Please Explain: What is a Cheerio doing in my Sugar Pops?

This quote is a funny family story about a family friend having breakfast with us while we were on vacation and finding a different brand of cereal floating in the milk amongst his preferred brand. He asked my mother to explain why, much to the amusement of all of us. OK – maybe you had to be there to get the full comedic effect; but trust me – it was hilarious at the time.

Let me now make the connections to today’s post. We had a snow day today here in the northeast, and my fingers and brain have been itching to get back to my writing. I decided to catch up with some of my blogger friends and came across this gem : Les Miserables and Social Injustice which I highly recommend you read. BTG and I don’t always see eye to eye but we provide and promote a climate that encourages thought, especially thought outside the usual boxes. Love that about him, and many of my other friends in the blogger-verse. As usual, his post got me thinking.

Just yesterday I was at lunch and talking with a co-worker/friend about current events, social issues etc. He comes from a very liberal background, but also has a great deal of common sense which we agreed is in short supply these days. He told me a story about leaving a previous social service job, and why. He used to work for an agency that provided advocacy, outreach, and support to families in crisis. Families would contact the agency with a variety of serious issues ranging from eviction, property theft or damage, home heating issues, social service legal issues like CHINS petitions, DCF interventions etc etc. One family contacted the agency because they had no heat and no money to pay for home heating oil. The agency arranged with a supplier to donate 100 gallons of heating oil to the family. Later on in the heating season, the family, perhaps trying to economise – had to relocate because their pipes froze and the residence was uninhabitable. The agency set them up with a hotel and got pro bono volunteers to clean up the flood and mess, and repair the dwelling. At the staff meeting, my friend brought up his concerns about arranging for the children to get back and forth to their school (they had to relocate to a hotel some distance from their neighborhood), and about reestablishing their routines as quickly as possible. To my friend, this meant arranging with a taxi service to get the family to and from school etc. It also meant perhaps trying to arrange for the family to meet with a financial planner/social worker who could help them create a budget to meet their needs. He was shot down, because what the rest of the team wanted to discuss was getting the mother a washing machine. (?!?) The agency had spent a lot of money and man hours helping the family and other families in similar situations. Another family had their property stolen (TV, air conditioner and the like) My friend brought up the idea of providing all the families with renters insurance. Its relatively cheap – like maybe 150 a year, and would certainly cost less than having to continually pay for replacements. Property theft is a huge issue for folks living in poverty. That idea too was shot down.

I daresay he felt like that cheerio swimming in the bowl with a bunch of sugar pops. The lone grain that’s completely good for you; and yet completely outnumbered by sugary sweet, completely non-nutritious “fluff” that tastes better – but has little health benefit when consumed. Now I’m sure that the folks working at that agency were well-meaning with big hearts. However, it was clear to my friend – and subsequently to me via his tale, that they were not able to, or actually could not, identify the pressing issues that would empower these families to regain control of their lives – rather than merely enabling them. In other words – no common sense. The sugar pops won the day, my cheerio friend quickly realized he was swimming in the wrong cereal bowl, and left his position forthwith. (See, I did relate my material to the title after all!)

One of my biggest peeves is this lack of common sense when it comes to allocating our time, talents, and treasure in terms of social activism, grassroots volunteerism, and implementation of social programs . Believe me when I say that I totally get the gray miserable-ness of poverty life. I understand how people want some happiness and how in the process of reaching for that, unplanned pregnancies may occur. Which is why I am totally for making viable birth control available cheaply to all. We’re human, and better penny wise than pound foolish. It costs less to provide a young lady a pill, or a young man a condom, than it does to support a single parent family on taxpayer dollars.

Now, I’m not poor. Both my husband and I are employed (Thank God!) – but we are living paycheck to paycheck just like millions of other middle class Americans and I know first hand how incredibly difficult it is to find any joy in life when all you are able to do is try and figure out how to get all your bills paid and make your earnings stretch as far as possible. Its horribly depressing to struggle with financial issues. To have to make the choice to pay bills rather than buy your kids Christmas presents. But guess what? That’s what we did. As responsible adults we have an obligation to provide the essentials for our families. If there’s no money left over after that, then that’s just too bad. There, I said it. We are only guaranteed the right to PURSUE happiness, we are not guaranteed happiness itself. So, I put my big girl panties on and I’m dealing with it.

Anyway, I believe – in my practical mind – that social assistance is supposed to help provide the essentials to struggling individuals and families. The essentials is the key concept here. The cheerios, if you will – NOT the sugar pops. And,we must keep in mind at all times that if we don’t hold people accountable then it becomes our responsibility as well when the system gets abused and our generosity gets taken advantage of. The current state of the welfare system has little direct oversight. We’ve managed to automate much of the processes and procedures. For example, when I was briefly on unemployment in the mid-eighties I had to actually report to a person in the unemployment office and provide them documentation of my job search efforts in order to receive my benefit check. I had to actually go to this office once a week. No phone calls, no computers. Face to face with the caseworker. These days its a matter of logging in on a computer and typing in whatever information you feel like. On the surface, this makes sense and would appear to save money. However, it’s hard to lie to someone’s face. Much easier to be less than truthful on an impersonal website. Now I’m not saying everyone is lying – I’m only saying that the system makes it easier to do so – and there are individuals who will lie to get what they want (human nature being what it is and all).

EBT cards are another example of a well meaning procedure/process/benefit that is incredibly easy to abuse. I’ve seen it firsthand and written about it previously so I won’t bore you with a recap but I can tell you it absolutely FROSTS me to see my hard earned tax dollars wasted in this fashion. I’m sorry you don’t have enough of your own money to get that lap-dance buddy, but you CAN’T (shouldn’t) spend your EBT benefits in the strip clubs, or getting a tat, or a manicure, or buying booze, or purchasing non-nutritious food. “Life is not fair”, I tell my girls all the time, so “Get used to it!” Here’s my cheerio (common sense) fix: 1.You should not be able to use your EBT card to get cash. 2. If they can set up EBT cards to reject alcohol and tobacco purchases it is certainly worth the effort to set them up to reject junk food and soda. These are not essentials, they are luxuries. We are not doing anyone any favors by enabling them to purchase non-essentials. And I really don’t want to have to pay more via your medicaid health insurance for your kid to get their cavities filled because you won’t set limits and give them nutritious food instead of those push pops you got for the “buy one get two” special at the Stop and Shop….. Grrrrrr!

No positive or empowering lessons learned – not in any way, shape, or form. We are not assisting anyone in differentiating between “want” and “need”. This is a crucial life lesson that absolutely has to be learned in order for anyone to be successful in life. Looking the other way and allowing the luxuries just because we feel sorry for folks is not actually empowering them at all. My co-worker friend had another great example about this: He was doing a home visit and saw that the family had a rather large HD LED or plasma TV on their wall. He asked about it, and was told that it was rented – paid for with the welfare benefits the family was getting. Here again is a great example of waste – and lack of prioritization. This family had all sorts of legal financial and other problems and yet felt the need to spend taxpayer dollars on the luxury of an HD television. (that was actually costing the taxpayers more than if they had paid for it outright because they were renting it) Sugar Pops. Dumb Sugar Pops.

People need to understand that a welfare check is not actually their money. They need to be accountable for how it is spent. It is a misnomer to refer to this type of benefit as an entitlement. It is not. They didn’t pay into the system, or work for it. They are not “entitled” to it. Veterans are entitled to benefits because of their service to our country. Retirees are entitled to their social security checks because they have paid into the system throughout their working lives. Laid off workers are entitled to unemployment benefits because they have worked. Our society has seen fit to provide charity to those in need. “Assistance Benefits” would be a much better phrase to accurately describe what is being provided. Now if you want to reform the welfare system and require “work for wages” then by all means, feel free to refer to it as an entitlement in that case. We need people working in the system to prioritize using a common sense approach, with a mission statement of “empowerment, not enablement” – and the mindset that goes with that.

But what do I know, I’m a cheerio swimming in a bowl full of sugar pops….

cheeriossugar pops

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11 thoughts on “Please Explain: What is a Cheerio doing in my Sugar Pops?

  1. Donna, I saw your response to freeing social workers to do what they do best. I wanted to echo that. Our social workers love working under the empowerment model. They are helping people through all of the acts you described. They say they are doing more of what they were trained to do. Oftentimes, in some DSS positions, they were more benefit clerks, than social workers. Take care, BTG

    • Exactly, as someone who has a degree in Social Work I’m not and never have been a practicing caseworker because I didn’t want to be a benefit clerk, nor did I want to have my heart broken dealing with child abuse cases. I got in to working with the developmentally disabled instead. Keep in mind that I got my 4yr degree in 1984. Well before much welfare reform had begun at least in this area.

      • It may have been 1984, but it seems to have taken hold. I completed my professional designation that same year, but have forgotten much more than I remember. Have a great weekend. BTG

        • I’ll try. I’ve caught a respiratory virus or something. My girls were sick earlier this week. Taking it easy at home and pushing fluids. Looking at traffic camera pictures to see if I can ID the truck that hit me.. lol. Talk to ya soon!

  2. We lose accountability in society when we lose the personal connection. I believe that we need a “safety net” to provide the most basic living essentials (housing, food, transportation for work). I do not agree with those who want to completely dismantle financial assistance (we had Hoovervilles a hundred years ago). But, I’m not for giving out those boxes of Sugar Puffs either. Any suggestions on how to reign in the system?
    Oscar

    • Start by assigning social workers to train their responsible assigned cases (people they’re helping) to organize and run their own food banks, neighborhood cleanup efforts, neighborhood day care etc so people can start to feel useful. Social workers should be mentors, not rubberstampers or sign there here’s your check, or people who take kids from loving homes because the home might need cleaning… Not that those things aren’t necessary sometimes. Social workers should be adept at networking and hooking people up to the right trainers or services so as to assist people to do for themselves rather than be done for. Smaller caseloads would also be helpful. Involve community leaders who can teach skills rather than throw money at problems and hope they go away. Use common sense in planning , implementation, and budgeting to give those in need what they actually need. And allow them to build on that so they can work for what they want. Just throwing out a bunch of ideas here…. Always great to hear from you, thanks!!

  3. Donna, many thanks for the shout out on Le Miz and Social Injustice. And, i agree totally with our wonderful environment and blogging friends who facilitate civil debate. Your post hits directly home with the mission of the homeless family agency I am privileged to help. We empower people to climb the ladder, but they have to climb it. They have to achieve milestones to gain additional help. It is based on Bob Lupton’s book “Toxic Charity” which is a must read for all. We must empower people and not do for them what they can do for themselves. It truly is a must read for all who try to help people. Well done Momma E. You are the best. BTG

    • Thank you so much my friend! Means a lot to me. The old adage “Give a man a fish he eats for a day. Teach that man to fish, he eats for the rest of his days” resonates with me today. That, and “things are worth what you pay for them”… In my college sociology social work courses I learned to address problems with a common sense approach. (Not to mention that I’m a stubborn Yankee girl) thanks again!! Hugs!

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