My mother told me a story when I was young and many of you might have heard it as well: she called it “Bangalee”. Bangalee was a critter who was very good at keeping things clean — his room, his home and himself. His siblings struggled with cleanliness, which was not a good thing, because Bangalee and family lived next to another creature called “the Grunk”. The Grunk was a monster that ate garbage, so this was a problem for the messy family when the creature came to feast at their castle. Bangalee quickly explained to his siblings that the Grunk was coming to eat all the trash in their home and showed his siblings how to clean everything up, including themselves.
This was merely a way to teach me to pick up my toys and remember to brush my teeth. This is a method my mother — now a grandmother — used with my daughter as well, though she puts a more exciting and fun twist on the story. “Bangalee” is one of my daughter’s favorite bedtime stories.
I thought I was doing a good deed by taking both of my daughters to the Department of Economic Security office so my wife could have time for herself. After all, it couldn’t be that hard to have someone look at my papers, see my application, and get us started in the process for food-stamps and government insurance — could it?
My wife completed the application online, so all I really needed to do was drop off the required supplementary documents. With two young children in tow, I drove the short distance to my assigned DES office. After such an amazing experience at the WIC office, I was surprised by the dilapidated appearance of the building.
While the line was much shorter than I anticipated, the place was filthy. Flies buzzed through the warm, stuffy room where badly groomed and unkempt citizens waited for their name to be called. I saw lots of trash and dirt — not just Arizona desert dust — on the white linoleum floor. Not knowing where to start, I just stood in what I thought to be the line until someone pointed out that I had to “sign in” in order to be in line. I wished I could have those minutes of my life back.
I sat down on the chairs after I wrote my name on the paper. I looked around, and had a feeling this wasn’t the quick, “Here are my papers, please stamp them, thank you for your time” visit I had expected. An older man who reeked of alcohol and cigarettes and seemed like he had lost as many teeth as he has plots of hair sat in one corner and talked to the DES employee at the counter as if he’d known her all his life. He said he knew this system better than she did, as he had been on it since his mid-twenties. He looked able-bodied enough to me.
There was a an older woman with who had the “rough around the edges” look — tattoos, body piercings, dirt caked on clothes and skin — and also smelled of alcohol and cigarettes. She talked to another about why it wasn’t necessary to get a GED when the government will take care of her. She was getting impatient and wanted her food stamps.
Two men who looked my age or younger walked in, saw the line, and complained about not wanting to wait any longer for food stamps, because they had something better to do. They needed to get to the bar. Never once did they mention finding a job.
The flies kept buzzing. The filth kept accumulating. Time kept going. The temperature kept rising. And that’s when my oldest daughter piped up and said, “Daddy, the Grunk is going to eat this place. Can we go yet?”
As I tried to hide the embarrassment on my face I noticed a well-kept Hispanic woman a few seats down from me, who also had a young child with her. As she spoke to the DES officer through her limited English, I learned she was a single mother with multiple children. She smiled at my children and I, and I did the same back. I felt so out of place here. I tried not to judge when the toothless, smelly strangers tried to greet my two-year old with grimy hands placed over hers. But here I was. I needed the help of the government just as much as they did.
The woman behind the counter caught my attention as she barked out orders to the man on the other side of the glass partition separating her from the rest of us. I hadn’t expected such a harsh reception from someone getting paid to assist me. She was just as abrupt with me when she called my name and I dragged my two — now sweaty —little girls up to the counter.
As I explained to the woman that this was my first time here, I handed her the papers my wife had sent with me. The gruff woman softened somewhat as I explained our situation, telling me that my daughters were cute and that bringing them with me was a pretty decent “proof of identity” (one of the specifics needed to obtain food-stamp assistance).
It was a brief encounter. My time in contact with the woman behind the counter measured only a few minutes, but it was in such stark contrast to the atmosphere of the WIC office. I walked out of the building bewildered.
How could I be stooping to the same level as the people I saw in that room? People whose clothing was in decent condition as far as wear goes, but was dirty and smelled bad. People whose teeth were missing and covered in slime. People who, though here for food-stamps, could afford Blackberries and iPods and PSPs and openly spoke about how much easier it is to be on government assistance than to attempt to live a life just over the “qualification line,” where living paycheck to paycheck is the norm as people work as hard as they can and barely make more money that they pay in bills.
How is that even right? Why are these people here instead of working? Then I thought of the single mother: she’s the kind of person this program was set up for. She’s the kind of person who eventually will make it off welfare and provide what her family needs from her.
Only a week before, I had been the one judged at that Fry’s grocery store. Now, as I left the office with my two girls in tow, earning a graduate degree and living in a modest home, I was the one judging. Something needed to be changed.
Editor’s Note: I’m still looking for people who would like me to tell their story. I’d like to interview you, your friends or your family members who have been or are still on the food stamp or WIC programs. I want to hear the stories, whether you’re someone who only briefly had to use this system and found it to be a blessing, as well as those who feel it’s easier to use government assistance instead of working. Each and every side needs to be heard.
If you know of someone, or you yourself would like to talk, please contact me. I’d love to get someone else’s story out there.