Monday, February 2, 2009

welfare: the state of doing well especially in respect to good fortune, happiness, well-being, or prosperity

Yesterday ran a column by Dave Bakke, here is the online version. We've gotten positive responses from people we know personally. Online responses, however, are fairly hateful and negative. The ideas of living a simplified life and trying to transition into a world of community were eclipsed by the fact that we are on food stamps and receive energy assistance. I've been thinking a lot about welfare, so here we go.

Welfare began in the first Great Depression (remember how we called WW1 the Great War until ww2 came along?), because there were simply no jobs, and currency was hard to come by to trade for food. Most everyone was in need, especially after the remaining banks came to own a lot of the land. Then my historical recollection of it is a bit fuzzy, until maybe the 80's, when welfare came under scrutiny because the hard-working people of this country were being fleeced by welfare cheats who did nothing but pop out kids as fast as possible to get more and more money, in between eating donuts and watching tv. And then in the 90's, I think, there were the welfare reform laws aimed at getting people who lived off welfare back into the workforce. Welfare reform in these ideas refers to the money people get in cash assistance every month.

And now we're here, and here we are. Last winter we received about $100 a month in food assistance. We ate a lot of beans and dumpstered bread, as you can imagine. This summer our food assistance went up to a whopping $450, and we ate meat, cheese, dairy. It was a nice change. Now we are receiving $380 a month, which can provide for us quite nicely. This money helps us, obviously, and also helps the grocery store where a link card can be used to buy groceries, and also helps all the food processors and industrial ag businesses that get government subsidies to grow the stuff. Food assistance averaged out to about $3000 last year.

We also received about $500 in energy assistance. This normally pays the bulk of our two hardest months of winter using our natural gas furnace, plus a few months of electric. Our energy bills are ridiculously low in spring, summer, and fall, and only when we are stuck inside with the cold outside do we consume more energy. This winter is different, with using the wood stove. When we cut our gas in a month or two, the bulk of the unused portion will return to whence it came.

Altogether we receive, via the public dole, $3500. (For anyone interested in determining whether I commit welfare fraud, I dutifully turn in all the paperwork requested of me. They decide the amounts; I don't.) To put $3500 in perspective, it's less than the Iraq war costs for one second. One second. One second of death and destruction and moral ineptitude puts food on the table for my family and pays for a couple of the hardest months of utility demands of the winter.

If people want to talk about how their tax payer dollars are wasted, I will be up there talking with them. I pay taxes too--in the form of sales tax and property tax. Look at how much money is wasted in war. We have military bases all over the globe, sticking our imperial noses where they don't belong. Add the cost of Afghanistan to Iraq, and you get $4745 spent per second. A lot of that goes "missing" or is mismanaged, or is flat-out given to Cheney and his cronies at Halliburton. Look at industrial farms getting subsidies. We spent $35 billion in taxpayer money, and the bulk of that went to the top 10% biggest and wealthiest agri-industrial corporations.

Let's talk about how much money we waste putting people in prison for petty or consensual crimes. I hear the Sangamon County Jail is now five people to a one-person cell. Our nation can't spend the money on community centers, or allowing mothers to stay home and raise their kids, but the more prisons, the better! Look at the pavement we subsidize--yet more roads and subdivisions, even though the roads and sidewalks we already have are crumbling, and we can't seem to find the money to fix them. Look at what we pay for educating our nation's children, and the test numbers haven't increased. And I could go on. I can't stand government waste either, and it looks like big corporations are getting the bulk of the welfare. Time for them to get real jobs!

Included in Dave Bakke's column were the numbers I had written up for our family's year in review. This was the income we received and the money we spent. We made the most of the money we received, including the money we earned. Our tax refund and economic stimulus money--when wealthier people get these, they are not considered welfare, and I do not consider these payments to be welfare for me either.

We get an adoption subsidy provided for by the state, for adopting an abused child. It helps keep the roof over our heads, and we are thankful for it. It has made the decision to stay home and take care of our priority, our child, much easier. It's not easy raising a severely traumatized child. If you'd have asked me a couple of years ago, I wouldn't have thought it possible that she would ever recover. But now it seems, things are going well enough. It takes a lot of patience and determination, and most importantly, time and love, to overcome that. No matter how good a teacher or daycare worker is, they are no substitute for a loving family and caring community in overcoming adversity like that.

Back to welfare. There are 154 million Americans with jobs, and about 80 million without. Approximately 11 million are unemployed, with about a third of these folks joining this statistic in the last year. I kind of wonder how those 80 million people are managing to live. Some are, no doubt, stay-at-home parents whose spouses have jobs. A lot are likely like me--working, sure, but making ends meet however possible, even if it means standing in a crowded welfare office with many other people trying to make ends meet. After all, even with the ubiquitous fast food jobs, 11 million competitors are not good odds. Those who have other options take them. When Wal-Mart starts down-sizing, you can pack it in. There's not going to be much economic recovery after that, and talk otherwise is just talk.

Welfare is often criticized by people who work but aren't rich. Understandably so. They work their butts off, often at places they don't really enjoy. They have to work to pay the bills, and they get really pissed when someone else gets a free ride. And then if they lose their jobs, or their spouse gets sick or dies, they find themselves on welfare, and they understand what it's like. This happens more than you might think.

And now back to us. If I had known our food and energy assistance were to be so scrutinized, I would have figured some different numbers, mainly in the form of value received and value given. In the form of what we contribute to society, we volunteer with food not lawns, about 30 hours a month. Even at minimum wage, we output a couple of hundred dollars of value each month. For people who value assistance in learning about organic holistic gardening and appreciate free worms, kombucha mothers, assistance, garden design, and workshops, they might put our value at a bit higher than the minimum.

In addition, we homeschool our child, so the almost $7000 allocated on her behalf is not being used (we sure don't get it for her home education). If she were in public school, my intelligent spirited active daughter would most likely be quite a drain on an already overworked teacher in an overcrowded inner city school, or possibly, highly medicated. Of course, we'd never charge to teach our daughter, already being emphatic that knowledge is a human right that should not involve money in any way, shape or form.

And forget numbers, because really, when you get down to it, money is imaginary. I mean really. A couple of years ago, when we were surfing this bubble dream of the ever increasing pile of more money, we had no idea that it would all crash (well, some people did). I can't find the exact statistics, but $1.2 trillion poofed into the ether on just one day--Sept. 29 of last year. In October, almost $10 trillion vanished from stock markets world-wide. This money existed, until people stopped believing in it, then it disappeared. You can call it a correction, but I call it the imaginary idols of a disturbed cult whose rituals stopped working.

I feel like I've said my piece on welfare. Yes, I use one second's worth of what our country spends in the war in Iraq to make ends meet. I put some dollar figures out there that seem to outweigh what we receive. But putting the emphasis on community and not on dollars, that is the important part. We are here, on a daily basis, interacting within our neighborhood, with our friends, and our child, and also with our community at large. It is a real blessing to be able to do this. We're trying to figure out a way to live without toxifying our habitat. If our government valued this, we'd be rich, wouldn't we? We'd be making a lot more than $3500 per year, wouldn't we? (Note to self: get in line at the bailout window for sustainable urban homesteading research. Wait, is that more welfare, or is it economic recovery?)

Planting forest gardens, that's what I'm interested in putting my time toward, and I think I'm providing a better value to my community of Springfield and my community of Earth than repeating do you want fries with that? ad nauseum. Raising a kid who can think for herself, who is raised with values and taught skills to survive whatever may come, a kid who is creative and intelligent--that's my contribution to my descendants. This effort, this adventure, this is my insurance, my retirement plan. You got it. I am a willing worker for a future that makes some sort of sense. I find beauty in my yard in the ghetto, my neighborhood, my community both close and far. I'm done playing checkers with dollars forever and forever. I've found something a lot more meaningful. I'm done talking about welfare.


"Go forth, tear this iron cage down,
My sons," thus the wise woman spoke,
"And set every fantasy free,
And every crushed worker unyoke."

from Vachel Lindsay's "The Woman Called 'Beauty' And Her Seven Dragons A Poem For Those Who Desire An Aesthetic Utopia."


Thirtyseven said...

More than anything, reading the comments reminded me of Carse's book on Infinite Games. These are people who are angry that "The Rules" are being broken. They have built up a game-based justification for the fact they hate their own lives: they have no choice, these are just The Rules.

When they see someone -- apparently, anyone -- living outside of those Rules, their reaction is to attack The Others rather than question their own understanding of the The Rules.

It's a very disturbing thing to watch.

Mark Herpel said...

I think it's great what you are doing and wish you the best. Keep blogging so I can follow your story.

What do you do when it comes to healthcare? What would happen if you get very sick like cancer or a heart attack?

Also have you ever thought of starting a local community currency, for local use only? You can see or as good example of community money.

sharqi said...

Yes, infinite games. I think you are correct, J. It sucks slaving away at rowing the galleys at Rome, and it sucks even more when you see someone get up and leave. There's always other options. Always.

Mark, because our daughter was adopted through our state's child welfare program, she has a medical card until she is 18. She sees her regular pediatric physician if she is sick, which is not very often. Although she has a milk allergy, she seems to have a good immune system otherwise.

My husband and I also have medical cards, because of our low income. However, having a medical card is a lot like not having insurance at all. The local clinic that accepts the medical card has a two-week wait. We are fairly healthy people, and are rarely sick enough to see a doctor. But if we get sick enough to see a doctor, we'd have to wait two weeks, so we don't bother.

We focus on keeping our stress levels low, eating good (nonprocessed) foods (including fermented foods like sauerkraut and wellness foods like garlic and honey), and drinking herb tea if necessary. Health, not health care, is the goal.

It's a relief to know if we were extremely sick like with cancer or had a heart attack that we would be covered with the medical card. However, I'm not sure a hospital would be the place I would seek medical care. I'd rather call my friends Abby and Mike, who know a lot about herbs, and who could most likely provide me with better care.

Local currencies are nice, and if there was one here, I'd probably use it. However, I don't really like converting my help or time into currency, and then paying someone else for their help or time. I'd rather barter things like produce if I had to. Otherwise, it's nice for friends to help each other out when they can. The gift economy, community, I feel a real connection with that. Thanks for asking good questions.


Joyce said...

I am also following a lifestyle that compares a lot to your own - my husband and I homeschool, practice alternative medicine, gardening, local/organic food, and working towards a more sustainable lifestyle. The difference is that I am also trying for a more self-sufficient lifestyle. If you were to forgo the food stamps and subsidies, and truly try for a more self-sufficient lifestyle, your actions would be something to be admired and honorable. Unfortunately, you have chosen to opt for the government handouts. A government that you are critical of but you will take the money you feel entitled to receive. If homeschooling were someday entitled to tax credits, I wouldn't take it. There is no free lunch and everything comes with strings attached. Speaking as someone who does things differently, and there are a lot of us, you actions are dishonorable to the whole premise of a self-sufficient lifestyle.

sharqi said...

Well, I disagree. You know very little about me and my background, just the basics that we are trying to cut our ties to money altogether, and that we receive food and energy aid (money that goes straight to corporations). I know nothing about you, but I'm sure someone living a "more pure" (whatever that means) lifestyle than you could point out what you are doing that is not up to their standards. It seems stupid to waste time and energy on this exercise, bringing to mind a competitive view of life.

As a friend said, the article is about looking at how much you can do with so little. I'm glad you can do it better with less. We're getting there. The more of us there are encouraging one another, sharing skills and knowledge and assistance, the better.