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!)

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

I'm published!

What started as an inquiry into this blog led to my contribution of a couple entries and now I am really pleased to say I am a published author, a contributor to the collection Jesus Girls: Growing Up Female and Evangelical, edited by Hannah Notess, out now from Wipf & Stock. (I'm still thinking it's a mistake but I guess when I see my name in the book I'll have to recant)

Thank you to everyone who's kept reading over the years. It's given me the confidence to try for such crazy things. Who knows....maybe more to come...?

Down to business, a few relevant links: press release and purchase info

Please spread the word!

Is it just the greener grass?

Hey there.

I won't ever retire this blog completely because I need a place to write some thoughts sometimes. At least most of the readers are probably long gone, so I can regain that sense of anonymity that I once had. Well, except for my big 'ol picture over there.

So here's what's weird: I actually miss several things about living up north. Most of all, and I really didn't expect this, I miss our church. And totally shockingly, J does too. He of the nonstop critique. He of the rant all the way home every week. He of the "I don't feel welcome here b/c I'm not liberal enough." Yes. Him. He actually wishes we were still going to St. Gregory's. And so do I.

I guess it's like you spend a year at this place that's so experimental and while there are flaws and annoyances, at least it's very alive and pretty much everybody's really happy to be there and enthusiastic to participate. And then you come back to these churches that are...well, there is no other word for it: they are boring. I mean, I didn't think they were, until I got sucked into St. G's culture. Now I can't deal with mumbled half-hearted liturgical prayers, or priests who are practically yawning while breaking the bread, or parishioners with eyes glazed over. My butt hurts when I'm in church here. There's far too much sitting. I miss dancing. Hell, I miss just standing up. And I mean, you do stand, in our services, in the regular TEC services...but still, not enough. And there's no color, and no costumes, and no life. I mean, there's life. Sure, I never would have gotten into it if there weren't. But even though St. G's drove me up the wall in so many ways, I was also drawn so strongly into the style and the culture that now I feel like a fish out of water. I can't abide "normal" church. Not any kind, not Evangelical or Episcopalian. I've tried regular ol' prayer book services, super high-church anglo-catholic liturgy, and alternative pseudo-Evvie church (i.e. one guy singing/talking for the vast majority of the time while our butts get sore). None of it is fitting anymore.

Man, I almost feel like I did when I was ready to abandon the church altogether, right before we transitioned into TEC. So much of loving your church, it turns out, isn't about the liturgy and the worship at all (despite my best efforts to nail down the magic that makes it work). It's the people. Of course. It's all about the freaking people.

And I loved my people up north. I didn't realize it until now. I was so anxious to get back home to LA that I didn't notice a new home was taking up residence in my heart. But it's not just them, either; it's also the people who made the church down here my home. So many of them are gone, moved on, retiring, or just too busy. It's not the same place anymore. Not much has changed on the outside (actually that's not true - a new building project has completely changed the outside, but I mean the worship), but the soul has shifted somehow.

And it's not just going to church. It's the Food Pantry. I miss it like there's a hole in my gut. That was really my church, you know. When the Sunday folks drove me nuts I knew I had a congregation to go to on Friday that would embrace me. And vice versa. It's just depressing to work at the food distribution here. It's so paltry, and so disorganized. Yeah, it's probably a lot like the FP was when it started. But I'm not Sara Miles, and I don't think I have the heart, conviction, or frankly time (her baby was a lot older than mine when she started) to make the lightning strike down here. It was such a grounding thing for me, such an incredible high (I realize that's a weird paradoxical observation). Plus I really miss the food, in all honesty. I miss being fed - in all ways - by that place.

And I had veteran mama mentors up there. Down here, my friends are all figuring it out with me or I'm the supposed vet. I mean, there's one great friend who's got a two year old, but even that, it's too close to my own predicaments. I had these women up there: the one who showed me how to be a godly parent, the one who helped me brush stuff off and let me vent when I couldn't, even the one who guided me through the world of eco-parenting. I had people to ask about extended breastfeeding; about why I can't get pregnant again; about the phases Maggie goes through. And I feel like I have none of that anymore. I've lost them. I miss them. I need them.

It's especially hard because I want to be pregnant again so badly, and it's not happening, and it seems like all my friends here are preggo again without even trying (or they don't want to be at all, which is also unrelatable).

I even miss my house. I really miss its size. Especially the kitchen. And the two bedrooms. Through which you could actually walk. Currently my one bedroom is so full with a queen bed and a crib that you have to crawl across the bed to get from one side to the other. That's depressing. This house is cute and cozy and so damn stuffed that it will never feel like a grown-up house. It's more like living in a storage space.

And I'll admit it: I really, really miss the weather. Probably the smoke currently burning my eyes isn't helping, nor the week of 100+ temps.

So am I just a big baby who can never be happy with what she has? Am I doomed to always realizing what I had just a little too late?

Don't answer those, please.

Damn. Who would've thought we'd miss St. G's so much? And have so much trouble finding a place to fit in here, HERE in our home!? How can it be so hard? We are different people now, it's true: we are parents. The things we could do before we can't now; I'm sure our friends think we've become aliens. Or reverse vampires who are only really awake when the sun first comes up. I hate it that I can't stay awake past 9. But I wake up at 5. So I can't. I hate it that I can't go out for dinner at 7 pm, but that's my daughter's bedtime. I hate missing movies, and parties, and all manner of outings, because I have a baby and mostly because I'm so damn poor.

Oh. That's really what I miss.

I don't know why, because we didn't have more money up there. But somehow it was more secure. There was more in the savings. And our groceries were taken care of by the church. And there just seems to have been more free stuff to do. I had a cadre of other poor moms willing to run around with me doing free things. And FUN outings, not just sitting around houses. I am so grateful to have friends here with babies, but they are all so much more well off than us. They have houses, pools, cars with air conditioning. I feel like a stupid kid who doesn't have her act together. Maybe I'd be better off getting to know some of the parents at Fuller; at least they would be poor too. It really is very hard to be in such a different tax bracket than your friends. It makes you feel like an idiot a lot of the time. What is wrong with us? We have as much or more education than all of them! But apparently education can't ensure jack squat when it comes to income and employment. In fact, it kind of screws you, since you wind up with student loans that cost more than a house.

Anyway, I just needed to get some of these thoughts out. I needed to say out loud (?) how much I actually miss my church. And my pantry. And my friends. And my house. And maybe the whole area. I want to visit so much. But there's no way I can drive up there without a/c, and there's no way I can rent a car. So I'm stuck. Bum MER.

Well the child's awake so my musings will have to go back into my head now. At least I got a little out. Was starting to feel like I might explode.