#Entitlements: You Are Full of Shit if You Think People on Assistance Aren’t Working Their Asses Off

Rant alert. I’m not simply speaking to far-right zealots who place undue emphasis on individual effort and taunt welfare moms while they ignore how their party treats veterans.  I’m also speaking to those on my side of the fence, those who have no idea what real struggle looks like.  They are worse in some ways, because under their sympathy is a real resentment for poverty among their own.

I know this sounds caustic, but if you’ve never been on government assistance, let me take you through the average day of someone who is.

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Note: A quick summation of the application process for Medi-Cal, Unemployment, CalFresh (Food Stamps), Calworks, Disability or assistance with childcare.  It takes 2-3 days just to apply, and here’s why: the process is slow because the forms are not only copious, they are often badly phrased and confusing. And I am a writer.  It requires standing in line, filling out hours worth of forms, personal data collection, and one unchecked box sets you right back to the beginning. There is often no human available to talk to at the many many contact numbers if you have questions beyond the information provided.

So let’s see what a typical day looks like for someone who is unemployed or underemployed and needs these services. 

8am: You go through your normal routine feeding and getting the kid to school.

8:30 am: If you don’t have a computer, you go to the library or the EDD where you sign in and wait in line.  You get an hour, and in that hour, you must register yourself into the system and enter all your employment history so the system can send you notices.  Nevermind that no one actually gets hired this way anymore.  You still get to do it so that the EDD can tell you are trying to get work.

The EDD customer service line actually tells you that inquiring about your claim will delay your benefits.  The robot does not provide a general option to speak with an agent and all other options provide automated information.  Then it hangs up on you.  I shit you not.

9:45. You sit down to fill out your weekly EDD report online or by mail. These forms require you to track all the jobs you applied to, so you have to go back into your email, phone, look up addresses, etc. If you enter any of the information incorrectly, and I’m talking down to the period, it takes EDD a week to notify you, then several days after you correct the error to send you your check. Oh, and the IRS has the right to tax your weekly pittance, which is capped at $450/week.  So that’s your rent (barely); where does the rest of it come from?

10:20 am: You need to go grocery shopping.  First, you have to call the online system to see how much credit you have on your EBT card and then calculate out how long until you receive another payment so you know what to spend.  It’s usually in the neighborhood of $350/month if you have one child and no income. You cannot buy a bottle of wine, but you can buy a liter of Coke.   The EBT card is supposed to be more discreet, but of course, as soon as you select it, the cashier can see how you are paying and so can anyone in view of the display.

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If you are an expecting mom, you have to take WIC (Women Infants and Children) vouchers into the grocery store.  These vouchers all have specific brand names and quantities on them.  So when you check out, you have 3-4 separate transactions.  If you accidentally selected the 16 oz container instead of the 12 oz container, you either have to run back and try to find the right one, pissing off everyone in your line further, or you have to waste the voucher.  Either way, you are totally humiliated by this process on a weekly basis.  And grocery shopping takes considerably more time.

12:15 pm: You need to make a doctor’s appointment for your child. Don’t call now, everyone calls during lunchtime. Eat some Kraft Mac & Cheese and drink some whole milk. At least EBT lets you buy fruit.

1:30 pm: You still need to make that appointment but it’s not like being covered through a private carrier where that card with your medical record number is good enough.  Understand that at every turn, this system assumes you are lying about your situation, and so nearly every time you go to a doctor, you are somehow asked to verify again that you are on Medi-Cal, even if you’ve got the card.  You will be required to report on the nature of the appointment so that Medi-Cal can categorize the visit. And if you are on Medi-Cal, you are lucky compared to many other states.  I’ll skip the part where any serious health complications come up, that’s another blog.

The first available appointments for regular office visits are usually a couple weeks out.  Plan ahead!

2:00pm: You finally have time to sit down and look for a job at the library.  Again, you get an hour.  In this time, you can probably apply for four jobs online if you hustle and have all your info in place.  Those employers, by comparison, will receive thousands of resumes. Also bear in mind that if you don’t check this email later today, by tomorrow those employers may have already found someone.

3:00 pm:  You pick up the kid from school because you cannot afford to pay for aftercare or afterschool activities.  I’ll omit the conversation where you have to explain to your child why he or she can no longer play soccer or piano. The rest of your day is shot with chores and parenting even though your mind is elsewhere.

7:30 pm:  The kid is in bed and you turn your attention toward your bills.  With a fine tooth comb, you go over your finances again, seeing how much you are paying for everything, what you can do without, and give yourself a good guilt trip for any recent, non-essential purchases you might have made.

You opt to pay everyone a little because you heard somewhere that a company won’t send you to collections if you make a partial payment.  You might find extraneous charges on your credit card with its already mounting debt.  Corporations have a way of knowing when you are especially financially desperate and they like to take that time to apply random fees, jack your interest rates, increase your monthly charges and so forth.  This normally would just be irritating, but in your currently strapped situation, this feels like death by a thousand papercuts.  You spend many hours on the phone yelling at customer service agents and you can tell from the sound of their voices that they think you are crazy for making such a huge deal over $15.

8:40pm: You binge watch something and eat ice cream. You deserve this.

9:45 pm: You are already in bed because you know that it’s not likely you will get a good night’s sleep and you have to get up and do all this over again tomorrow.

Now imagine this scenario compounded by a couple of weeks or months.  Imagine having to prove on an almost daily basis that you need these services while trying to find work. Imagine that the idea of taking a lower paying job is even scarier because it will not cover your expenses but it will terminate all these services. Imagine the Sword of Damocles dangling over your head that you will lose your car, then your home and with it, everything you own.

Imagine what it would be like to go through all this and finally get an interview.  You are no longer confident in your skills, even though you have many.  You are no longer interfacing with coworkers in a professional setting daily and so your whole life feels personal and highly emotional. You cannot imagine that this company will hire you because you aren’t good enough.  If you were good enough, you never would have become unemployed in the first place.

Understand that has nothing to do effort, that to find yourself unemployed in this heart-racing economy means driving for Uber, going to work for Handy, or Task Rabbit and that you will get raked over the coals for any income you make with these types of gigs when it’s tax time.  Understand that more and more of us educated and skilled people will land here and that these meager safety net services are on their way to being nonexistent.  Entitlements? I earned that unemployment.  I earned my social security.  I paid taxes and I will pay more if this tax bill goes through. 

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It’s not even worth saying, but I need the catharsis today: Fuck you Paul Ryan, Fuck You, Mitch McConnell and Fuck all you old, white, so-rich-you’ll-never-spend-it-in-your-lifetime assholes.  When we no longer have anything to spend, you do realize the pot will run dry, right?  I guess by then it won’t matter.  You’ll own everything.

#Soapbox #TaxBill #Underclassuprising

 

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Trigger Warning: Trump is Your President

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When the map went red, it bled.  That uniform block of frustration and alienation is as visible as an open wound.  

For me, this election is personal.  I haven’t spoken publicly about it until now, but last summer, I was ensnared by a romantic sociopath and when I discovered the depth of this person’s lies, I had a mental health crisis complete with panic, anxiety/depression, PTSD, insomnia, the whole shebang.

At the time, I was working at a mental health facility teaching yoga to acute patients.  These vulnerable people had often sustained ongoing childhood abuse.  I could not teach anymore because I was now a patient and I couldn’t separate myself from my students; I was lost in empathy, my own pain mixing with their’s.

When the map went that red last night, it was like watching a dear friend willingly return to the home of her abusive husband. Our nation voted for a sociopath because it has Stockholm Syndrome.  Our red states feel powerless and so they reach for and identify with power, even if that power is their oppressor.

We have to wonder about free will in this moment and how much we are actually exercising it if we put the tax-evading bully in the driver’s seat.

I’m grieving a future that is not fraught with draconian repeals and abusive cycles that grind up our best and brightest.

I’m in the second phase of grief: denial.

Followed closely by bargaining: your mind just keeps trying to peel back time and rewrite the event, bending it another way. It happens repeatedly throughout your day, your mind doing impossible gymnastics to make that one moment of shock disappear. I’m going to let myself feel it, so I can move onto guilty, anger and eventually hope.
I am already tired from the work that must be done.  I see with fresh awareness that my privilege has afforded me the ability to opt out of activism.  The Obama years were a piece of cake I ate daily without realizing it.  But none of us, not one American, will have that luxury anymore.
I have one perspective I learned through my experience with the sociopath that is both disheartening and hopeful as it applies to Trump: sociopaths usually self-destruct.  because they are not conscience-bound at all, they do not apply loyalty to their interactions.  His loose cannon antics will continue once he gets into the White House and while we can count on him disposing of Obamacare, overturning Roe v. Wade, and setting up shop for his billionaire friends, he will also be bored, cruel, and destructive with the wrong people.
Malcolm Gladwell predicts Trump will be hip-deep in a lawyer huddle, if not in jail within the first year. I sort of hope he is right; I’d be really surprised if Trump makes it through a first term.
In the meantime, we need to bind together tighter, we need to reach back out to the middle, and bravely carry the torch of love, inclusion, forgiveness.  We need to see this as it is, a wound that needs healing.
Let’s be ready, friends, neighbors, families, communities, cities and allies.  Let’s start to build a model of what we do want so when this thing comes crashing down, we can create again.
May we eradicate hate.  One world, one people, one love.

No Handshake at the Last Debate: A Tactical Decision to Abandon Manners

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I have always watched these debates and marveled at the politician’s strange ability to cut someone down in front of millions and then smile and shake hands afterward.  I think of Joe Biden and Sarah Palin, how that nicety is sort of creepy but entirely necessary, a shred of good sportsmanship.

According to the news outlets, Trump stacked his entourage with the women who have accused Bill Clinton of misconduct; that would force Bill to shake hands with them. The Clinton camp negotiated at the last minute for no greeting and no handshake at the beginning or end of the debate.

I can’t say I blame HRC for not wanting to touch that dastardly paw, but then again, she’s shaken hands with Trump hundreds of times.  There are plenty of photos of all of them bouging it up at some gala or another.

When those racism jackasses shouted at President Obama during his State of the Union Address, it had similar implications.  There is no place now, not even the formal stronghold of the presidency, that hatred cannot invade.

We’ve really let this discourse descend into the Sub Abyssal Zone.  I’ll be really grateful when this nightmarish election is over.

 

Give Those Nymphs Some Hooters: Donald Trump vs. Bernie Sanders and What it Means to Art

When his blustery, mean-spirited dismissive, caustic pinched, nasal voice started coming back out through the public airwaves, I had to draw back and remember, when was I first aware of Donald Trump?

It was the late 80s, when everyday I found the funny pages of the LA Times (well almost everyday, after my Dad had done the crossword) and I read Doonsbury, a decades long satire by Gary Trudeau .  I was transfixed by the romance happening between Mike and J.J.  Mike’s long-suffering commercial career as an illustrator was punctuated by campaigns that would come to life like Mr. Butts, the Cigarette Lobby Spokesman, and J.J. was a performance artist who donned a bucket on her head and dashed the wedding china on the floor to make a comment about the fragile artifice of American marriage.  Now this was real love.

At some point, despite their rocky and often bewildering relationship, Mike and J.J have a child, Alex.  This is when (momentarily)  J.J sobers up and realizes, shit, I have to get a job.  J.J’s first commission?  To paint a replica of the Cistine Chapel inside Donald Trump’s yacht.  The Don was married to Ivana and had just purchased the Trump Princess (I guess he  didn’t care that renaming a boat is bad luck).  He was a fixture on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. “Give Those Nymphs Some Hooters” is the feedback J.J receives from her new boss as she clambers back up the scaffold, chanting to herself “I have a family, I have a family…” In the end of the sequence, she makes Adam look a little more Donaldy.

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What Gary Trudeau points out here with his usual wry humor, is that Trump is the distillation of the crass disregard for real beauty that comes with profound excess and a lack of profound feeling. Despite the way the rich toss their blue chips onto the table to obtain a Picasso or more recently, a Banksy, they are the same people who have no idea what Picasso or Banksy are attempting to do with their work, why great art is ownerless. It’s not the painting; it’s the invisible magic that takes place between the viewer and the painting.

It’s this ability, to envision, to imagine, to play, that has sustained us and pushed us forward as a species. In this way, The Donald is The Opposite of Civilization. He is closed, you are fired. There isn’t a single original thought happening. He is the ultimate reduction to lowest common denominator. All things are objects to him, even his own daughter.

I’ve read all the articles that talk about how strategic he’s being, using simple fourth grade words, shredding right through the GOP operating manual, and in some ways, yes, this is clever salesmanship.  But no matter what the talking heads say, he is not a rebel.  Trump is allied with another far less morally bound party that play by their own set of rules: the Robber Barons.  It would not surprise me if he lit his cigars with $100 bills.

Even if we try to make the businessman pitch to The Donald: art’s central role in the latest science about brain development, sociological studies on happiness, mental illness, and general quality of life. The Donald isn’t interested in abstractions.  He’s not interested in the enlightenment project. He’s interested in power and he has no plan. Trump is a nihilist sociopath.  He’s artless.

When I was in college at a tiny, now defunct liberal arts school, I attended an event held every summer called Bread and Puppet.  It started in the 60s as guerrilla street theatre in New York City, where young people made puppets and costumes out of garbage and found items, acting out local or national politics on the street.  Over time, the show got so big that it moved to Glover, VT where the production has several barn-sized workshops and a big amphitheater.

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The main event began with what looked like an old timey carnival taking the big outdoor stage, complete with clowns, stilt walkers, and an old school bus painted in rainbows.  The actors put on a series of skits, becoming teachers, politicians, farmers, school kids, using mostly body language and simple props. The audience cheered and booed accordingly as if they already knew what to do.  At one point, a clown who had been present since the beginning stepped forward and with a dramatic gesture, tore off his mask.  You guessed: Senator Bernie Sanders. The audience went mad.  That was 1998.

Art is as various and sundry as anything else humans do, but no matter the shape of the expression, creating comes from an essential urge toward truth, beauty and love.  Even the most savage sentiment expressed creatively opens up a conversational space for catharsis. I make the argument that art on some level is activism.

When asked about his religion, Bernie states that his idea of God is everyone together.  I don’t want to get too Vermont hippy here, but in his way, Bernie is an artist because he sees the systemic failures clearly and he calls it like he sees it . He demands that we question the vicious nature of our system and in doing so, he envisions a radical alternative.  And in 1998, he was willing to put on a costume and express that idealism.

Trump is a buyer, a seller, a bored patron in the box seat.  He doesn’t speak the language of idealism.

 

I watched a bit of Democratic National Convention, and when Bernie spoke, exhausted, hoarse, finally painting HRC as the only alternative to Trump, the camera caught lots of young anguished faces on film.  Yes, the movement is bigger than Bernie, but it’s hard to see this as anything other than big money winning once again.  And when big money wins, real creative change loses.