Monday, March 9, 2009

Being poor is draining my spiritual bank

Because my husband is self-employed, and my ex-husband works out of state, the kids (and my husband and I) have qualified for state-funded insurance for a number of years.

Even when I worked at Xerox as a contractor, the insurance was so expensive through the agency that Tom and I went without for over a year. Going through the process is a soul-sucking experience. In the last county we lived in, the social workers were in a very urban area, and were impossible to work with. I ended up working with the Commissioner's Office after I was unable to get my caseworker switched. She always had a full voicemail, the voicemail system said it would route you to an operator but didn't, and was an infinite loop of bullshit. When I did manage to get her on the phone, she was extraordinarily rude, demeaning and treated me like trash.

I was never actually able to get her supervisor on the phone, despite leaving many, many messages. The paperwork was confusing (seemingly on purpose), and I honestly don't know how people with literacy problems or lacking in education were able to navigate the system at all (maybe they don't).

When we moved to our new house, we were in a different county, and it was a night and day experience. The people at social services are nice, causing me to break down in cry (I used to cry out of frustration, not anymore).

This year we made so little that all the kids qualified for Medicaid. I had to go to a facilitated enrollment center to do the paperwork. Lori was nice enough, but not really personable. She didn't offer to shake my hand, didn't offer me a seat, and didn't introduce me to the woman she was training. She was polite, but it was clear that I was a just a number, just an appointment to get through. I'm well-organized, so these things go smoothly, but when they tell me that, it seems patronizing - they often make comments that put down the other people who come in, who aren't so organized.

On my drive home, I found myself wondering why people like Lori are doing the job they are in. There are certainly jobs that I've had that I haven't been passionate about, but I have a really strong work ethic, and always go beyond the call of duty (or move on, if it's that crappy of a job!). Any job or volunteer position that I've had where I was in human services, or working directly with people in a support role has been something I would not define as ministry. Not the religious kind, but work that I had a personal passion for and could focus on each individual person as just that - a real person, with real needs, a real story. They were never just a number to me. There were people that were difficult to work with, but often, that was why they were there -because they were lacking tools and resources to navigate our complicated world.

Our US culture is so very classist - it's hard to even admit to being poor. My church community really has no idea how close to the bone we live. And it's not for lack of trying or hard work. When I go to the social services office, it depletes my spirit. People are sad, and brisk and sometimes say hurtful things. There are people that are lazy or take advantage, but there are also a lot of people who just need help because of circumstances created by our culture.

I just have to wonder how people end up in these jobs if it's not for caring about helping those who are struggling. I can't imagine any other reason for doing it; it can't be an easy job to do.

This train of thought is connected to the conversation over at The Journey. (see comments there for more). I know that I have a hard time admitting that I'm no longer middle class. We have a good life. We have more than most of the world; but in this culture, in our country, we are barely making ends meet (and aren't, most months). Despite all that, I intend to go to seminary this fall, because I believe that my calling is part of the big picture. We will never be wealthy (unless we win the Lotto!) but we will be OK in the long run.

The downturning economy is going to make a lot of people look at their preconceptions about wealth and what they prioritize in their lives. I wonder if that will help the climate around classism change at all? Because I grew up in a college town, I have a lot of educational privilege that serves me well as a UU; my husband not so much. He's on a church strike right now and has been before, often because he feels that as a faith, we look like rich surburbanites "empowering" poor urban dwellers. The WAY we walk the walk is still hurtful in the same way that those burnt out social workers can be hurtful to the shy soul within.

I come back again to radical hospitality. Do we really make all seekers feel welcome? No. Are all seekers going to find what they want at a UU church? No. But just because they don't fit our normal expectations for "class" or politics, we shouldn't be making them feel unwelcome. We spend a lot of time watching our language in LGBT issues and race issues. We need to broaden that hospitality to class issues.

And a personal annoyance; our ushers, parking lot attendants, and greeters are all getting extraordinarily lazy about being hospitable. I haven't had one greeter or usher actually greet me in weeks unless I make a point of making eye contact and greeting them first. And many of them *know* me! How does this feel to the newcomer? It is to make me bang my head against the wall.


Ms. Theologian said...

*a virtual hug*

I'm glad you wrote this.

Kelly KH said...

Thank for the hug! And I'm glad I wrote it too :)

Gary Baumgarten said...

The psychological and spiritual impact of the economic downturn will be the topic of News Talk Online on Thursday March 12 at 5 PM New York time. My guests will be NY Mt. Sinai psychiatrist Dr. Elliot Wineburg and Marble Collegiate Church NY senior minister Michael Brown.

Please go to my blog to talk to them.



Kelly KH said...

Gary, thanks for the heads up. I hope to be able to listen!