John Scalzi talks about some of the many, many people, known and unknown, who’ve helped him achieve his success.
It’s a great piece and well worth reading, and then reading again. Most of the comments on the piece are appreciative, but there are, of course, the dissenters, and (obviously), that’s what I want to talk about.
A recurring theme in some of the less-positive comments is that while of course it’s great that Scalzi got the help he did, the commenter in question still objects to helping out “lazy” people. Having helped Scalzi is ok, because he worked hard and made good. But everyone knows that most of those people who get “welfare” are just lazy. They just don’t want to work. They’re moochers, “sucking on the public teat.” And so on.
I’ve been on food stamps twice (three times if you count the time my family used them when I was a little kid). I did not apply for food stamps because I was lazy and didn’t want to work. In fact, the first time, I was working. But the only job I could manage to get in the late fall of 2001 (which at the time was considered a very poor economy; compared to the current economic climate I suppose it was downright rosy), as a recent high school graduate with no real experience, while dealing with just-barely-under-control-but-not-really depression, paid just a hair over minimum wage and had irregular hours. On a good week, I might manage twenty-five hours (good weeks were rare). I qualified for, if I recall correctly, about $60 a month in food stamps. Not much. Not actually enough to keep me ahead. But enough to let me eat more than white bread and processed cheese, if I supplemented it with actual money.
Being on public assistance is not some glamorous life of excitement and luxurious ease. It’s scary, it’s stressful, it’s hard. Because first of all: you’re not there in that office if you can afford to feed yourself without it. You’re there because you’re poor. And a caseworker sits there and goes through your life, asking personal questions, looking at your bank statements, scrutinizing you for evidence that you’re a fuckup. Once you get approved, there’s the social stigma to deal with; people get offended by the idea that you might occasionally want to eat something besides rice and beans; they react with disgust if you want use your benefits to buy something nice for yourself. On food stamps? You don’t deserve to have cake on your birthday. You don’t deserve to have a birthday.
And you know that it’s temporary. That they’re looking for any excuse to take it away from you. That if you can’t sort your shit out in six months or less, you’ll be worse off than before.
And years later, people who never knew you when you needed the help assume that you agree with them; they talk about those “lazy people on welfare who just don’t want to work” to you and expect you to agree. Dripping with contempt, they say that people on assistance be subjected to humiliating drug tests and jump through ever more hoops to prove that they are worthy. They expect you to consider this obvious and praiseworthy common sense. They expect you to agree that “those people” are not like “us.”
And then you have a choice: you can tell this person that you are “those people,” or you can ignore it, pretend it doesn’t bother you, when it does.
And let’s be honest: it hurts. When someone you think is your friend, who doesn’t know that you’ve been on food stamps, casually dehumanizes you like that.
And they can say “Oh, well, I didn’t mean you. You’re obviously not like them – you used it the way it’s supposed to be used, to get back on your feet.” Like they said to Scalzi. But I am not Scalzi: by any reasonable capitalist measure of success, I have failed to achieve it. The story of my late teens and early twenties is one of being fired from a series of jobs (mostly dead enders, one career-track), going on food stamps twice and unemployment once, until I finally landed a dead end job I was pretty good at, but which paid minimum wage with no chance for a raise, ever, no matter how many additional responsibilities I willingly took on. After five years of complaining and stressing and finding myself hating it more than I liked it, I finally left to pursue an education.
I am pretty good at going to school, it turns out. Two years in and I still have straight-As. It’s an accomplishment, and I’m proud of it. But by the money = success metric, I am an appalling failure. Worse, my education is financed by Pell Grants (more mooching off the taxpayers). And I am lucky. Because first my parents, then my fiance, were willing to take care of me financially while I focus on school. Because I have an enormous personal safety net of people who consistently forgive my mistakes, who gently push me to do better, who accept that some things that others find easy are hard for me. Who love me despite my many failures, to the point that they don’t see those failures AS failures.
…what do people who don’t have all that get?
The truth is, everybody fucks up. Everybody makes “poor life choices” (another refrain I hear a lot: “I shouldn’t have to subsidize their poor life choices!”). Some of these bad choices hurt people harder than others, and some people are more vulnerable to being hurt. But there is no one on earth who has consistently made only good decisions for their entire life. But only the very poor are expected to suffer for every bad decision. Only the very poor get no forgiveness, no grace.
For me, I can’t separate my own culpability, my freely-chosen “poor life choices,” from the fact that I was born, through no fault of my own, with a debilitating mental illness. I still have to accept responsibility for the bad choices I’ve made, but I also think it’s fair to note that my decisions have been, at best, heavily influenced by depression (at worst, depression made some choices for me). This isn’t about complaining, and it isn’t about being lazy or being a victim; it’s just a fact. Other people have other problems; some have it worse, some have it easier. As I say, it’s not an excuse, and it doesn’t mean I’m not responsible for my bad decisions. This is the reality I have to deal with, and I deal with it the best I can.
But I don’t believe that the bad decisions I’ve made mean I cede my human dignity. I don’t believe that any bad decisions I’ve made mean I should be left on my own when I need help. And I don’t believe I should be harder on other people than I am on myself (frankly I am often quite a bit harder on myself than I am on others; I doubt very much I would describe any other person in my position in life as “an appalling failure,” but then again, I don’t generally use the money = success metric). When people need help, I believe we should give it to them. I don’t believe it’s helpful, wise, or even possible to try to separate people out into the deserving poor and the undeserving poor. And speaking personally, I would rather give help to the lazy than deny it to those who are genuinely struggling. So even if there really are legions of lazy people just scrabbling for a handout (and I don’t believe there are; I’ve known one person who decided to stay on unemployment when he could have gotten a job, and amusingly, he was formerly a big fan of Ayn Rand, so… do with that what you like, I guess)(even he did eventually rejoin the ranks of the workers, as I believe most will, if given the opportunity… I just don’t think very many people enjoy sitting around doing nothing), I’d rather err on the side of giving it to them, rather than the side of cruelly dehumanizing people who need help. And from experience I know that what looks like laziness from the outside often feels like an intense and very difficult struggle to survive when you’re living it.