The only thing better than saying 'no'

I'm kinda poor, but mostly just cheap, and life's been kind to me, so I don't have much experience needing charity, and even less getting it.

Once, though, my brother was unemployed and on a county welfare program of some kind. He had a job interview scheduled, and asked me to stand in line and be his proxy at an appointment that would keep his support checks coming until he had a paycheck. My mission, if I chose to accept it, was to present proof that he'd been looking for a job — he had signatures from interviews — so I shrugged and said sure.

It was only one afternoon of my life, but it's still the closest I've come to being on the dole, and it opened my eyeballs wide.

Appointments were not an option, nothing could be done by phone, and the internet was years in the future. Only "drop-ins" were allowed, first come, first served, so I "dropped in," at an office in a desolate part of the city, and the line outside stretched for two blocks, single file, a queue of hundreds.

After two hours in line, I reached the door to the building, where a security guard issued sneers, and a sign said "For prompt service, take a number." I took a number and a hard plastic chair, and promptly an hour and a half later heard my brother's name called.

Then I spent about two minutes with an extremely grumpy old woman who had, I believe, been calling numbers and spending two minutes at a time with poor people for 40 years.

She handed me a small piece of paper that entitled me (my brother, actually) to an appointment another day, but 'appointment' is a loose term; what it actually said was "PM" — meaning, show up at noon and stand in line around the block again.

This was the rigmarole for getting a pitiably small stipend from the government, and it was a process my brother was required to repeat frequently — weekly, I think, but maybe bi-weekly — for as long as he needed assistance.

Of course, many people who need assistance can't devote so much time to proving and re-proving their need, but making the process hellish is the point. If people give up in frustration, or lack the patience, time, proof of poverty, or the paperwork-savvy to pole-vault over all the obstacles, that's a plus — it keeps the program's costs down.

My afternoon waiting at the welfare office was 35 years ago, and the procedures are presumably much more 21st-century now, but doubtless just as daunting and dehumanizing, and just as impossible for people already struggling.

And it's not only welfare or unemployment, it's everything.

On the buses, there are ads inviting poor people to apply for a reduced-fare pass. Which sounds swell, but you'll need to make an appointment, bring a notarized letter from your landlord, file a form where every jot and tittle will be verified, and repeat the process in six months.

There are various programs offering help for the disadvantaged in paying for heat, rent, phone, groceries, medical expenses and prescriptions, etc, and for each kind of 'help' there's another stack of paperwork, and another long line for an appointment with another grumpy old lady in another office that's hard to get to.

From what little I've experienced but what lots I've heard from others, the safety net seems to be mostly a myth or a scam, where the only thing better than saying 'no' to people who need help, is making sure people who need help don't get close enough to ask.

Thanks to a lifelong streak of good luck, I've never yet needed to stare down the labyrinth of bureaucracy in order to stay alive, but now I'm getting old, and beginning to deal with Social Security and Medicaid. Most recently, I spent an hour on hold, waiting to ask a fairly simple question, but eventually I needed my time more than the information, so I gave up and said fuck it.

What a luxury it is, to be able to do that. Millions and millions of people can't hang up, so they're still on hold, listening to "The Girl from Ipanema," who's interrupted every two minutes with a reminder that your call is important.

It's a hell of a system, really — a thousand aid programs, all designed to avoid giving aid.


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