Yes, I know, this is a transit blog. I'll get back to buses tomorrow.
My wife and I are going through some pretty tough financial times, primarily because the financial aid and grants that were paying for her schooling were cut, and the state agency that credentials substitute teachers (something my wife could start doing tomorrow, had she the permit) is ridiculously slow, due probably to the fact that they're understaffed and furloughed 3 days out of the month. We've used up all of my fellowship money, and she's had no luck in finding work, so we're living off of a combination of family help and social services. It is the latter that I want to talk about here.
First of all, and a lot of people who have never been on social assistance don't know this, most of the major public social service programs (Medicaid, General Relief, TANF- what most people think of as "welfare") REQUIRE that you either have children or be a pregnant woman. Childless singles and couples need not apply. There is literally no way for an able-bodied adult to get cash assistance or health care from the government in California unless you either have a baby or have a baby on the way. Even student financial aid, in many cases, can benefit from having a child- children of middle-class families are often excluded from aid, due to their parents' income. If they have a baby, that exclusion no longer applies. My wife and I have put off childbearing at least until we're done with our education, because that's the responsible thing to do- not to have children that are a burden on society. Because we were responsible, however, the government has turned away from us in a time of great need. An 18-year-old single mother with no job prospects can walk into the county welfare office today, and walk out with enough money and food stamps to support herself and her baby. Because my wife and I were responsible enough to spend the $15-$30/month on birth control, we cannot do the same.
Second, social assistance has been left behind in the wired revolution. I can pay my bills, do my schoolwork, and apply for all manner of credit on the Internet. I can shop for everything from groceries to automobiles without ever leaving my home, and have it delivered next-day. However, if I want to apply for government benefits, in most cases I have to hand in a paper application. Both Riverside Public Utilities' SHARE program and the LIHEAP utilities assistance program require a paper application, turned in by hand. Food stamps and Medi-Cal both have an on-line application, but completing this application requires an "interview" appointment. Our interview for food stamps lasted nearly 4 hours. And, of course, turning in an application or calling an office with questions is only possible during business hours, which are rapidly shrinking. 9 to 4:30 is common, and Friday closures equally so. For my wife and I, it isn't such a big deal to have to turn in a paper application- my studies are flexible enough that I can manage to go places in the morning without interfering with school, as long as I take my books with me- but for many workers, a detour to a social services office, which may last several hours, is out of the question, especially during business hours- also known as when PEOPLE SHOULD BE WORKING.
America's social service safety net is a critical part of what our government should be doing for people, and yet it sits in tatters. Were I a British citizen, or a Canadian, or a German, I would not be worrying today about how to pay my rent for next month. If I lived in any other industrialized nation, I wouldn't even be worrying about applying for social assistance- both my wife and I would be taken care of during our educational careers. That the richest nation in the world does so very, very poorly at taking care of those who have encountered even the most temporary of hardships- mine will be over by July or August at the latest- is appalling.
Politicians of both parties have demonized welfare recipients consistently over the last 20 years. How many times have you heard the line about "waste, fraud and abuse" in social service programs? Measure after measure after measure has been put in place to make even the tatters of our safety net harder and harder to fall into. Myths of welfare queens in Cadillacs abound in our political discourse. That rhetoric, and these policies, have dire consequences. Our social services are important precisely because some people, some of the time, will truly, badly need it. I am grateful that I have a family who was able to keep a roof over my head this month, but I am lucky in that regard- were I forced to rely only upon social services, my wife and I (and our cats) would be sleeping in my lab today, all of our possessions tossed to the street during the eviction. The point is that government is not some ephemeral thing that you can simply keep cutting and cutting and cutting- government performs important jobs in our society, and people rely on the government's continued performance of those jobs. Cuts have consequences, and it's time our politicians woke up and saw that.