Our Turn: Reality check: How well do you fare?
Welfare check. The first thought that pops into your mind when you hear those two words defines from which side of the tracks you hail.
In the Echo Press office, we listen to the police scanner to stay informed on what's happening in the area. One of the services law enforcement provides is a welfare check, a visit to a residence to inquire on a person's well-being.
Welfare check means something different to me, and the first time I heard it on the scanner I was slightly embarrassed - as if my co-workers knew what went through my head and my heart at that moment.
I remembered being 9-years-old and waiting for the first of the month when my mom would get her welfare check so we could go shopping for things like toilet paper and laundry detergent. I remember feeling abashed in front of other kids when Mom would take food stamps out of her purse to pay for our groceries. I remember being ashamed because we were poor.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece revealing fraud investigations in Douglas County. The investigator, Brenda Becker, knocks on doors. She sees people who are scamming the system; she also, no doubt, sees people whom it is helping.
You hear a lot of people talking about welfare reform. I think they need to do less talking and more walking. Walking in the oversized, undersized, sometimes holey shoes that those of us who have lived the life have uncomfortably worn.
Now, I'm not saying it's a perfect system or that nothing needs to change. I'm just saying that faces need to be seen instead of numbers - the faces of children who get free lunch during the school year. What are they eating for lunch today now that school is out? Do they hide their lunch tickets and pass them to the lunch lady discreetly like I did? Do they fear exposure that other kids' parents' tax dollars are paying for the food going into their bellies?
Economic inequality is not a term children know. They know that they are wearing hand-me-down clothes and drinking generic soda - and yes I know that some would argue they shouldn't even be granted that small normalcy because soda is not a staple food source. They know that they are different from other kids and are sometimes bullied because they don't wear popular name brands, because they don't participate in sports, because they don't talk about their home lives, because they are poor - as if they haven't had enough drama dealt their way already.
Poverty doesn't discriminate. It affects senior citizens, adults, teens, children and babies, people of either sex and of every color and nationality. If something isn't done about the welfare system today, the cycle will continue to escalate; it will not be broken.
Just now I heard a scanner call regarding a panhandler. Homelessness exists in Alexandria and in Douglas County. I first learned this at a United Way talk in February at Alexandria Technical and Community College. Representatives from the Salvation Army, United Way, school district and other concerned citizens brainstormed for a way to build a shelter in the area. The funding just isn't available and I've not heard anything further on the topic.
One woman at the presentation said although the cost of living has increased, the amount of money Social Services offers has increased minimally in the past 25 years.
I've seen some changes over the years. In college I had an EBT card instead of food stamps. I didn't want it but when I signed up for Minnesota Care the social worker encouraged me to apply for the benefit because I qualified. Remembering being hungry, I admitted defeat and agreed.
The plastic card is a way for the government to more easily distribute assistance and prevent what was called the "food stamp stomp" in my hometown. A man would meet people at a bar and pay them 50 cents on the dollar in exchange for their paper food stamps. Depending on the character of a person, the cash would be used to pay to fix a tire so they could get to work, or to buy alcohol and cigarettes so they could continue defrauding the system.
Although the card is less "look at me I'm on welfare" in appearance, I can't help but wonder how many people it put out of a job. Paper checks and food stamps needed to be printed, someone had to input the data, another someone had to monitor the machine, envelopes needed stuffing and the U.S. Post Office had to deliver the items in the mail. Sure, the new way needs people too, but I wonder how many.
We need jobs. We need compassion for our neighbors. And maybe we need some of that humility from holding the telltale food stamps in our hands to muster up enough motivation to go get a job. We don't need to be embarrassed that we fall on hard times but we do need to be smart and strong enough to get up, dust off and extend a hand to our brothers and sisters in need.
If you are homeless and reading this, I invite you to contact me at (320) 763-1233 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to share your story or to just give me a glimpse into your daily life.
Crystal Dey Crystal Dey is a staff reporter for the Echo Press. Originally from Minnesota's Iron Range, Dey worked for newspapers in North Dakota, Florida and Connecticut before returning to her home state to join the Echo Press in October 2011. Dey studied Mass Communications at Minnesota State University Moorhead with an emphasis in Online Journalism. Follow Staff Reporter Crystal Dey on Twitter at @CrystalDey_Echo.