Out of Order (Forever?)

Photo by Andrea R (flickr.com)

Claire Robertson* is one of the strongest people I know. She survived a kidnapping as a child and a sexual assault as an adult, and fights Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result. She worked as a nurse, but a serious accident meant back surgery and physical disability. During the surgery, doctors discovered that she has a rare congenital connective-tissue disorder that will only get worse.

She fought for several years through multiple denials to procure Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). When she finally received it, her monthly payments were $650 per month—nowhere near the $1,000 per month she had been told.

Her husband Brian holds a Master’s degree in history. However, the downturn in the economy has eliminated all hiring in his field, vacancies only coming when someone retires or dies. He looked into going back to school to teach junior-high or high school, but a change in the curriculum meant that he would have to work for a semester in a full-time unpaid internship, with no time to earn an income. He works from home as a medical transcriptionist, a field in which wages have plummeted over the past several years as more and more of the work has been outsourced to India.

Claire and Brian have two children, both of whom have autism. Their daughter Alexis graduated from high school a year ago, but presently lives at home as she struggles with major bouts of depression and suicidal ideation, as well as with the same connective-tissue disorder Claire suffers. Alexis hopes to go to college to study veterinary medicine. She has been trained as a PCA and serves in this role for their son Ethan, but the work is only sporadic—Alexis made less than $4000 last year. Ethan is nine. A bright and loving child, he nonetheless battles severe autistic symptoms. He is enrolled in special-education courses and requires various rehabilitative services.

Brian averages $1400 a month; however, his income can vary greatly because it depends on how much work he is assigned. Sometimes he earns nothing in a pay period. On rare occasion he gets paid overtime. When Claire started receiving SSDI, the family lost their food stamps entirely, and Ethan’s monthly SSDI payments dropped from $641 to $350—not really enough to pay for Ethan’s medical needs. All but Brian receive medical insurance through the state of Minnesota, which has one of the most generous state-insurance programs in the United States. When Claire began receiving SSDI, she was automatically moved to Medicare insurance (she had no say in the matter), for which she must pay $101 per month out of pocket, on top of high copays on her dozen-plus medications. Brian was dropped from state insurance entirely because his employer offers insurance—never mind the fact that the premiums in the employer’s program exceed Brian’s entire income. Thus Brian has no way to treat his own multiple medical issues, which include high blood pressure, sleep apnea, and depression.

Two years ago, the Robertsons were kicked out of their home illegally by a new landlord, and didn’t have the resources to fight it in court, so they found themselves temporarily homeless, living out of a motel. They found one house in their price range and bought it, but it has major structural issue, including a roof that needs to be replaced, for which they lost their homeowner’s insurance and now must pay for the roof out of pocket. Moreover, the house does not have a ramp for Claire to use her wheelchair, and the Robertsons cannot afford to build one on their own. They have requested assistance from Habitat for Humanity, but that organization must wait for funding approval from the government before they can proceed. They hope to have the ramp installed sometime next year.

The Robertsons just received a letter stating that, because of the handful of checks for which Brian was paid overtime, not only have they lost Ethan’s $350 monthly check entirely, but Social Security has declared the loss retroactive—the family must pay Social Security $1400 to repay the SSDI payments they had been receiving since May.

I write all of this for two reasons. First is to bring awareness to just how severely broken the assistance system is in the United States. It operates on a binary structure—either one is entirely on the System or entirely off. Furthermore, the income threshold at which one is kicked off the System is well below what one can afford to live on (unless one is in subsidized housing, which, because of long-standing application freezes nationwide, for all intents doesn’t exist unless you’re already living in it). Almost anything one can do to move oneself into safe financial straits is prohibited. Some people “know” the System is broken (and even more broken now because of cuts to poverty programs like Head Start and public housing, thanks to Congress’s sequester). But knowledge often is not enough to prompt one to action, which is why I asked Claire if I could share her family’s story. I wanted to put a face to what is going on in America.

The other reason I am relating this story is because I wish to serve notice to anyone who would dare write off the Robertsons as “lazy” and would tell them to “just get a job”. If you think that, first off, you haven’t read a damn word I’ve written up to this point.

And where do you suggest they “get a job”? Jobs are scarce, and the ones that are available are part-time and/or pay next to nothing nothing (thanks in large part to profit-hoarding and a refusal to invest in the country’s infrastructure, education, etc.).

If you had the gall to express such ideas to my face or to the Robertsons’, I wouldn’t blame myself or them if I/they slapped you—and I’m a pacifist. But folks never express these ideas face-to-face. They do so from the safety of blog comments sections, ballot boxes, and legislative office.

Finally, if this is your response, I’m going to question how you were raised. I was raised not to judge any human being until I had walked a mile in their shoes, and if you were raised differently, then I would ask you to make up for your poor parenting and re-educate yourself. If you don’t, you’re the lazy one, for not exercising your brain or your heart.

*Names changed to protect identity.


About Whittier Strong

Whittier Strong is an MFA student in creative writing at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, with a focus in nonfiction. He graduated from Metropolitan State University with a BA in creative writing. He has special interests in sociology and philosophy.

Posted on 22 August, 2013, in Commentary, Narrative and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. THANK YOU. So, so true, about so many parts of our broken system. I have a friend with serious mental illness issues and a seizure disorder; she receives $835 per month disability. She is not eligible for food stamps, cannot work part time because she’d lose her disability…she lives in a garage with no running water and no security. She is an educated woman, a PhD, who has fallen on these hard times and has been so marginalized and beaten down by the lack of mental health care and a dehumanizing system, she will never be a functional part of society again. A discard. And there are hundreds of thousands of people like her.
    I am on unemployment, without medical care, and am struggling to keep my home. The recent “sequester” so casually undertaken by our noble leaders cut my unemployment to the point where I am in serious hock as I search for work. Again, I am not alone. There are millions like me.
    Until we realize that this system is designed not to help people succeed, but to support the creation of a downtrodden, unhealthy, and underpaid working class, overseen by a select few at the top, we will continue to contribute to it without benefit. We are taught that “free enterprise” heals all, solves all–and until we fall and realize the safety net is gone, we won’t see the big lie until it’s too late.

  2. Yes indeed all the systems are breaking down…. Regarding jobs… when we have difficulty finding a job within our training, we retrain in Europe…. My son who lives in Florida has been looking for a while now for an accounts clerk and can’t find one… it looks like somethings not quite ok with the job market in USA… Regarding subsidies… can’t you write to your local politician for advice about the situation… Barbara

    • The politicians are more worried about getting re-elected, and popular opinion is against subsidies, because the entire Ockhamite attitude is that all boils down to people being lazy and not getting a job. And as long as people choose to see the problem as simply that, nothing will happen. But this is all symptomatic of far larger social and philosophical problems that will not be solved in one lifetime. Problems that took centuries to create may take centuries to solve. That is why I write with that kind of long view in mind.

  3. This is absolutely terrible and I am so sorry. I wish there was something I could do.

    • There is much you can do. Work to upend the social order. Fight tooth and nail with anyone who wipes out millions of people’s stories with the simple “they just need to get a job” argument. Dismantle any argument not founded on compassion. And spread this story so that people can get a picture of how things really “work”.

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