The Means, Part 4: Welfare

The Means, Part 4: Welfare
by Bobby Dillon

This is a column in eight parts. Through this column I hope to get us all thinking and talking about politics differently. We’ve been fed bullshit most of our lives and this column wants to cut through it. Politics is more than voting and watching the news – it’s the struggle over who gets to make the big decisions. Obviously this is my opinion, but I also spit facts. Comments? Questions? Email me at

Let me tell you a story.

For a long time, I worked at a rural mental health treatment provider. Most of my job was working with people who had nothing in the world, helping them access the kinds of resources they needed. Over the years I’ve helped many people apply for Medicaid, SNAP, Disability, and just about anything else in between. The stories I tell in here are true, though information has been changed to anonymize the people mentioned here and protect their privacy. 

I knew a lady once; we’ll call her Jenny. Jenny had significant mental illness and had only ever worked part-time jobs. She was never able to hold onto a job very long because she had a tendency to miss work, which naturally irked employers. Her mental health issues were a direct cause of this which is why she was legally considered “disabled” and was able to receive financial benefits from the government. 

Now, if you’re not familiar with the morass of bullshit that is social security, there are multiple types of benefits. Regular ol’ Social Security is reserved for people who have worked a minimum amount of years and accrued enough “work credits” over the course of their life and who are at least 62. If you can hold out until you’re SEVENTY you’ll earn more, which is ludicrous. Nobody should have to work until they’re seventy years old.

Imagine you’ve not been able to work most of your life because you have serious mental and developmental health concerns. Imagine you hear voices ALL THE TIME.. Imagine you’ve dealt with this for your entire life and struggle to hold a job because you’re in and out of the psych hospital. In short, you can’t work. There are a lot of people out there who can’t work because of stuff like this. A LOT. But guess what – there’s another type of social security, called SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance), that is ostensibly set aside for those people who are disabled and can’t work. Hooray! But, as with all “entitlements” in our neoliberal austerity state, there’s a catch. See, SSDI is set aside for people who have worked and accrued enough CREDITS and who become disabled at some point in their working life. If you don’t have enough credits you don’t get SSDI. But, since you’re disabled the government will still toss you a pittance, and you get what’s called Supplemental Security Income (SSI). SSI is, as the name implies, SUPPLEMENTAL. Lots of people who get SSDI and regular old social security also get SSI because it’s meant to supplement your income and it’s usually not very much.

Jenny was on SSI and that’s it. She didn’t have enough work credits to qualify for SSDI and she wasn’t old enough to get social security. Further, even when she turns 62 she probably won’t get Social Security because of those damned work credits. Jenny lived on just under $1000 a month. Have you tried living on $1000 a month? I would encourage you to try it and see what it’s like. And you know the really fucked-up thing? She was relatively well-off compared to a lot of people I knew. $12,000 a year is actually pretty high. 

Isn’t that awful? What kind of society have we built here where we expect people to survive on $12,000 a year (if you’re lucky) while billionaires exist. You know how you survive $12,000 a year? With welfare. With food stamps and Medicaid

Jenny made more than just about everyone else I knew who was on some form of “entitlement.” I knew one young man who had what I would consider to be SEVERE schizophrenia. He was in his twenties and had never really had a job. He got just under $750 a month. One man I knew was in his late fifties and had worked his entire life. Before I met him he’d had a very successful consulting business and lived like a king. Like, he would drop $100 on lunch like it was nothing. He’d had a mental breakdown and ended up blowing up his entire life and when I knew him he was living on $750 a month because he didn’t have enough work credits because he’d been self employed for thirty years. He’d paid taxes, he’d paid FICA, but because of some twisted bureaucratic logic, he wasn’t ENTITLED to SSDI. 

Guess what happens with people who live on “entitlements.” They’re forced to rely on OTHER “entitlements,” to survive. Food stamps, Section 8, LIHEAP, Medicaid, and much, much more. That’s what it takes to make it on SSI. If you make $750 a month, you become utterly dependent upon the austerity state, and EVERY SINGLE ONE of those programs I just mentioned have applications thicker than a fantasy novel. You’re not allowed even the basest privacy if you live on government programs and charity. Every single thing about your life needs to be offered up to this system before it will deign to give you even the most measly scraps. Did your birth certificate get lost in the wind when you had a mental breakdown and lost your job and the bank foreclosed on your house? No housing voucher for you. Does your abusive ex-husband have your social security card and refuses to give it back? No food stamps for you. 

This is most egregious when it comes to housing. Because rents continue to skyrocket, even as our economy crumbles and unemployment (and UNDERemployment) becomes the norm for whole swaths of the population, finding a place to rent when you’re making $750 a month and THEN trying to eat on top of that is damn near impossible. What this does is force people into programs like Section 8, which is a government rent subsidy program. Essentially the government gives your landlord a check every month for a chunk of your rent and you cover the rest. A problem with that is that even in rural areas like my hometown, the waiting list is LITERALLY YEARS LONG to get on Section 8. And that’s in a town of 15,000 people. Another major problem with that is that it’s yet another example of the state giving money directly to profiteers (landlords) so they can make money off of you. Take that and extrapolate it to a small metro area like the Quad Cities or even a major metro area like Chicago. What are people supposed to do while they’re waiting YEARS to get their housing vouchers? Pull themselves up by their bootstraps, I suppose.

Welfare is good. Our current welfare system is severely broken. It relies on for-profit businesses to provide for people, and, as I’ve talked about before, profit means higher costs and lower wages to subsidize the lifestyles of the executives. It doesn’t have to be this way – we can get a better deal.

Stay tuned.

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