Thursday, June 5, 2008

Meeting Uncle Sam

What a week I had yesterday morning! I drove out to DSHS to get some financial support for our new housemate/child. Ran into the melting pot of America right there at Community Services. It was veritable smorgasbord: a cornucopia of languages, a feast of ethnicities, a banquet of backgrounds. And there we all were, red and yellow, black and white, as the song goes, sitting around tables, standing in a maze of lines, trying to figure out which of the rainbow of applications best suited our particular situation (and hopefully finding a language we could understand), trying to fill them out completely before time ran out (they seem to have this arbitrary cut-off time for doing interviews for the day--9:30 am. The rest of the day, who knows what they do behind those screens). So I pitched my tent, pulled out my mummy bag and set up camp alongside the other wayfarers...

Finally, after about my second s'more around the midnight campfire, my name was called and I sat down at a booth to be interviewed by Uncle Sam himself. Yep, right there at the DSHS. There I was, the supplicant, sitting in my little chair against a counter so high I could rest my chin on it, while Uncle Sam, in the guise of a twenty-something bleach-topped haired 'financial counselor' twirled and rocked in his fancy raised office chair, very proud of his position. I always knew Uncle Sam to be arrogant, but who knew he was young enough to be my son? I've discovered lately that in order to work for these agencies, a person must have his sense of humor surgically removed, so I didn't try to joke with him. Instead he informed me, a little hostilely, that he'd had to enter all our information into the computer, because they had no record of us. "I've never had occasion to come here before," I told him. "So why should you have records of us?" He didn't answer. He was busy weighing my application, checking my worthiness. Deciding V's fate.

At the behest of her social worker, I was there for V--money for clothes and other needs, medical coupons. It didn't seem an unreasonable request. I'm responsible for her care now, and she has very real needs. Medical coupons are not a luxury. In fact, it's exactly what those emergency funds--TANF, it's called--is for. It took longer than it should have for me to explain I didn't want more than my share, or even my share at all, only hers. Uncle Sam can be so stingy, so mean. He throws money away left and right, but when one child needs to see a doctor, it takes all day, and a great deal of groveling, it seems. Yep, groveling--I heard groveling in just about every language yesterday. It seems to be Uncle Sam's favorite kind of conversation. But by the end of my interview, when he was convinced that I was in earnest, the hand held out the funds V needs, and a medical card was on its way.

Then I asked about how to inform them when she moves home and we don't need the funds. Efficient Uncle Sam told me that if it's after the middle of the month, that money already be in the system, so we'll get the next month's funds, anyways.
"So how do we give the money back?" I asked.
He looked at me blankly. "I don't think anyone's ever asked me that before."A full 20 seconds passed. "Do what you want with it."

What? Are you kidding me--do what we want with money that isn't ours but meant to serve? You think maybe there's a reason we're in such bad shape in this country? People have to grovel and plead to get the aid they are desperate for--and trust me, I saw desperate people yesterday-- and they're made to feel tiny and stupid. Even me. And believe me, it's no easy feat making me feel stupid. But if anyone can do it, it's Uncle Sam. And then we keep what we do not need. I know people abuse the system. The system practically begs to be abused. And I know what we're made of. It doesn't matter if we're middle class, rich or poor, we're still made of the same things. Made to be selfish, to keep what we can get away with.

By the time I took down my tent and stuffed my sleeping bag--three hours later in the real world--the room had cleared. The postulants had either been accepted and given what they asked, or found wanting and turned away. Maybe I should have felt victorious that I'd been successful--for V's sake, I was certainly glad. But mostly, I felt a great sorrow about that waiting room. Emanating from it, filling me as I left it. Life is hard enough, I thought, without having to make such a painful thing as admitting need, also be so demeaning.

No wonder we're told to help the poor. "Render to Caesar the things that are his..." Jesus said. But He never said Caesar would render it back. The people of God? We're supposed to render back, though. To do for the poor, the homeless, the sick, the hurting. I hope we give better than Uncle Sam does, I thought. I hope we give without asking value or worthiness. Give without regard for what it will cost. Show stingy old Uncle Sam a thing or two while we're at it.

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