the same time hating it and glad to be done with it. A few years ago, when our income nosedived we needed medical help as mini me needed some health issues addressed. I swallowed my pride and applied for state healthcare, I am thankful that we were able to address both our health issues thanks to that help. I no longer receive it as I no longer qualify and actually have no insurance coverage at present. Since a real policy that actually covers things starts at well over a thousand bucks a month here and past experience with high deductible policies is that they really aren’t worth shit when you are paying out $400 a month yet still have to pay for all your care until you hit that deductible which never happened. So I am praying and gambling when it comes to healthcare and hoping Obamacare gives me some real options I can afford.

There is a place and time for government assistance , but the longer I work in my profession I often wonder what about the role of people to make responsible choices? A few days ago, I ran into a former client, she just had a new baby and we were making small talk about my agency which many locals are starting to realize is in economic distress like many non-profits, these days. Somehow in the course of this casual conversation, my former client mentioned her age and I was blown away, all this time I assumed her to be close to my age and was stunned to learn she was only 28! Our conversation ended and I was struck by the fact that had I made different choices I could have been her, 28 with 4 kids and very little money. The fact that my first marriage was a disaster and a disaster early on is probably the biggest reason I am not my former client. That coupled with the fact that government assistance while helpful was so meager that even as a youngster I realized that working was far more beneficial financially that receiving assistance.

I think for many in social services where our delight at serving others turns is when we see people who could make better choices, not make them because they believe social safety nets either through government or local non-profits will always be there to assist. Yet those of us in my field have seen our resources stretched beyond belief and frankly as an administrator, I find myself making logical choices that years ago I never would have considered possible.

Let me make it clear, I am not saying roll up the assistance. In fact there are certain areas where I feel the government should be involved, like healthcare. I think healthcare needs to be handled by the government or heavily regulated so that access is just that accessible. Right now what one gets varies so drastically by state and while I know Obamacare will make things better, I fear it won’t be enough.

Food and shelter, I think everyone must have access to food, but are SNAP benefits the best for all? In some areas, I could see some type of government ran cafeterias where people can go and eat, shit this might even create a few jobs and feed people. Now I admit shelter is a tricky one, right now we have a plethora of programs through HUD and while it can take years to get assistance most commonly through Section 8 housing programs. I admit the fact that one can live in their Section 8 pad forever is one I have always felt conflicted about. One of the reasons waiting lists are so damn long is often times once a person gets a place they can be there forever. There is a not a bottomless bit of housing so it creates a traffic jam if you will.

Clearly we should always have assistance to help our most vulnerable, those who physically or mentally can’t work and kids, but it’s the folks in between that often leave me scratching my head. Of course the current economic downturn is another issue since full employment is simply not available for many which means we need another tweaking of the system. I mean 26 weeks of unemployment benefits may not be realistic anymore when it can take a good year or more to find a job.

I wish I had the answers, and today’s post is more a vent but at the same time I strongly believe that if we want our government to do more than all who have the ability and are of sane mind and healthy body also need to do something. Responsibility is a two way street and sometimes we all have hard choices to make for the greater good of the whole.

Open your eyes…the poor are all around us!

Despite the fact that unemployment is at an all-time high, has been for a while and shows no signs of moving downward. The majority of us who are still fortunate enough to have gainful employment that meets most of our needs seem to think economic hardship is just a conversation and something that happens to others. Never mind that if one actually takes a hard look at those around them, in most cases you don’t have to look far or hard to realize it’s actually your neighbor, friend or acquaintance who has left the middle class and landed in poverty.

National publications have been publishing hard breaking stories for over a year now about folks who have are riding the socioeconomic train downward. Yet unless it happens to us, it’s easy to ignore since for most of us we still have assumptions about what poverty looks like. Well after fifteen years working primarily with low income families and youth it recently hit me that what I am seeing in my work looks a hell of a lot different than what I am used to seeing. The stuff I am seeing lately stays with me day in and day out because unlike the first five years of my work when I worked with single men and women many who faced untreated mental health issues and addictions, I am seeing many folks who used to live where I …they remind me daily how the trip up the class ladder can take years but the trip down and the descent into poverty is rapid and once there your chances of moving back up are harder than ever before.

Due to my job schedule and the flexibility of the Spousal Unit’s work, he is often the parent that connects with other parents, since I am often at my office when the girl child is getting out of school. Over the years of the girl child being in preschool and now in elementary school, we have noticed a shift. It used to be that the hubster was the only dad dropping and picking up a child, but now there are far more Dads picking up and dropping off. Sadly this involvement comes because dad is either unemployed or greatly underemployed as the man has learned when talking to the other Dads. In fact he has been one of the few Dads who are actually employed in his chosen career, many others are trying to hobble together a living or simply on childcare duty while Mom works and this comes from their own mouths.

Back when the girl child was in preschool, the Spousal Unit became friendly with another dad who it turned out was an out of work school teacher who hailed from the Midwest like us, so they struck up a casual friendship since our girls like to play together. Towards the end of preschool, Bob as I will call him landed a job at a local grocery story in the deli section despite having advanced degrees and all that jazz there was no jobs for him. Last night the hubs told me he had run into Bob who mentioned that they had sold their house at a loss and were now living with relatives. Initially this information didn’t register but when it did, it dawned on me that Bob and his family are now part of the 22 million Americans doubling up with friends and family. Doubling up is often the last stop before outright homelessness. Most of us are not going to willingly move in with relatives’ long term unless we have no option, that’s just how most of us operate in the US. No, you leave your house and move in with relatives because you are about to be homeless, no matter how you dress that up. In the families I work with, many are doubling up though for those who have been living with financial scarcity long term, doubling up is harder than for the formerly middle class. In many instances the formerly middle class at least has enough of a toe in that world that the folks they double up with have the room for them. One of my clients right now is a family of 7 living with relatives in a 3 bedroom apartment. Tough shit!

I find that since I have no issues talking about having grown up working class that in the past year or so many people I know both offline and online share their financial plight with me…I often joke it’s an occupational hazard. In some cases I can give folks a lead on resources as I did recently when a woman overheard me talking in a café about work and shared her story with me and I was able to guide her towards some agencies that might help her. All while sitting in a lovely upscale café! Think about that.

In America we don’t talk money, at least good middle class and above folks don’t, its gauche, so we avoid it. Yet when we do that, it means no one sees who needs help. So we can continue to assume the poor are the raggedy, the folks living in subsidized housing, the addicts, etc. instead of seeing that the poor are our friends and family members. I keep thinking that if more of us actually knew we know real people struggling we might get more pissed off and demand justice. Instead the formerly middle class hold onto a few vestiges of their former life be it the car, the iGadget or even the coffee at Starbucks they nurse for hours while using the Wi-Fi connection to look for work. So because we see Susie and Bob still looking more or less like us we don’t bother to dig deeper and shame keeps Susie and Bob from telling you they have lost it financially. Instead they use creative language and euphemisms to describe their downsizing but if we would just open our eyes we will see the poor are not others, they are us.