A Game That Cannot Be Won

A Game That Cannot Be Won March 3, 2017


I went downtown, to apply for utility assistance.

The last time I called that department, they assured me that they do not take appointments anymore; they take walk-ins and walk-ins only. I wrote down their hours and all of the documentation they needed. Then I had one of my autoimmune attacks and didn’t go downtown for some time.

Winter is a very expensive time. We did very well over Christmas and in January; I felt hopeful about getting through. February was a leaner month than usual, but we made it. We rolled into March with less than we’d thought. We needed to go back on utility assistance for a little while or there’d be a crisis for the first time in ages. My husband has noticed many times that if he’s the one who talks to social workers, they disbelieve him, but if I do they treat me fairly respectfully, so I agreed to go downtown myself while he watched our daughter.

I know a thing or two about going downtown to ask for help. There’s a certain note you want to strike with your outfit: it must look cheap, or they won’t believe you’re poor. It’s not enough for your outfit to come from a thrift store, as all my clothes do; it has to look like it came from a thrift store. But it must also look clean, or they’ll think you’re on drugs. It must look modest or they’ll assume you’re a prostitute. But it can’t be so modest as to be eccentric or they’ll think you’re in a cult.

I have one such outfit, and I put it on. I slicked my hair back into a boring ponytail. I scraped together ninety days worth of pay stubs, plus birth certificates, social security cards and utility bills. I walked to the bus stop and waited fifteen minutes in the snow. I got off the bus at the station, walked three blocks through the worst neighborhood to the library, and printed off five pages of other paperwork I needed; then I realized that I didn’t have December’s pay stub. My husband found it, got Rose into her coat and walked her downtown as the snow blew harder– they couldn’t take the bus because I was using the change pouch at the library.

I walked four blocks and met him at the Community Action building. He took the change pouch and the few dollars we had left, and took Rose to the 25-cent toy section of the thrift store.

I went into the Community Action building, trying to look modest, grateful and apologetic. I took the ancient and smelly elevator to the second floor. There, the secretary informed me that they never took walk-ins. I had to make an appointment first. She gave me a fat sheet of printed instructions for all the paperwork and documentation I needed to bring to my appointment– a different list than the one I’d gotten over the phone. It required a tax return, among other things I didn’t have with me. And she herself could not sign me up for an appointment. I was required to leave the Community Action building and call their hotline.

I walked a block and a half to the public park, to get a quiet place to call the hotline. In the frigid wind I could barely hear the voice on the other end of the phone, but it turned out that the hotline consisted of an automated robot voice who required a long, detailed automated interview and would need me to loudly enunciate my confidential financial information before I was even allowed near an appointment with the utility assistance department.

I gave up.

I went to meet my family at the thrift store. I bought a decidedly eccentric, non-modest rainbow paisley scarf for a dollar, because nothing matters. I can’t be the correct kind of poor person. I was playing a game I could not possibly win.

Poverty is a full-time job and it’s completely impossible to do that job adequately. Whether you look fashionable or frumpy, dirty or clean, conventional or eccentric, you’ll be informed you’re the wrong kind of poor person and you can’t have help. You can print off every scrap of paper ever penned and you’ll still be missing one document. You can spend your whole afternoon hiking up and down the street in the cold to try to get one task accomplished, and somebody will call you lazy. If you try to get on assistance, you’re a parasite who lives on honest people’s tax dollars. If you look for work, people presume you don’t actually want the job but are applying so that you’ll qualify for assistance. If you do find a job, you constantly walk that razor-wire tightrope where if you make one dollar too much they’ll take away a hundred dollars of assistance. The limbo between having nothing at all and having enough to not need assistance is vast, and it’s rare enough that anyone will be able to cross from one end to the other.

Of course, the whole system is rigged for dependence, and of course well-meaning people want to remedy that. But they way they do it, nine times out of ten, is by making the current system of poverty and dependence as draining, painful and humiliating as possible for the poor– not by helping to create a system generous and prosperous enough that people don’t need to depend on government aid. More paperwork. More hoops to jump through. More assistance yanked away if you make one dollar too much. More people excluded from any help from the very beginning.

And I know that I’ve been extremely lucky– or blessed, or whatever term you’d like me to use. I’m a privileged person in so many ways. I’ve had all kinds of well-timed miracles, generous help from friends and a few family members, to get me this far. One month we’ll be doing fantastically, and one month we’ll barely scrape by, but so far we’ve always scraped. Plenty of my friends and neighbors could tell you far worse stories than mine. Plenty of people have no good months at all.

Still, I’m always afraid.

I’m afraid for the month when I’ll finally run out of luck.

I can never win at this game. But if I stop playing for any greater act of rebellion than a colorful thrift store scarf, what happens then?

What happens when the bill comes due?

What will we do tomorrow?


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