Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The System Will See You Now

It’s practically a cliché by now: I’m over-educated and under-employed. Now for me, it’s pretty much by choice: I recently had my first child and I want to stay home to care for her. My husband, however, is also highly educated, and he does want to work. But in the current economy, that’s not happening, so we find ourselves in an interesting situation.

We have, between us, three master’s degrees and a doctorate (almost). We both come from low-income families; my husband, the one who’s almost a PhD, was only the second in his family to go to college. We are the American Dream. But we also, to our great surprise, find ourselves navigating the world of Social Services (detrimentally known as welfare). The worst part of this scenario is that we aren’t stupid. We can’t just accept what we’re told. We are, in fact, so smart that we see how incredibly ridiculous this entire system really is. We see the waste, the holes, the fraud, and the punishment doled out not to those who won’t help themselves, but to those who, like us, are trying to maintain responsibility, respectability, and honesty.

We tried to be responsible. Knowing the layoff was coming, we saved like never before. Although hubby had the best paying job of his life, we continued living in a 400-sq-foot apartment and spending frugally so that we would have savings to get through what we assumed would be about six months of unemployment. That has now turned into a year, a month, and counting.

Because our unemployment income was too low to qualify for the state’s Healthy Families program, I applied for no-cost Medi-Cal to cover my daughter (age 1). But I was told by a social worker: “It’s a waste of time for you to apply right now because of your savings. Go spend it down, then come back and see us.” Yes, I was told, go waste whatever security you have in your bank account, so that you can get your one-year-old some health insurance.

We had too much money in our savings account to qualify for Medi-Cal, even though our income fit the guidelines. And we had too little income to qualify for Healthy Families, which will not count the savings as an asset.

This is a black hole to which we will return.

What nobody told us is that if you plan ahead and try to be responsible, it comes back to bite you. In the world of welfare, you’re not expected to have had any foresight – nor any discipline around money – and therefore having savings immediately disqualifies you from most programs. I can see how if, say, you were a trust fund baby with no job, trying to get Medi-Cal, this could be abused – but honestly, has that ever happened? Instead, we lived off our savings, and we could not apply for insurance for our daughter until every last cent of it was gone.

I then had the distinct lack of pleasure to spend several mornings at the Department of Social Services office. This is, surely, one of the circles of hell, filled with a completely confused clientele growing more agitated by the minute, and well-meaning but ultimately clueless employees. Once a manager came out and made the following announcement: “We do not make the decisions about your services. The System makes the decisions. We only enter your information. The computer makes the decisions. We only submit what you give us to the System.”

Big Brother, anyone?

Half the time I couldn’t get questions answered because, really, the employees only know how to put the numbers into “the System”, which then spits out a “yes” or a “no”. They couldn’t even tell me the income ranges for which my child might qualify for health insurance. It’s all in a mysterious computer somewhere. A computer my intelligent brain would seriously like to hack. [I did eventually find the numbers online, but it was not easy – and the social worker was not gonna give them up.]

After spending way too many hours of my life in this soul-sucking place, I eventually learned that “the System” had figured that we make too much money – on unemployment – to qualify for free Medi-Cal for our daughter. Now, we have employer-based health insurance in this country. So wouldn’t it make sense that the income limits set by the government for low-income health coverage (at least for kids!) should match up to unemployment income, to cover those without jobs? And I’m not talking about getting health insurance for my husband or me – I only want it for my daughter, at this point. But the monthly income limit is $2,030 for a child ages 1-5; our unemployment compensation is $450 per week. But wait, you say, that is only $1,950 a month, isn’t it?

Ah, that’s what we thought. But then the economy tanked and the federal government, in a gesture of goodwill, started putting an extra $25 a week into our checks. And bam, just like that, we got stimulated out of Medi-Cal (we are exactly $29 over the monthly income limit, and only because of the stimulus money). I would personally rather not have the extra hundred bucks a month – or even have it cut in half – so that my daughter could have health insurance.

So fine. We are not happy about this, but we will deal. The state has Healthy Families, right? And it’s only like four bucks a month, so we can totally swing that. On the advice of our social worker, then (by the way, every time I say “our” and “social worker” in the same sentence, I cringe), we apply.

The letter arrives from Healthy Families, and I eagerly open it, ready for the whole ordeal to be over, for my daughter to finally resume her well-child visits and immunizations, and…it says No. You can’t get Healthy Families.

Why not?

Oh, because your income is too low. You should be applying for Medi-Cal, silly people. So we have kindly sent your application over to them for you.

(insert scream-into-pillow here)

Here’s what I found out: Healthy Families will only look at your check stubs as proof of income. And for some completely insane reason, our unemployment check stubs (and award letter) say we are paid $450 per week. The “stimulus” of $25 is in the check, and the stub says the check “includes a stimulus payment” – but the amount, per the stub, is $450, not $475 (while the attached check for two weeks is for $950, not $900).

I say to them: “But we make $475 a week. Medi-Cal figured our income at $2,059 a month.”

They say: “We can only go by the check stub.” Can you look at a copy of the check? “No, only the stub.” But how can we make too much money for Medi-Cal and not enough for Healthy Families, when your income guidelines are consecutive dollar amounts? “Oh, it happens all the time.”

I bet it does. Only usually it’s the problem with the assets that I mentioned above. We don’t have any assets anymore (having “spent them down” – for nothing, I might add). We simply have a case where the government has upped the ante of the stupidity to levels previously unimaginable by folks like us. We believe in the system – heck, we’re still in favor of a public option, even after all this (because as awful as this has been, we’ve been flat-out denied by privates) – but when we can see the problems, and explain how ridiculous they are, and we are still told that “the System” makes the decisions or Healthy Families has to toe the “check stub” line…well, let’s just say I start to understand why people shoot up post offices.

I’m now working another System – I’ve gotten my state assemblyperson’s office on the case. We’ll see if they can cut through the red tape that is choking me.

You cannot understand the hellish mire of the social services system until you have attempted to navigate it, and the vast majority of those with power in this country have never and will never do so. I wrote this because I know there are others – probably thousands of others – like us, losing their minds because of how asinine and wasteful the system is. But because we are Educated, and Middle Class (ha), we tend to be too embarrassed to talk about these things publicly.

Well, I guess I have no shame. No, scratch that: I have no choice. Somebody has to speak out about this. And that has to be an over-educated, under-employed person. Because honestly, who else would have faced this – and figured it out?

(I’m working on making this into an op-ed piece. I would appreciate feedback to improve it, and suggestions of where I might submit it for publication. Thanks!)


Dan Stringer said...

Brillant thoughts, Stasi. I'm not sure what can be said except that I'm ashamed of the way those from my profession (social workers) have treated you. But you're right, this is a systemic problem at the core. Reform is more urgent than ever.

Keep telling your story. It works as an excellent op-ed.

Hugo Schwyzer said...

Yes, cut it down -- brutally -- to about 1000 words and submit it to the Times via email.

Stasi said...

Done and done. Sunday as I read their op ed page I thought, "OK my story is as good as this" so I cut it to 800 words and sent it in! Should know in a day or two if they like it. Oh, I'm talking LA Times...is that what you meant?