Letter I sent to radio host George Knapp of Coast to Coast AM:
Dear Mr. Knapp:
Last night a caller named Scott from Iowa called to complain that he believes that people (particularly immigrants) are working 40 hours per week then collecting a welfare check. He added that his neighbor is “partying” all the time and that whenever she gets close to getting a job she “turns around and gets pregnant.”
The ignorance behind that man’s statement really sickens me. As someone who grew up with a lot of disadvantages and obstacles that I’ve fought (unsuccessfully) to overcome my entire life, I am saddened that so many Americans think like Scott. Scott, do you know what it’s like to be poor and to have people judge you, look down on you, treat you like dirt? Yet when you try to get a job you can’t find one or you just get low-paying, dead-end jobs that provide no benefits and you’re worse off than you were when you were on welfare because then, at least, you got your health care paid for? Do you know what it’s like to work and work and work, and still not have enough money to pay your bills because your wages are just too small? Scott, do you know what it’s like to not get hired or promoted because you’re female or black? Or because you’re over 30? Or worse, over 40? There’s a such thing as social injustice, unfairness, discrimination and inequality. That is why, statistically, women and people of color make up most of the poor people in the world. (No, Scott, it’s not because women and people of color are inferior to you. There are very few people in this world who are inferior to you, Scott.)
Mr. Knapp, I truly appreciate your thoughtful response to Scott. The amount of money people obtain from welfare (and other social programs) is indeed very small. Also there are a lot of limitations and restrictions placed on people who collect public assistance. These regulations prevent some people from bettering themselves & getting off welfare. The regulations also prevent other people from getting proper assistance when they need it. Ironically, the mean-spirited assumption that poor people are taking advantage of the system is what prevents services to the poor from being adequately funded, so that poor people don’t really get the assistance they need. And THAT, my friend, is the true reason why people stay on welfare for years and years. Want to get them off welfare? Then provide people with real assistance that empowers them and elevates their spirits rather than this half-assed assistance that demeans and degrades them so that they no longer have a self-esteem or enough time and energy (after jumping through all the hoops they must jump through in order to get assistance) to obtain a decent job.
Everyone wants to feel that his/her unique talents and skills are valued by society. It’s embarrassing to apply for assistance–makes you feel like a victim. By contrast, it builds one’s self-esteem to feel that one can contribute & that one’s talents are appreciated. It’s humiliating when you find that no one wants you. You apply for jobs you’re perfectly qualified for but are told you’re just not right for their work environment. And working at a job that doesn’t pay an adequate wage doesn’t help anything. You just fall further and further behind on your bills. It’s impossible to catch up while working at jobs that don’t pay a living wage. Yet because you’re working you don’t qualify for assistance and aren’t considered disadvantaged, so, again, you’re just stuck. (And, of course, everyone attacks you for not paying your bills!)
I myself suffer from chronic back pain that is turning into a permanent disability as a result of years of working hard and not having the money to get my back pain treated properly. If I end up on disability or being hospitalized that will cost this country a lot more money in the long run than it would have cost to have just provided me with the health care I needed in the first place. Also forcing employers to provide decent work conditions and decent pay (so that we can improve the quality of our lives) helps prevent employees from developing chronic health problems.
Scott, you’ll be happy to know that it’s not easy to get assistance of any kind in the US (unless you’re a large corporation). I personally don’t qualify for assistance even though I’m unemployed. The jobs I’ve had have been part-time and with no benefits, so I can’t get unemployment. I’m not an alcoholic, drug addict, mental patient, disabled, nor do I have a criminal record, so I don’t qualify for most types of assistance. I inquired about a job-training program recently and was told I’d be disqualified if I mentioned my college degree, so I have to pretend I don’t have one in order to qualify. (Presumably, I shouldn’t be unemployed with a college degree?) I have a college degree and lots of skills but can’t find a decent job. I can’t teach because I’m required to go back to college to get a license and can’t afford to do that. The jobs I’ve been getting the past few years haven’t been paying the bills, and my debts are increasing. As I mentioned, my family’s dysfunctional and poor, so I can’t get help from them. So…homelessness, here I come!
Yet I am unable to talk to anyone about my dilemma because most people I meet think I shouldn’t have any trouble at all finding a job. Like you, Scott, they just don’t believe me. After all, I’m intelligent, highly skilled and educated, right? However, I’m told I’m “overqualified” for the low-paying service and entry-level jobs I apply for and not experienced enough for jobs that require my education and skills. (Most of this is due to age and gender discrimination, but there’s nothing I can do about that.) Fact is, there are just too many people competing for the few jobs out there. Employers are taking advantage of that and choosing to pay their employees tiny wages.
There is also tremendous discrimination. Not just against women and people of color but against those of us not between the ages of 18-28 who are looking for work. Many employers blatantly advertise they’re hiring “recent college grads.”
And laws are increasingly working against people. For example, if you fall on hard times and can’t afford to pay your bills on time, bill collectors can charge hefty fees on the balance–making it impossible for you ever to pay those bills! I was unemployed and owed the state $325 for overpayment of my unemployment benefits but couldn’t afford to pay it–as I was unemployed, remember?–so I didn’t have any money in the bank. I mean, really, hello! So the state charged over $1000 in fees on the balance and continues to charge interest on the amount I owe. This has made it impossible for me to ever pay the balance. If I had trouble saving up $325, obviously, I can’t save up $1500. It’s not that I don’t want to pay the bill. I just can’t pay it. When I apply for jobs and only get hired (after months of searching) for $8 per hour jobs, I can’t even afford to pay my rent much less get caught up on my bills. My debts just keep increasing because the amount I’m bringing in is just too small. Honestly, it’s not rocket science, Scott. Do the frickin’ math!
I also owe money in student loans. A law passed at the end of the 90s (SallieMae, a for-profit corporation, lobbied for it) penalizes students REGARDLESS OF THEIR INCOME for not paying off their loans. Yet most financial aid students are required to take out loans as a part of their “financial aid” package. It’s ridiculous because my BA doesn’t qualify me for anything, and I can’t go back to school to get an MA or a BA in something else because I don’t qualify for financial aid until I pay off my loans! I owe almost 70k, so there’s no way I’ll pay off those loans–unless I get a job that pays 100k per year pretty soon. So I’m stuck.
But it’s not just me. There are thousands of us. We’re intelligent, motivated, hardworking. But we’re not being allowed to contribute to society. Do you understand, Scott? Our spirits, hearts and minds are being broken by this self-centered, selfish, mean-spirited greed that has taken over the country.
Meanwhile, it was announced on the news that the US is falling behind other countries because fewer Americans are now going to college. Well, why not stop punishing those of us who do go to college by forcing us to take out mortgage-sized loans? I personally, warn as many people as I can—not to go to college, unless your family’s rich and can afford to pay for it.
I was homeless just a few years ago. It was a painful experience. Anyone who says homeless people “choose” to be homeless is misinformed, to say the least. Homeless people may turn down offers for “help,” but it’s not because they “choose” to be homeless. It’s just that most offers of “help” have too many strings attached to them and do not address the needs of the homeless. A woman who worked at a shelter for the mentally ill told me, “Some of them won’t stay in the shelter and refuse to take their medication.” My response to that is, yes, they refuse to take their medication because the medication isn’t helping them. But our society refuses to seek alternative treatments for the mentally ill, so we keep forcing medication on people even when it’s not helping then we wonder why some people are afraid to seek help.
I began making a documentary film about homelessness–while I was still homeless, believe it or not! That is just an example of how proactive I am as a person. It’s called “Rocky Mountain Homelessness.” I’ve also written a book, “Diary of a Mad Bag Lady” about my experience and keep a blog at theMadBagLady.wordpress.com. But rather than providing me with the catharsis I expected, making the film and writing about my experience has just made me angrier and more disillusioned. I am appalled everyday by the Scotts I meet–the ignorance, the lack of empathy and compassion on the part of the average American.
We’re told the US government can’t afford to provide us with universal health care or free college tuition for low-income people yet billionaires get their tax breaks extended and corporations get tax cuts for outsourcing jobs to third world countries. Yet Scott (and many others) thinks that welfare “cheats” are the problem. The division between the rich and the poor in this country is rapidly increasing to a shocking degree, and we are moving toward becoming a third world country–but let’s just blame the poor for how bad things are… It’s really disgusting.
I’ve been struggling for several years now, and the only way I’ve been able to constructively deal with my pain has been to turn it into art (writing and filmmaking). However, no one seems to be listening. Americans are incredibly hostile toward the poor–even now while so many people are losing their jobs and homes. Many people don’t realize that people like me who don’t get the assistance we need will just deteriorate. We can’t pick ourselves up by our bootstraps because we don’t have the bootstraps to pick ourselves up with. Do you understand, Scott? Or am I speaking the language of rocket science.
My back condition has gotten a lot worse over the years and it worries me. My mental health has also been affected by the things I’ve had to endure due to poverty. And it’s amazing how many friends you lose when you lose your financial stability. Americans really place a high value on money and material things, and many people just don’t want to know you at all if you don’t have any. I’m finding I’m “unemployable” despite all my skills. I can’t acquire new skills, as I have no money to go back to school, so I’m just stuck, trapped. But there are thousands of people out there just like me. And that should scare the heck out of most Americans.
Because, contrary to what current, corporate, media propaganda will claim, poverty is not caused by a character flaw–quite the opposite. Poverty can create character flaws—or worse. Poverty can lead to a ton of social problems, including crime, domestic violence, child abuse, drug & alcohol addiction, mental illness, etc. That is why most intelligent, educated leaders of democratic societies attempt to eliminate poverty. We’re going to see serious social problems increase because we refuse to address the needs of our poor.
Oh, and by the way, if you haven’t given up on reading this lengthy e-mail by now, the thousands of us who owe money for our student loans can’t collect social security when we retire. That’s part of what Sallie Mae lobbied for in the 90s. So I have no safety net–no social security, no unemployment, no welfare, nothing. Thanks, America! A few years from now, we’re going to see thousands of elderly people with no safety nets–no social security benefits! What are we going to do about that? Exterminate people when they grow too old to work?
Most other wealthy, industrialized nations provide better safety nets for their people than the US. We have the greatest division between the rich and poor of any other wealthy, industrialized nation in the world. (Some statistics say Mexico and Russia are worse than us in that regard, so if you consider them wealthy, industrialized nations, then perhaps we rank third.) Nearly 25% of African Americans live in poverty in the US–and that’s according to the US government’s statistics that are notoriously inaccurate. The US govt hasn’t properly updated its facts on poverty for about 40 years (one reason the minimum wage is so low.) So the real percentage is probably closer to 50%.
Here’s another thing I’d like to say to Scott: women do not “get pregnant” on their own. And here’s another news flash, Scott: giving birth to and raising a child is a lot of work–some would say it is more than a full-time job. So suggesting your neighbor gets pregnant so that she doesn’t have to work doesn’t make sense—unless, of course, you devalue women’s work. But that wouldn’t be true of you, would it, Scott?
Again, I apologize for the long e-mail, and I realize you may not read it as a result. But all of this (and so much more) needs to be said. No one is saying it! The corporate media has Americans brainwashed into believing poverty is a choice and that it is somehow “fun.”
In fact, poverty leads to a lot of social problems and the reluctance of Americans to take care of their poor is the primary reason why this country is falling apart. Sadly, I’m falling along with it. Unlike most of those suffering, however, I will not go quietly.
Scott: “I don’t want to stomp on a lot of people’s toes when I mention this, and it goes back on the nation’s deficit. It’s, well, it’s the abuse of the welfare system. We got immigrants that’s comin’ in (sic). We give ‘em welfare, give ‘em housing—the whole nine yards. They go in, they pull down a forty an hour…uh…a forty hour day checks (sic)…or a week checks (sic)… And, uh, we’re still given ‘em the welfare money. I’ve got a neighbor here that, uh, she’s a career woman on welfare. Soon as she, uh, gets close to havin’ to possibly go out and get a job she turns around and gets pregnant. And I know this ain’t right, and I know it’s on a lot of people’s minds, but when you go to turn ‘em in for like, in her scenario, she’s always partying and getting’ drunk and so forth, seems like nothing’s getting’ done. But I know it’s been ran (sic) across several people’s minds and, uh, I’m just wonderin’ if I was the only one that, uh, felt that way, that I think our government should go back and pull these records and start cleaning house…”