Monday, February 24, 2014
I am at the Rainier Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) in South Seattle. A friend who has been on welfare and used food stamps recently drove me here to observe this welfare office for my class on Poverty and Inequality. I have never been in a DSHS office before, and its not what I expected. Much like my experiences is poor rural areas in technologically developing countries, I expected to find misery here, but there’s just regular old humanity—only maybe a bit more interesting.
If my friend had not given me a ride, I could have taken a bus to a nearby bus stop, which is in this block, but I appreciate the convenience and especially the company. When I’m in lands foreign to me, I like to travel with a companion. My friend was able to park in one of the spaces reserved for people with disabilities, so getting into the door (and out of the rain) was easy this morning. There is a fairly large parking lot for maybe 60 cars, and it is two-thirds full. My friend says that some days, particularly at the beginning of the month, it’s overfull, but today parking is easy. As far as I can tell, there aren’t other social services in this compound, and the nearest hospital is in another neighborhood, so this building’s convenience for clients is about its location in a neighborhood where many people use its services rather than in its connection to other services. There’s a MacDonald’s close-by, as well as a Baskin-Robbins and a gas station mini-mart, so there’s fast food available, but so far as I can tell there’s nothing healthy. The parking lot and the office seem safe at this time of day. Perhaps I would feel differently at night, but the office closes at 5:00 pm, so lighting is probably not usually an issue.
The clock over the receptionist tells me its 9:35. It’s a round clock with hands, not a digital one, and I know from teaching many high school students living in poverty, many of them immigrants to the U.S., that some of them can’t read time this way. The place feels much like a driver’s license office to me: there are three rows of nine chairs each for waiting and working on forms, probably forty clients, and a soft murmur of people working on forms in groups of two or three. The people who are here seem comfortable with each other and with the place: comfortable, but not chatty. There is no coffee or vending machine or play area that might tempt a person—adult or child—to stay. This is a place to get business done.
Though the office doesn’t seem unfriendly, the main goal seems to be efficiency rather than friendliness. Clients can’t help but stand in the line to sign in for services, which always extends about seven people deep from the desk to the front door. The desk is also marked with a bright green sign, so that if you were to push past the line, the sign would tell you what the line is for (as long as you read in English or Spanish). Here people sign in and talk with one of two receptionists about what they need today. One receptionist is a white man, and the other is an African-American woman. The conversations are generally quiet, so I can’t overhear them, unless someone can’t read something, and the African-American woman tells that person in a loud voice what the document says. She sounds a little impatient, perhaps because she seems to repeat the same things so many times. She is generally professional and efficient, though when an older Asian man who doesn’t speak much English steps up to check in with the white man, she greets him affectionately: “Hi, my doctor! How are you?” and they both laugh warmly before he takes his seat. Restrooms are near the front desk. They are clean and orderly and both the men’s and women’s rest rooms have changing stations. (My friend, a fellow, checked the men’s room for me.)
The room’s signs are another mark of efficiency: bright green signs label each section in English and Spanish. There are phones around the room with labels about the needs that can be met on the phone: childcare services, health care, customer service, and unemployment benefits. They, too, have signs in English and Spanish. The only signs that do not give directions are patriotic signs with images of the American flag or the statue of liberty saying things like, “Vote!” These patriotic signs are only in English. After clients sign in, they sit in one of the rows of chairs to wait to be called, as patients wait at a doctor’s office. It is the emphasis on efficiency and order that remind me of a driver’s licensing office. The long wait reminds me of a doctor’s office.
In contrast to the driver’s licensing and doctor’s offices, however, few people speak English. Most people seem to be older immigrants from Asia (maybe Vietnam or Cambodia) or immigrants from East Africa (I hear Amharic and smell the tang of Ethiopian spices.) Two women wear head covering. At the back tables, small groups cluster with translators as they work on forms together. There are just a few people speaking Spanish. One Spanish-speaking woman is with her son, the only child I see. In the hour that I am here, the clients who do not seem to be immigrants are mostly African-American, though I do see one woman who looks white, and my fellow and I are white.
After checking in, clients get help from interpreters in filling out the forms if they need it. Then they return their forms and wait in the seating area to be called. Clients who need EBT cards (food stamps) are called to one of five seats with partitions between them to provide privacy. The social worker sits on the other side of the counter by a computer. Twice, I hear a social worker call for a translator. Twice while I am there, someone comes from a door to small offices behind the counter area to interview people for welfare.
People here seem calm, and though movement is clearly slow, there is no sense of hurry. My fellow tells me that when he has come here with welfare applications, he has already completed the forms and the whole process takes about two hours, most of it in waiting. Clients applying for EBT cards need about an hour to an hour and a half, though the meeting at the counter takes only 15-20 minutes. My fellow says that at the beginning of the month the wait is longer because clients who apply for EBT cards after the fifth of the month will have to wait until the next month for help with food.
Most people who are working with translators seem to be working on “The Application for Cash or Food Assistance.” The application is available in the lobby and is also available online. It’s six pages of questions and is available in many languages, though from the help tables, I gather that applicants who have migrated from other countries still need a lot of help.
The application warns applicants, “We use SSNs [Social Security numbers] to check identity, verify eligibility, prevent fraud, and collect claims. We exchange information with other agencies to manage our programs and follow the law. We may also give this information to law enforcement agencies trying to catch fleeing felons.” Thus, parents who have immigrated without documents or who are in trouble with the law would be discouraged from applying, even if their children are citizens and need help. Additionally, the application reads, “If applying for cash assistance, all adults (or authorized representatives) in the household must sign,” so those with others in their homes who do not have documents or who are in legal trouble would probably need to lie.
The African-American woman who checks people in notices that my fellow is still in the waiting area and comes over to see if he needs something. She has gone out of her way, and he says to me, “That was sweet!” I think, “Yes, that was sweet,” and I wonder, perhaps too cynically, if she would have offered this help to someone who does not speak English.
Now that I seldom travel out of the country because I’m concerned that my disabilities after brain tumors and their treatments will cause problems, I travel to see lands I’ve never seen in my own city.
I’ve often wondered how we might create a more just society in the U.S., and maybe it begins by seeing one another’s spaces. Or, more accurately, maybe it begins with those of us who live with much privilege seeing the common spaces of those who do not live in privilege. For me, in this country as well as in my travels abroad, glimpsing snippets of lives of people who are different than I am is not depressing, as I have often anticipated it would be. The lives are ordinary lives, inspiring in their ordinariness, and these glimpses remind me that we are not so different, but that our resources are different, and that our world could be different.
And one day it might be. On my hopeful days, I nod my head when I remember Martin Luther King, Jr.’s proclamation: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”