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our own little government shut-down

The government shut-down today did not close the food-stamps office. But it might as well have, because they seem to be working at shut-down levels. Or maybe they're just in the business of shutting people down generally.

Would you like to hear me complain for a minute about government bureaucracy? Of course you would!

I sent in our re-certification paperwork for SNAP benefits at the end of August. They send us this form once a year that says something like, We really have until October to process your recertification application, but we take a long time doing shit so please fill out this form and make copies of all your bills and have it back to our office by August 30th. Which is tomorrow.

I make copies, I fill out forms, I send everything back on time. I assume things are fine because to assume otherwise is to live for months with a stress-induced stomach ache.

Last Tuesday I get a letter that said, Hi, We actually need more paperwork from you. Please copy these additional 4 bills and put them in the mail by the end of the week. Giving me more than 1 day of turnaround was pretty kind of them, if unusual. I had everything in the mail on Friday to arrive by their due-date on Monday.

Just to make things clear, the additional paperwork they requested was due on 9/30. On 9/26, four days before the paperwork was due, they mailed me a notice saying they were closing my case. The letter actually includes a hilarious sentence, "Your case will close because we have not been able to fully process it."

Let that sink in for a second. Despite having two months to process a 4-page application, they take a month to tell me I need to make more copies, then give me negative four days from the due-date to get them in. Then they cancel my case because THEY didn't have enough time to process it.

That's your government working for you.

I called the offices today, and was surprised to find my case worker at her desk despite the federal government being shut down today. I guess she's a state employee. She had no problem shutting me down from a federal program, though.

Did you get the paperwork I sent in last week?
Should I mail it in again?
Should I fax it?
But I got a letter that you closed my case!
Mail in our office takes a long time. But it's your responsibility that I get it. If I see your paperwork, I'll work on it. If I need anything from you, I'll call.

So in other words, I have to sit on my hands and freak out, hope that their internal mail system works, wonder every day for a week if you should be calling, then call again on Thursday and see if I need to fill out a completely new application. And this is pretty much their standard operating procedure.

Two years ago they never got my set of documents, and I had to mail them in all over again. And I had to call two different case workers four different times to figure out that was what I was supposed to do. Working with the DTA is a process that takes stick-to-it-iveness.

If we don't get food stamps this year would our lives be over? No, we'd find a way to cope with our cash budget for the year. It'd mean less delicious and healthful treats for the pregnant lady. Berries and probiotic drinks and meat products don't fit into our cash budget. But children in Africa live on two meals of enriched rice a day, so my lack of free supermarket trips may accurately be described as a "first world problem."

On the other hand, I live in the first world and I would prefer it not to suck or to flip off poor people. I have friends who are poorer than me who haven't been able to get on Food Stamps because of the massive process involved. Even I, a woman with a masters degree and years of experience pushing papers, almost break out in hives every time I get a letter from Davidson Street in Lowell.

To effectively deal with the DTA, or any government agency for that matter, you need skills only possessed by a few members of the human race who are advanced in both intelligence and maturity. You need patience, non-attachment, the realization that your government doesn't care about you personally and the self-confidence to accept that. You need the organizational skills of an executive secretary to save every piece of paper you receive all year and file it in a place that's easily retrievable. You need envelopes and stamps at the ready. It helps if you have a printer and a scanner too, but if not you'd better be able to upload a file to a web server and print it out at the library.

Is this what we expect of people who make under $20,000 a year?


I think what were seeing right now is a shutdown of common sense in our government. I think this pretty much also describes your experience and phone conversation as well.

Hoping for better things.

I'm also hoping for better things, and I think it is completely insane the process that you're going through.

I agree it's totally legitimate to want to eat well. Talking to refugees in Boston and here in Cape Town, who have been through significant hardship and food insecurity, the terrible food supply in the U.S. and in Cape Town (or the extraordinary costs of many "real foods", no longer even a possibility for refugees living in inner city Cape Town.) is something that women I speak to ALWAYS bring up. Food in Congo, Somalia, Zimbabwe is always described as better than what they can find/afford here, because they could forage/grow/buy cheaply a really varied, healthful diet.

Not to make your post about something that's it's not. I guess what I mean is that good, real food should be first on our hierarchy of needs- in many places it always has been, even for the very poor- and one shouldn't have to go through bureaucratic hell to find a way to eat good food. So I share your indignation, also in the broader context of industrial food the world over.

As one who's worked in state government, I can say that many people just don't care enough to fix the systemic issues that cause you problems. They also don't care enough to work around those systems that cause you problems. I'm not saying they don't care, just that they don't care enough.

Why don't they care enough? Because it threatens their employment. The only way to get fired from a state job is to a) have sex in a stairwell with your boss ( the boss kept his job btw) or b) rock the boat. Basically "rocking the boat" is going outside of protocol or changing protocol. If you do what you're told and the results suck, you keep your job. If you don't do what you're told and the results are good, you might keep your job. If you don't do what you're told and the results suck, you will definitely lose your job. They're not willing to take the risk to really help you. Maybe you can blame them, but I can't. The culture just sucks.

Eventually, people who care enough to make changes will either get fired or leave out of frustration. Finding an employee who really cares is like finding an arbitrage opportunity: they don't exist because they'd be gone if they did.

On a related note, I somewhat blame unions for the apathetic culture in state government. They threaten the effectiveness of programs intended to help. Thus, I think it's inconsistent for someone who cares about those in need to also support unions in government.

I'll go before I open any more cans of worms.

I really appreciate your insights, Jo and Andrew, because they show me that the problems with our government services run much deeper than my own mere annoyance. I have a friend who works as a case worker for women coming out of homeless shelters, but she works for a private organization. Her job is to serve as a mediator between these women and various government services, basically telling the women exactly what they need to do and when, and also acting as a phone mediator between the women and the various service case workers. I often think that everyone could use such help. When I first signed up for SNAP and then for Mass Health I kind of felt like it was me versus seventeen websites trying to figure out exactly what I needed to do. Maybe that's the way it has to be, but you could wish for something better. Maybe it's just so simple as: I want things explained to me by a person who is nice. What if government workers could just be a wee bit patient and talk pleasantly? That would be a start, right?

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