Thursday, April 30, 2009

The email I didn't send

Very well, we'll figure out the money problem a different way.  Your efforts on our behalf are appreciated. 

I hope you will take no personal offense when I say dealing with Job and Family Services is always a frustrating affair and an assault on one's sensibilities, or that I find it unconscionable that the state would prefer my wife to be unmarried.  Having visited your Agler road office a couple of times to retrieve and deliver paperwork and interact with the staff, I am happy that my wife will no longer have to suffer through the rudeness, aloof disinterest, and being ignored that permeates the atmosphere there.  It hurt me deeply to see her after being at the office, where she would consistently come back feeling small and looked down on.  No longer having to see my wife go through that will be the biggest boon the state has ever given me, and for that I am grateful.

If you're not able to deduce what's going on here, this was my first draft of an attempt to be as much of a jackass as possible while seeming to be polite and appreciative.  Further revisions would have made it more biting and heart-wrenching, but I abandoned the project.  I decided not to send the email for the usual reason that actually making people feel bad and being spiteful are just not my bag, and in this case also because I had been corresponding with JFS for the past few days from my work email address, and staying employed and harassing government employees tend to be mutually exclusive.

What's the background?  Little Scout.  Beautiful little Scout, who I love, who sits on my lap while I read to her, who I longingly look forward to hanging out with for a couple hours alone on Thursdays so we can play at the mall, or the park, or the library, who will still occasionally slip and call me Daddy.  While Liberty was single and living on her own, working a crappy, low-paying retail job and going to school, she was unable to pay for everything herself, and the government was nice enough to provide for her a daycare subsidy.  They pay the lion's share of daycare expenses, and she pays whatever they determine she's capable of as a co-pay.

Having been the child of a single mom who had trouble making ends meet, this wasn't surprising, and in fact I was astounded by how well Liberty coped with navigating "the system", how her apartment was stocked with plenty of furniture and toys, how she functioned on basically no sleep, how far she stretched what disposable income she had, how she was always able to squeeze in time and energy for me when we were dating, and how happy her little kid was.  I knew she was always on the edge of collapse, and I guessed she was always close to bankruptcy.  And yet, she struggled on, her head and spirits high.

She moved in with me a few months before we were married, and eventually Scout was moved to a daycare close to our house that catered to suburban types.  The previous daycare was basically in the hood, staffed by people who had no business being in child care, who spent more time shouting at the kids in their ebonics/hilljack creole than they did trying to teach them manners, sharing, tolerance, whose idea of afternoon snacks was a giant pack of Twizzlers shared between the kids, and whose playtime was either running around in their little mulchy playground or filling a table full of shaving cream and letting the kids smear it all over themselves.  Shaving cream.  Seriously.  On the days I picked up Scout from there, the two things that kept me from going apeshit were Scout's arms waving wildly and shouting "daddy daddy daddy!" and the fact that I never witnessed any of the staff being mean to Scout.  Other kids, yes, but never Scout.  That probably kept me out of prison.

The new daycare, by contrast, is staffed by people with actual training in early childhood education, has an actual preschool program, has a great indoor play area, a projection TV where they show Disney movies and the like, and lots of smiling kids and teachers.  Also by contrast, they are pretty expensive.  For Scout's age group, they charge $175 per week.  When Stacey was that age, I believe I was paying $400 per month for a daycare I thought was great, but was out in a rural area on Avery road around Hilliard.

When Liberty went back to fill out a new subsidy request for the new daycare, it went through without any problems, and everyone was happy.  Or so it seemed.  Since the new daycare was more expensive, the Department of Job and Family Services basically sicked the hounds on her.  They stalled payment after it came to their attention that Mr. Allerding was a graduate student and hence ineligible.  Of course, there was no Mr. Allerding, and Ms. Allerding was an undergrad.  After a few interactions with JFS, trying to get an actual person to answer a phone, or at least a person whose voicemail wasn't full, she got begrudging acceptance from them that there was an error, and that they would pay up.  But they didn't, and Liberty went to the office on Agler road to try to get things cleared up.  And when they found out that we were married, and that I make what I do, the gig was up.

As my unsent email above declares, the office is filled with angst and people who are in theory supposed to help their fellow man in their time of need, but instead are turned into mistrustful and uncaring automatons over time by a few ill-mannered and self-entitled money seekers, who I believe, after being there myself a couple times, are not the norm.  The result is that the people who are in need and have the potential to be contributors to society down the road after clearing a hurdle or two are treated like dirt on the case workers' shoes, like less than men.  Liberty's visit to clear up the "Mr. Allerding the graduate student" problem was met with a typical reaction: she was asked to sit and wait, and then ignored until, two hours later and close to being late for work, she inquired what the holdup was, and was told "Oh, she says you have to reapply."  So not only was this information not conveyed to her directly from the decision maker, which would have been the respectful thing to do, the third-party messenger didn't even bother to notify her that a decision had been made and left her sitting in a chair for the better part of two hours.  And let's not forget the bait-and-switch of the promise to pay and the demand for more time and paperwork instead.

The whole system of government aid is like this.  It's the reason the card readers for "food stamp" cards (which actually used to be stamps, I remember them as a kid when my mom used them in grocery stores... I thought they were pretty cool, like my mom had a secret, underground currency) are ugly brown boxes that rarely work, prompting the cashier to shout out to the manager across the store "Hey! How do you work the FOOD STAMP reader!?  This guy's got food stamps and CAN'T PAY!"  Everything has to be ugly and belittling, and the retailers are encouraged to follow suit, making the consumers feel as low as possible.

I think it's important to clarify a point here: Why are we still trying to do this now that she's married to someone with a nice cushy coding job, a 401k, and a savings account?  Don't I love Scout enough to chip in on her daycare expenses?  I do, yes.  Basically Scout's parents are caring and devoted to her, and they want to be responsible for her care and upbringing.  And I don't want to be imply that they can't do it alone.  As it turns out, as may already be clear, the state considers me financially responsible for Scout.  And I agree with them.  Scout's needs are Liberty's needs, and her needs are my needs.  And now the state has trumped any melodrama between Liberty, Dave, and myself with a simple "you're married to someone who makes too much, and we aren't giving you any more money."

...which is what we found out after she reapplied.  Realizing the boat we were in, and trying to calm the woman I love and give her hope when she called, despondent, and told me the news, I went to my budget spreadsheet and tried to see how $175 per week could fit in and not send me to the poor house.  It's a close call, as I'm pretty over-extended, but if I pull some money out of savings, and don't put any more in for the rest of the year, and cut back on how many dinners out we go to, it's workable.  And we have a little left over for birthdays, and for Zoe and Eric's wedding, and to get Stacey to North Carolina this summer, and for Christmas.

Except, I can't just go spend an extra $20 any time I please an a whim.  This first week was the hardest, as the money I'm paying for taxes just came out of the bank, and we went on vacation recently, and after the unplanned $175 came out, I got to a point where I had no spending cash left.  Not even change to buy a soda at work.

Except I've got this jar full of pennies at my desk that I've been collecting over the 6 years I've been at AEP, and the credit union downstairs has penny rollers.  And I'm thinking to myself yesterday as I'm pulling out change to roll so I can get a pop and a candy bar, "Thank God that my wife doesn't have to go deal with those monsters any more.  No one gets to look down their nose at her.  She doesn't have to go to work in tears wondering if her daughter is going to be kicked out of daycare.  And all I have to do is get down off my high-horse and roll some pennies."

I was so happy at the thought that I kept going until I had 10 rolls filled, and I grabbed them and went down the elevator amidst some quizzical looks from my peers, and gleefully said to the credit union teller "I'd like a $5, please."  I'd rather do that any time I'm thirsty than to have my beautiful wife, fair, loving, and perfect, spend one god-damned minute at a bleak government office sitting in a fucking chair worrying and hoping someone will help her.  To quote Johnny Castle: Nobody puts Baby in a corner.

1 comment:

  1. Oh yeah, you rule. Dude, I have been there with the change jar more times than I care to count. It is an awful feeling.
    And I am with you 100% on the JFS thing. When I lost my job last year, I immediately freaked out and went down to apply for food stamps, just to have something coming in. Twelve hours later I walked out unhelped and vowed never to return for any reason.