I spent a good of yesterday at one of my least favorite places in Michigan. I think the ninth floor of Detroit’s downtown lockup would be my first pick. Imagine Midnight Express without the good food. No, this was the newly remodeled Department of Health and Human Services here in town. In Michigan, as in much of the Midwest, we have been in the recession that has just begun in the rest of the country for years and I found myself at the DHHS getting on the Bridge Card.
Not all states allow single men to get food assistance, but Michigan’s tanked economy means that 1.2 million people in the state now get some food assistance, including me, and they may go to release the aid twice a month to meet the need. The problem is that the average monthly aid is about $88, which is only a couple of bags of food at the grocery these days. Ten days into the month and people are without again. It also means that people don’t buy fresh food, so they can hoard nonperishables items for lean times.
As a long time grocery worker in a working class city I can attest that the first week of the month is crazy busy and workers in the first week are pushed hard and have no flexibility only to see hours cut later in the month. The government figures on $1.05 a meal for recipients. You try that at home. You ending up eating a starch base like rice, potatoes or pasta with protein and vegetables acting as condiments. If you’re creative you can make it work, but no one should have to.
Sitting in the waiting room with me were a couple of guys who have been living along the Huron River which runs through town. The melting snow has flooded the bottom and they’ve had to move to a dump site about a half mile away. Only in their twenties, one guy got denied benefits because of a simple possession charge. The other one couldn’t get on until he had new ID, costing about ten dollars….which he will probably spend on food…or booze. They don’t make it easy.
I arrived as early as possible thinking I’d get the jump. There were already dozens of folks filling out forms. And this is just one day in a week. After two hours in the waiting room reading MLK’s Stride Toward Freedom for class and trying to block the noises from the kid’s play room. As the room filled to standing room only I got called in.
I had been here many times before and usually the case worker is as stressed out as I am over the ordeal. Not this time! I got a smiling face and a sympathetic ear. She even helped me make sure that I got all that was coming to me. I wonder if that smile and sympathy would wane by the end of her day. Mine would. Empathy must be the most human of feelings, I know it’s the one I most value, and she had it in spades. I won’t mention her name but want to thank her for her help, and salute her for her optimism in the face of such daily humiliations suffered by working class people.