Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The Inner 3rd World- Being Poor is a Criminal Act Subject to Investigation.

I know, it's election season. It's all anyone wants to talk about. But I am bored to tears talking and fighting over politicians who could give a flying fuck about the people they are supposed to represent. So i am writing about something that is a bit more immediate.

You might be under the impression that we live in a first world country. For a lot of people, that is true. For others, the crushing poverty of less "developed" nations are daily realities. You may even intellectually understand that poverty exists in this country. But knowing a thing and understanding a thing are very different things.

The first thing you should understand about poverty is that being poor means you will be investigated. Your bank records, medical records, employment records, etc. all become open to the government. You sign away any rights to privacy when you ask for help. And you will continue to be investigated, as long as you get a single dollar in assistance. You will fill out the same forms with the same questions for various agencies, all of which will have a rules sheet telling you how you will be a criminal if you misrepresent yourself and exactly how many days you have to submit new forms for every tiny change in your life. Did you get a 10 cent raise at your job? Did a boyfriend move into your home? Did someone buy you a gift or give cash? The strict rules put in place make it nearly impossible to live as a poor person without becoming a criminal of some sort. That $100 some family member might have given you for phone bill better be reported so they can appropriately doc your food stamp allotment for the next month. $100 to keep the phone on means an extra week without groceries, if you follow the rules.

And you never fill these forms out just once. You fill them out over and over and over and over. You bring proof of income. 2 months worth of pay stubs, 6 months, bank statements, letters from those family members stating that the $100 was actually a loan and not a gift so you don't lose your food stamps. They check with your job. Regularly. It is difficult to have the Welfare office constantly bothering your boss about how many hours you work each week, and then having the Housing Authority do the same. Can you imagine your boss being bothered by a Welfare caseworker every time your hours change? There is more than a little bit of fear that even though your boss knows that you make poverty level wages, that they will be miffed by the constant harassment of those agencies that are supposed to fill in the gaps left by your tiny paycheck.

It is not unlike living in a totalitarian state.

Just a few of the things that I have to fill out the same information for are: Welfare/Tanf, Food Stamps, Medicaid, Housing, Utility Assistance, Childcare, Free Lunches for the Kid, and the Earned Income Tax Credit. Different agencies (or different departments in the same agency) all getting pretty much the same info. And with the exception of the tax credit, I have to fill these things out a minimum of 4 times per year for each service.

If I were rich, I could also apply for help from the government. It would be called a tax break. I would fill it out once per year at the same time and with the same information that the government already has. But I'm not rich, therefore I must submit to a much more thorough investigation, and I must do it more often.

For a lot of bureaucratic things in this country, we have a pretty decent system down. Standing in line at the DMV is no ones idea of fun, but you can be fairly sure that baring something really atrocious you will get your driver's license in a timely fashion. Same is true of passports and usually tax returns. But for poor people those things often don't go as smoothly (Georgia, IIRC, can suspend your license if your insurance cancels you. And insurance companies send copies of their letters of cancellation to the DMV- so you can effectively not own a car and not need insurance and have your license taken away from you). Poor people are much more likely to be audited by the IRS. My mom once explained that little factiod (she was an accountant and took more than a few organizations through auditing) by telling me the IRS just doesn't believe people can live on that little. And yet nearly 20 million Americans live below the poverty line.

So I may join with you in the chorus of screaming about Telecom immunity and medical records privacy, but the truth is that the government already has all of my medical records. And financial records. And employment history. And so on. In more detail than you think is possible .

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