When Dee's disability claim was granted, after an eight-year legal process, she was awarded back payments for three years, totaling about $17,000 to be divvied up and paid out in three lump sums, one coming every six months. Of this, $4,360 goes to her lawyer. Before the second installment arrives Dee must spend down the first installment to less than $2,000. She will be penalized in some way if she does not. Dee is fortunate to have this back payment. But given her health expenses, she is faced with trying to live on $520 per month or will be soon. In addition to rent, this sum is meant to also cover utilities, clothes, incidentals (such as toothpaste, toilet paper, haircuts) and food. But what about food stamps? When Dee's numbers go through the formulas her food stamp allotment works out to are you sitting down? $15 per month.
When we looked into cheap apartments for rent ($300-$350 per month) we were stymied because the owners require, for good reasons, that one's monthly income be three times the rent amount, so at least $900-$1,050 a month. Section 8 housing has more demand than there is supply. Currently, the wait to get into this housing is from one to three years. Renting a room from a private person or living on the streets seem the options before her; she has been homeless before. There is no way her income will consistently cover even basic living expenses. So she will have to spend hours cobbling together funds from other sources to help her. She will be daily, monthly, yearly, fighting to survive. There is a fuel-assistance program in the winter through the county to which she can apply (yearly) and another in the summer for cooling (again yearly); there are food banks to go to and probably other resources specifically for those designated disabled. Imagine having to do this when you are in poor health and in pain. Imagine this in a system that is already overstressed and underfunded.
I watched Dee's face as all these intricacies were spelled. It was heartbreaking to watch. As she told me later, "When you are sick you should be able to be safe." And she's right. She isn't safe. She's living on the edge of a knife, hanging on by her fingernails, so she won't fall into the abyss. She and all those who are living on their disability or government check are the ones we have made the beggars at the gates of Jerusalem, except they come and plead at the Social Services office or cry "Have mercy on me" across the phone lines.
The implicit attitude I see revealed in this is one that says you are not worth our time and care. In our time together on the phone, in person, and going to appointments and shopping, I have gotten to know a bit of Dee's life. She has a generous and kind heart. The first thing she did with some of her money was buy thank-you gifts for her doctors and lawyer and his legal assistants. While sick herself, she loved and cared for her close friend in his illness until he died. But all that aside, she matters simply because she, like all of us, is a child of God. I face the painful truth that the privileges I enjoy of health and economic status are not transferable. I can't give up part of it when visiting the Social Services office to give her more. I am trapped in this specific instance in the role of transgressor, part of a system of iniquity and inequity.
Before my call to the priesthood I studied politics and economics at Stanford and the London School of Economics. I understand the theories and assumptions of our system. I also know that real-life facts belie some of them. Too often realities such as this are brushed off with rationales that say, oh well, that's just one of those things. Such thinking is a calculus of callousness. I appreciate the complexity of the situation. But I truly believe our nation needs to re-examine this system so that the poor and the ill are seen with more respect and compassion. The amount of money we are talking about is not great when compared to the overall national budget. Finding a new way, through, will mean living differently, caring for people differently and, yes, tax dollars. But for those living on such support it's not an abstract "problem" to solve; it is their very life and well-being which is at stake. I hope that our leaders will act as statesmen and stateswomen on behalf of all Americans, so that all may fare well, rather than succumbing to the growing atmosphere I see of greed, fear and anxiety. But for now, Dee lives in a $520-shaped prison. SThe Rev. Tasha Brubaker is assistant rector at Christ Church Episcopal in Glen Allen.
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