#3 a more micro look at a macro issue

    Since speaking with my first two interviewees, Dave Kelly and Candy Moot, I was left curious to hear from a perspective with more direct involvement. Beginning my search for someone who could speak more experientially was more challenging than originally expected. I’d minimally hoped to find someone who felt like they could speak somewhat knowledgeably on the topic. After approaching nearly ten people, my brother’s wife Angel relieved me of my search. Angel grew up in a family with 18 siblings, most of whom were adopted and has been the recipient of welfare support on and off throughout her adolescent and adult life. When asked what her understanding of the system was, she replied, “The primary duties of welfare are to support someone for food and housing. Food would refer to the program ‘Food Stamps,’ now known as ‘EBT,’ and housing is usually ‘Section 8,’ which provides a voucher for part of your rent to the landlord.” Throughout our interview, these insights and her use of more technical language affirmed my earlier suspicions that I was missing out on something.

    Angel echoed similar thoughts to my two previous interviewees, asserting there was an unusually common abuse of the system and that the welfare system isn’t conducive to moving people toward self sufficiency. However, she opened on a more optimistic note, acknowledging that despite the vices of the system, the welfare system is something which a large portion of the Vermont’s population has been supported by at some point.

    Angel emphasized the often unheard reality of a fairly used welfare system: “I’ve definitely known people who used it appropriately in their time of need and gotten back on their feet… Sometimes there are people who need that crutch. Unfortunately, you don’t hear about these people, you hear about the people who have been on it for a lifetime.” Her husband Parker, who was nearby during our conversation, elaborated on this idea of recouping an investment from a system we all pay into: “I lost my job at sears, and we had just gotten married, so we went on food stamps, and we were on it for two or three months until I found a new job. For us, we literally could not have afforded to eat during that time frame.” In this regard, Angel and Parker were left grateful for the opportunity to be supported through a financially challenging time which would have crippled them. It was this very gratefulness which amplified their dissatisfaction with the seemingly unending abuse of the system.

    In regards to challenges she’s experienced with the system, she shared a disconcerting story which revealed the occasionally melded worlds of poverty and drug abuse: “We were renting an apartment, and there was a lady who lived beneath us who was heavily using drugs, and her housing was paid for 100%. It was a catch 22 because she wasn’t working, but she also didn’t have a reason to go get a job and get off welfare because then she’d also have to go to rehab and get a job.” The frustration which radiated through Angel’s tone was explained when she described the disjointed nature of the system: ”We had complained to the cops because she was openly using drugs, but in terms of welfare, that means nothing. She could get arrested, spend a night in jail, and then go home back to the welfare. There aren’t any repercussions in that situation. Unless you have any prior drug offenses on your record, your welfare doesn’t test you for that.”

    Furthermore, though only mentioned in passing, it was also notably interesting to hear her remark on the issue with mothers having more children to lessen their financial burden. She even touched on the existence of the benefits cliff, saying, “It actually works negatively in your favor to get a job, because the more money you make, the less you get.” Nonetheless, she did make it clear that while she didn’t necessarily think the system was broken, she did believe the system was in desperate need of an update. She went on to explain, “I think that’s true of things in all areas, and we need to meet the demands of the people. We’re doing a disservice to the people who are using it because we haven’t updated.”

    Now, a brief tangent to some thoughts I had after speaking with David Kelley: Dave’s mention of the Kibbutz system in passing during our interview perked my curiosity, so I researched the topic a bit. Kibbutz were farms in Israel which began as utopian communities shaped by a blend of socialism (a system based on shared ownership) and zionism (a system primarily designed to ensure cultural security during particularly anti-semitic times), the success of which revolved around agricultural labor. This style of work branches away from the European idea of workhouses, which inherently bore a negative connotation since poverty was considered dishonorable. The US actually had a remarkably similar system to Kibbutzim which existed from the early 19th century until the 1950s when the signing of the Social Security Act forced the system into decline. Though the United States implemented Poor Farms primarily as a means of supporting the elderly or disabled, such a system could be adapted to offer a flexible and sustainable alternative to welfare. Slight revisions could make these institutions practical once more; step one would be to mitigate the stigma by relabeling them from “Poor Farms” to “Community Cooperatives,” and pattern the program with strategies proven by other systems like Kibbutzim. This could offer a more compassionate approach to addressing poverty, empowering a suffering class by working to share proceeds for the benefit of the residents rather than attempting to create a profit bearing business.

    As my interview with Angel was drawing to a close, I introduced some of the aforementioned ideas regarding Community Cooperatives and asked what her thoughts were. Here are those thoughts: “In theory it’s great but in practice it’s proven over and over again to not be effective for a few different reasons; one being that people are consistently moving away from those types of jobs as more and more of it is becoming industrialized with machinery that sets an unprecedented work pace. It doesn’t allow people to gain the knowledge and experience to move beyond those jobs. And most farmers find American workers are less efficient they don’t have the same motivation that a lot of migrant workers do do they are reluctant to hire them.”

    Regardless of movement toward a solution, there appears to be wide agreement of the issue, or at the very least, agreement of an issue. While the welfare system may be designed to support a community which in large part hasn’t received higher education, it is an incredibly challenging and rigorous system to navigate, one which requires an enormous amount of intellectual focus to understand. Without change, we’re guaranteeing people will either continue to fall between the cracks or become ensnared by the system itself. As I go forward, I’m hopeful to speak with at least one senator on the Health and Welfare committee to hear from a more legislatively geared perspective.

James Tedesco

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