An open letter to everyone who’s ever complained to me about lazy people living off benefits.
You come from a variety of walks of life. Some of you collect six-figure salaries; others have only just come off disability benefits yourselves. You might be a religious conservative or an idealist. What you all have in common is an expressed contempt for the character of people who depend on public disability income.
“I won’t move into a building full of disabled people and crack whores.”
“It’s not like they’re blind.”
“They think they’re too good to work like the rest of us.”
“We’re just keeping them from getting better.”
At the root of all these comments, more or less enlightened at face value, is a fundamental confusion between inability and unwillingness. It’s not as fine or blurry a line as you seem to think, gifted as you evidently are– and I say that straight-faced– with both ability and the inclination to use it to some end.
A good clue to the difference is the simple fact that the maximum benefit currently available for an individual on SSI– the benefit designed for those with low resources who haven’t accumulated a significant number of work quarters; i.e., most people with chronic disabilities– is $721 monthly. Simple arithmetic says that’s less than $9000 annually. By comparison, the federal poverty guideline for a single person is $11,490, which translates to about a hundred dollars more per month. Disability income is also more than 1/3 less than the earnings of a full-time minimum-wage employee.
According to a popular rule of thumb that says 30% of net income should pay for housing, someone living exclusively on disability should pay rent (I’ll disregard homeownership out of hand as totally unachievable and untenable for the vast majority of people with disabilities) of below $250 monthly.
I live in one of the cheapest areas of the country, in the cheapest 2-bedroom apartment I can find. For this, I pay $540 monthly, and the rent goes up on average about $60 every June, while cost of living adjustments to minimum wage and benefits go up by cents on the dollar. Add in my basic utilities– while I don’t run the heat until the apartment drops below 55F– and my shelter expenses come to more than the SSI benefit, despite being only 75% of the national average. An acquaintance who moved from Northern California in the late oughts reports finding studio apartments for no less than $1200 per month, plus a deposit twice that; he gave up his job and friends to come to the Midwest because he simply couldn’t afford to live, and was of necessity dug into a ten thousand dollar hole with payday loan companies.
These shelter expenses are exacerbated by having special needs. People with mobility difficulties are often limited to available housing that offers first-floor access and 36″ doorways. When most of the cheaper options existing in buildings 40 or more years old, with multiple stories and no elevators; with a landlord’s market ensuring that there is competition for every available space; with new construction being, obviously, targeted to those of means– this isn’t easy to procure. In my case, my disability of social phobia and autism, even when I was single and childless, kept me from sharing lodgings with roommates, which could have radically reduced my expenses.
Add to this, further, the fact that low income and absence of a good credit record all but preclude being accepted for a lease: if I didn’t have a family member to whom to turn as a co-signer, I’d be basically fucked. And it’s difficult to establish a good credit rating when, as for me, your mental health makes credit cards a toxic concept, and you’ve left an abusive relationship while relinquishing any equity in property you had because you had no income to keep up payments.
After basic expenses, I can’t afford a reliable vehicle of my own, so I pay toward the expenses of a car I share with family in order to transport my son to and from school and his father’s house, gaining no equity: basically flushing what little money I have down the toilet with no possibility of recouping a dime. It’s the equivalent of buying $10 boots every year instead of $50 boots every ten years. Less money = less money.
Who among you would trade a disabled person a “lazy” well-below-poverty lifestyle for the security of your job, even if your earnings are meager?
Which of you would take the stress of managing a household on $8500 per year instead of that of working?
How about the hopelessness of knowing that the best you will ever be able to do for yourself and your family is scrape by, without any prospect of more comfort and security for the rest of your life? The oppressive, guilty knowledge that you will never pay your child’s way through college, or own a home with a backyard for them to play in, or take them on vacation, or set aside savings for emergencies?
And the suffering of people with disabilities is hardly limited to numbers and economy. I’m sure to many who can work, the prospect of a sedentary life, apparently without structure or monetary responsibility, sounds decadent and enviable. You’d never miss a TV episode or a chance to drink a beer; you could finally spend time with your family, and, for some of you, catch up on that reading you’ve been meaning to do.
I don’t even deny sharing these sentiments during the few months at a time that I once struggled to maintain paid employment. The grass is often greener, and I will never dismiss the fact that low-wage work is exhausting, unfulfilling, direly undercompensated, and oppressive in its own right. That’s why I respect wage earners as much as I do: because I understand exactly how difficult and miserable that life can be. My only quarrel is with the employed who view those less able as personally and morally inferior.
Let me inform you now that however it looks from the other side of this cloudy glass between us, life as a person with a disability is, frankly, hell. You could pay me a middle-class income and it wouldn’t make up for the fact that I will never have the social and personal opportunities you enjoy. I don’t have the privilege of spending my days locked at home alone watching the dishes pile up and the laundry scatter on the floor and the paperwork go undone until someone spills food on it. I don’t have the luxury of being supported by the work of others.
No. I’ll be fucked senseless if there is a day goes by that I think of my life in those terms. My existence is one of constraint. Of looking out the window watching people crowd toward their jobs and complain to one another and celebrate holidays and check their mail and take out their trash and pay taxes and repair their cars and go to the gym. Of feeling involuntarily severed from the common suffering that holds society together, immersed in a solitary world where I am shamed every day by myself and others, incapable of pursuing the passions that compel me.
Staring blankly at the pages of books I meant to read for years. Watching organic vegetables rot in the fridge while I lie on the couch without an appetite. Watching episode after episode of inane Netflix titles– the same ones day after day, because I can’t follow anything new– because I can’t bear a moment alone with my own mind.
Making promises to the man I love and not keeping them, day after day, and seeing the sadness in his eyes– the eyes of less than a five-fingered hand’s worth of people into which I can honestly look– when he walks in the door, and looking for excuses and finding none other than who and what I am and will always be.
Having to explain to my child’s eager, innocent face on a warm day in November that Mommy is too tired to take him to the park, and seeing the resignation in his eyes because he has heard it so many times; watching him wander off to his room to entertain himself, or drift neutrally into an hour of My Little Pony, while I pull the covers over my head and wish I could cry about nothing something and everything.
Envisioning myself in the lives that everyone always wanted for me, as academic, poet, entrepreneur, musician, and grinding them into shards that slice me to ribbons because they are nothing more than idle fantasies, before I chuck them, day after day, into the bin of things that are restricted to Other People.
Who among you wants to get a few hours of video games in exchange for that impotence and shame? Which of you wants to face the scorn of the gas station cashier when she tells you your card is empty and you can’t buy a bag of chips? Which of you wants to be struck down year after year while you long for a life of strength and hope; told again and again that you are not and will never be up to the standard of the norm, and are thus worth nothing? Who among you would face your own spite?
So go ahead, call me lazy. But you’re right: I’m not the one here who’s blind.