The Connundrum of Accessing Social Services: Control, rules, and authority

There are a lot of agencies, organizations, and programs designed to assist people and families that are experiencing subsistence level needs of all kinds. Government administered programs through county, city, and state offices such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrtional Assistance Program or “Food Stamps”), TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (Cash Assistance or “Welfare”), Medicaid (OHP/OHP Plus and other health care coverage administered by the state), and ERDC (Employment Related Day Care assistance) are the most common programs thought of, but there are many others. Other programs are administered through community based social service agencies and CDCs (Community Development Corporations) such as Human Solutions, LifeWorks Northwest, and Hacienda CDC are just a few.

It can be quite overwhelming for a family experiencing life crises, especially crises that are economic in nature, to know where to start or how to deal with the complex and seemingly arbitrary rules associated with accessing the services. If family members have been exposed to, grew up in, or have prejudicial attitudes toward those who access government benefits and assistance, it can be even more challenging. For families which have been caught up in generational patterns and cycles of poverty, it can be even worse because of the stigma and prejudices that are so widely prevalent in all forms of media. The degree of stigma, judgment, prejudice, and negative assumptions is very disheartening, demeaning, and undermining of people who genuinely are trying to find a way to dig themselves out of entrenched poverty cycles and for those who find themselves, for the first time in their lives falling into that trench.

Today, I want to address those who find themselves in the unenviable position of needing to ask for help through these programs and agencies.

Asking for help, regardless of the reason for needing the help, is a position most people find themselves in at one point or another in their lives. Everyone makes a mistake, makes a wrong decision, or encounters unexpected events they weren’t prepared for. It’s a fact of life. Some people are educated, trained, equipped, and have the cognitive, emotional, spiritual, and psychological strengths to navigate these things with minimal externally visible effects. Many people are not prepared and may experience any combination of things which combine together in ways that show unmistakable effects, often identified as negative.

If you are someone who is feeling overwhelmed with panic and axiety about your circumstances and who has experienced a lot of hardship and difficulty, reaching out to strangers behind a counter and having to explain your need for their assistance can feel like you are walking into the lion’s den. I’ve been in your situation. I understand what it feels like to fill out packets of forms, then get interviewed and have to explain the answers on the forms. I know, firsthand, the conflicting feelings of defensiveness and desperation, which make you second and third guess every word that comes from your mouth as you watch every eye twitch and body shift of the person you are being interviewed by to determine how they may be judging you and and your words.

I think one of the biggest problems for those of us needing to ask for assistance from these programs is the fact that we are required to disclose every detail and facet of our personal information and provide documentation that we are who we say we are, then justify the fact that we are in a position needing assistance. We often face people who may see tens to hundreds of faces like ours with stories like ours, day in and day out, and our stories and circumstances are not unique in their experience. So, they become numb, jaded, and immune to what we are experiencing emotionally. They appear bored, indifferent, jaded, cynical, matter of fact, and uncaring a lot of the time. There is little to no empathy or compassion displayed and while they may say they understand, they do little to demonstrate that understanding of what we are experiencing.

Somehow, being in the position of requesting assistance, subverts our rights to privacy, autonomy, and independent action. We become accountable to the rules, guidelines, and policies, because they are the rules, guidelines, and policies and these people are the gatekeepers who get to say whether or not we are worthy of being assisted, after we have submitted to full disclosure and full exposure of our most sensitive selves. We become serfs, supplicating ourselves, at the feet of beaurocratic cogs in the system of funding streams, political posturing, and edicts established by highly educated academic theoreticians in think tanks who have little to no direct personal experience with the kind of subsistence and hardship we have gone through which brought us through the doors.

So, people who are feeling the heat of societal stigma, subjected to indifferent and seemingly uncaring administrators, while experiencing stressful and disruptive life-circumstances, who may not be experienced or equipped with effective communication and social skills, are expected to act in rational, compliant ways to make the jobs of those who are processing their requests easier, with little or no expectation that the person they are dealing with is equipped or experienced at interacting with the same level of communication and social skill competency they are expected to have.

Social Work Cartoon: Client, service user, what’s his name?

Do you see the conundrum?

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About Lillian

Figuring life out one day at a time. Concurrently writing on Human In Recovery on Wordpress as Kina Diaz DeLeon, as my psuedonym to protect the guilty and innocent alike. I'm finally integrating and accepting the different aspects of myself and my life into one mosaic instead of keeping the parts segregated.

6 thoughts on “The Connundrum of Accessing Social Services: Control, rules, and authority

  1. This is a great resource for understanding how to run the gauntlet. Thank you so much for posting. You are so right that people’s pride sometimes can get in the way of asking for help when you need it.

  2. Pingback: Accessing Social Services: Where do the rules come from? Follow the money. | PDX Social Safety Net

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