UNequal Opportunity

The last year has been a crash course in learning how broken much of our assistance programs are in Lancaster County—and my guess is across the country.  From the little bits I have had to work with the system previously, I had a sliver of an understanding.  As a new pastor seeking to assist people in getting help and empowering them to make proactive choices, I have a whole new level of understanding.  A whole new understanding of the catch-22s built into the system.  A whole new understanding for the need to be subversive and “play the system.”  A whole new understanding of how inequitable life in the USA is. 

This fall our church opened its doors to a family that was between housing, and one of our members opened her home.  When I called to get the family assistance, I learned that in order to qualify for assistance, the family needed to truly be on the streets. You could say we could “fake that” except that a case worker is sent to make sure that the family is truly without a home.  My response :  “So what you’re saying is that it would have been better and more helpful if we had let them sleep under the bridge?”

Currently, we have someone who fell behind (just two months) in rent.  After receiving notice from the landlord about an eviction, this person utilized all the community resources available to her.  When she heard nothing, I began contacting the connections I have made within the community.  Still no response.  In this case, we have someone who has both the knowledge and communication ability to follow the procedure and is getting nowhere.  What about the many people who do not have access to phones or computers?  What about the many people who don’t figure out the procedure until the last minute? And we wonder why people quit, give up, and are distrustful.

Now I know that the social workers working for the agencies are overworked, underpaid, underappreciate, and mistreated.  I know that one part time person is often tasked with doing the work that should be for an entire department.  My anger and frustration are not with the individual people or even with one specific organization.  My anger is for a system that does its best to keep people in their place.  A system that pretends to be for all but in reality is more like a caste system.  A system that claims to be filled with opportunity. This system does not say equal opportunity to me.

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One thought on “UNequal Opportunity

  1. Dear Megan,

    How well I understand your frustration with the social services system. I worked in Outreach at CAP for several years and then moved to the Head Start Program that operated under CAP. I remember when a former landlord came to the CAP office with a group from Leadership Lancaster. He was a young, not particularly compassionate man who had lucked into being born into a family that operated a very successful business. His comment to me after his tour was “Wow, the poor people have it easy. There is an answer for everyone of their problems here.”

    How wrong. How shortsighted. How ignorant.

    Housing: People say “just sign up for Section 8.” You might have a better chance of winning the lottery. The lists open up so seldom. The wait is so long even when you are lucky enough to get on the list. From what I saw when I worked for CAP it was clear that those under the poverty guidelines pay a far higher percentage of their income on housing than those who are wealthy do.

    Homelessness: Years ago I had a client who was kicked out of a local shelter because she had gone back to her room to retrieve her baby’s bottle. It was not the time of day residents were allowed in their rooms so she, and her baby, were out on the streets again.

    Employment: Minimum wage is not a living wage. And just try making minimum wage and paying for childcare. Subsidized childcare is a miracle…if you can get it.

    When I worked for Head Start each family had a Family Advocate who worked to help the parents identify their strengths, set goals, break those goals down into steps. We were there, not to handhold (as our great Nellie Houston used to say) but to be supportive, to make the necessary referrals. We built relationships with our clients and through the strength of those relationships helped our clients help themselves. It was the best job in the world. Now, too many people who lead the local Head Start see it primarily as an educational program. The founders of Head Start stated so clearly that “any gains made by the children will be lost unless the families make gains as well.” I am 100% in favor of improving the literacy skills of children. But what happens when they go home to parents who are overwhelmed by fighting to merely survive, parents who can no longer find the help they need without playing impossible games to get it?

    My understanding is that the teachers have been given many of the responsibilities Family Advocates used to have. The teachers are overwhelmed already!

    My Head Start days are long over. I miss the old Head Start. I still hear from clients from the past. There are success stories. The woman who went from Head Start parent to Head Start volunteer to Head Start aide to Head Start teacher. The woman who could barely leave her house, who finally felt comfortable enough (after many home visits) to come to our center for parent meetings, who became a volunteer,who got job training and then went from Section 8 housing to home ownership because of her hard work and participation in programs we referred her to. The young mom who suffered great abuse as a child who sat by my desk on a regular basis and shared her stories with me, who went on to get her GED, went on to further her education and is now in the planning stage of opening her own business.

    Many of the programs these parents participated in, programs that gave them a “hand up” are no longer funded, or have been cut drastically.

    Megan, I certainly did not mean to go on and on like this. I am preaching,not to the choir, but to the preacher!!

    I do not know what it is going to take for things to change.
    Susan

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