Posted in Family, Today's File

An Accidental Sit-In

During my most recent six-hour wait at our Health and Welfare office, the folks around me were joking that the wait itself might be part of the screening-process; no one in their right mind would sit here so long if they didn’t truly NEED help.  We didn’t ask each other’s names, but we knew each other’s numbers, and rallied a cheering-section as the numbers around us finally began to get called.  One grouchy geezer made noise about organizing a sit-in protest, to which I replied that we seemed to BE participating in a sit-in; after all, we’d been in these seats for hours already.

Us with our four youngest kids (portrait by Elena Grace). THREE of these guys are "John Heyward Tyler." Health & Welfare hates us for that.

I was there to straighten out some confusion about our family’s Medicaid; the system is evidently not set up to deal with the possibility of family-members having the same name.  Of course, I have to admit that ours is more complicated than a simple junior/senior designation; altogether there are no fewer than five (living) “John Heyward Tylers” in the family.  They all have additional (Hawai’ian) middle names, which are the names they actually use, but they all show up in the system as John Heyward Tyler.  Never mind the different Social Security numbers, or the fact that each one has a suffix (from “Jr” on down to “VI”) as part of the legal name–H&W goes into meltdown-mode every time it tries to sort us out.

So I was there at the Humor and Welfare office to explain (again) who’s who, and which two JHTs are actually part of our current household.  I wish they’d let me file a diagram.  The “H&W” on the side of the building is meant to stand for Health & Welfare, I know–but given my “privileged” (and well-warmed) front-row seat to the System, I take leave to suggest a substitution.  Someone with a sense of Humor designed this shit.

Amazingly un-grumpy employees

I’ll start with kudos, though. Absolutely without fail, the individuals I’ve encountered working for H&W have been good-humored, concerned, and mind-bendingly patient with the endless parade of clients they face.  (I saw some serious craziness in my six hours of wait-and-watch time, but those ladies dealt caringly with every single person–and the line was as long when I left as when I’d arrived.) I’m sure there’s a grouch in there somewhere, but I haven’t met her yet.   I find this astonishing, actually, especially considering how many people I have to talk to in order to get any single item addressed; by now I’ve experienced quite a broad sampling of H&W employees.  I begin to wish I’d started writing down names so I could send them thank-you notes.  It’s not their fault that the phone number printed on my latest letter isn’t the right one for the issue discussed in that letter; or that the person at that number has on file another number which, when I call it, is the right office but the wrong number; or that the third number goes to the voicemail of a person on vacation, with an emergency number of somebody else, which turns out to be one of the numbers I’ve already called…  Given how disorganized the “organization” is, they must have to deal with a LOT of irate people who have been multiply misdirected–yet each of them behaves as if there hasn’t been a single frustration in her day. Roses for all of them! (Well, if I could afford roses.  Maybe they’d like some kid-drawings of roses?)

That said, here’s a sampling of our “funny” experiences with the System itself… Ha ha.

Last winter while we were both unemployed and job-hunting, we applied & were approved for food-stamps and Medicaid for the kids.  (Am I really complaining about this system when it has helped us this often?  I’m grateful.  And yet… Some stuff should still get noticed.) At that point we had two kids full-time, and another two just a couple days a month.  I listed them all (as I was told to do) and made sure to point out–both on my paperwork and during the intake interview–that the two younger were not in the house often, and already had health coverage through their dad’s job.  Never mind–it turns out kids “qualify” if they are even occasionally in your home, so long as they’re not already claimed in another household; it’s all-or-nothing.  We got food-stamp money AND Medicaid cards for those two kids as well.  (The food stamps didn’t go to waste–the two kids IN the house were ravenous teenage boys. But knowing the finite resources at the State’s disposal, it doesn’t feel right that they send full amounts of money for children who aren’t there to eat.)

This one (bless him!) eats enough for the whole Defensive Line...

The flip side of that same policy: if two parents share custody, the full amount of food-stamps go to the parent who applies first, regardless of where the child spends the majority of time.  We have full custody of one teenager, with a weekend a month to his mom.  We actually still qualified for food stamps while we both worked full-time this summer, but because we could buy food with that income (and don’t want to abuse the system, and prefer to stand on our own feet when we can), we voluntarily stopped our food-stamps.  Meanwhile, our teen’s mom applied for food-stamps and (because he’s in her house once a month), she gets to count him.  When my seasonal summer job ended and we re-applied for stamps, we couldn’t count him because she already does.  Doesn’t matter that WE’RE feeding him 29 out of 30 days.  There’s no provision in the system to re-evaluate; it’s straight-up first-come-first-served, so for as long as she’s still taking food-stamps, she’ll get to keep claiming him.  (We still come out okay because the two kids who aren’t here full-time–and don’t eat much when they are–still qualify for full benefits.  That’s messed up on several levels. And doesn’t help other families where a non-custodial parent beat the custodial household to the food-stamp line.)

Meanwhile, my husband (the one of us who DOES have a biological child in the household full-time) just got bumped out of the Family Health Services medical plan because he “doesn’t have a qualifying child in the household.”  And why doesn’t his child qualify as a member of our household? Because his mom gets the food-stamps for him.  Teen still has Medicaid, so that’s an important thing taken care of–but Dad has been putting off knee-replacements for five years already, and his arthritis is making it increasingly hard for him to work.  So the blanket first-come-first-served policy has hit us harder than just the groceries.  (I’m all too aware that we just got penalized for NOT taking the state’s money over the summer; if we’d continued the food-stamps, we wouldn’t have been “cut out” by her claim.)

"hygeine product" that can be purchased with food-stamps... Not a great shampoo substitute, however...

A word about the food-stamps before I sign off…  I’m not a granola-fanatic or anything, but I think it’s silly that a person could buy nothing but Oreos & sodas all month if she chose.  The card is already programmed not to ring up “excluded” items (alcohol, pre-prepared foods, even energy drinks) so clearly they could exclude junk as well.  Actually what I’m getting at is the idea that there are some “basics” that can’t be bought with food stamps, and I’d rather have those than be able to buy junk-food. I know the stamps are intended to keep struggling families FED, but I’d trade in even my coffee-creamer for the ability to buy a few hygiene items–how about soap or toilet paper?  (We went without both of those for a stretch last winter–but we could have had a cupboard full of Cheetohs.  Kinda silly.  Baking soda works for brushing teeth, but it leaves something to be desired as a substitute for shampoo.) Our local food-banks sometimes have those basics the food-stamps can’t buy, but of course it depends on donations.

Our food-stamp card. Truly a thing of beauty.

At the end of the day, we’re sincerely grateful for the assistance, even with its attendant frustrations. Not proud of needing it, but also not too proud to admit when we do.  And I just got another letter from my buddies at H&W–a request for some documents which I’ve already given them and they’ve evidently managed to vaporize–so I’m gearing up for another sit-in.  I think I’ll bring stationery and start on my thank-you notes.

[Post-Script 10/19: See comments below for kitchen-chemistry tips regarding baking soda and shampoo…  I love my readers! ;)]


I am... a writer, an explorer, a coffee-drinker, a recovering addict, a barefoot linguist, a book-dragon ("bookworm" doesn't cover it), a raconteur, a sailboat skipper, a research diver, a tattooed scholar, a pirate, a poet, a spiritual adventurer, a photographer, a few kinds-of-crazy, a joyful wife, a mom... a list-maker! :)

27 thoughts on “An Accidental Sit-In

  1. I’m so shocked at a system that is so broken! For someone to miss out on the stamps because another parent registered for them, even when the child is rarely with them, and then that you cant buy toilet paper and shampoo etc etc. What is wrong with these people? Is someone really going to spend all their stamps on toilet paper and then sell it on the black market or something? Ridiculous!

    I hate hearing that good families that need a little help suffer so needlessly while other abusing the system get away with it. Have you tried asking the local paper if you can do a story on this broken system (and while you are at it, get a leg in the door to be a writer for them, with pretty decent pay in my experience.)

    As a matter of interest. A single mother with one child gets $1900/month from the government in benefits, plus $486/month housing subsidies and a health care card (medical is free for all Australians, so no extras there) the health care card ensures you pay a maximum of $5.36 for any prescription you need, though the average is about $2.17) Our system is not perfect by any means, but people in need are never without – though on the flip side its easy for others to abuse it, no food stamps here, just cold hard cash in your account.


    1. “Black-market toilet paper”–that could be a whole blog-topic of its own! ;) Clearly you folks Down Under are WAY on top when it comes to issues of People-care. You inspire me to make a little noise…


  2. I’m sorry, but I kind of glazed over at the thought of a 6 hour wait! That’s virtually an entire work day gone just waiting. I feel for those that work in the system but come on … hasn’t someone higher up worked out that the system is broke! Well, if you’ve recently prayed for patience here’s a way to see how well you’ve developed!


    1. Patience–something I’m careful never to pray for, lest I be given additional opportunities in which I’m required to PRACTICE it! ;) I did bring a week’s worth of crosswords and a good book, and got to know the interesting folks around me… Not entirely wasted time, but still…


  3. Wow! I can see your need for noting, I’ts astonishing how you reveal those H&W workers, but I’ts a shame they would have bad days and take it out on needy folks! I can’t give them any compliments because my experience wasn’t a great one. Good luck on your journey with those miserable H&W. people. P.S. never be ashamed of getting what you earned by paying your debt in taxes.


  4. Thank you for reminding me how blessed I am. I have never needed the H&W office, and the closest I can relate to your story is “one time, at the DMV…” which was also surprisingly filled with happy and helpful employees despite the never-ending lines.

    The irony? Some in the “go natural” movement are using Baking Soda as shampoo too, and it has nothing to do with it being available with food-stamps. I’ve never tried it before, but I’ve read to follow it with an Apple Cider Vinegar rinse to restore pH. I’m assuming you can get vinegar on food stamps? Need a conditioner? Try Coconut Oil.


    1. I stand corrected–and tickled to be wrong! :) Maybe that’s what I should be researching and writing: the Food-Stamp Guide to Kitchen Chemistry…


  5. You have a wonderful heart and humor, may you soon be out of your hard times and laughing at it in retrospect. Good luck to you. And maybe Australia is the way!


  6. Kana, you should turn this into an op-ed piece for your local paper and also send a copy to your state and local representatives – just as a reminder to everyone about the challenges faced in the H&W system. You’ve got great ideas, written with such good humor; it would be nice if there could be a rallying cry that pushed for those changes.


  7. Wise and balanced words from the waiting room perspective! I used to work in the non-profit side (food shelf, among others) and saw plenty of nonsensical stuff everywhere. It’s like the tax codes, everyone knows it’s broken, but it is big, it is tangled, and no one agrees how to fix it.


    1. Roses to YOU! :) I have to think it’s people of remarkable character who are able to perform (and are drawn to) that kind of job.


  8. Very informative. The food bank where I live just ran a program to bring awareness to things that they really need donated. They NEVER once mentioned hygene items, I will be changing a few of my items around to include shampoo, soap and toilet paper.


    1. Someone will bless you for that! The all-time Best Box of our experience included “luxuries” like deodorant, shampoo, toothpaste, and Tylenol. :)


  9. If the H&W employees aren’t careful, they may end up in the ‘sit in’ with you. I think all of us with jobs should take a moment and ask ourselves if we are being as helpful to people we come in contact with everyday as we can be. I hope things improve for you real soon!


  10. How one can turn a messy day into a very informative blog? I bet just sitting down anywhere, a theme is formed in the brain for the next day posting. Good day.


    1. Exactly true–I jot down those moments and the topic-list is growing faster than I can tackle it! ;) I think I won’t need to use those “what-to-blog-about” ideas I see posted; LIFE provides plenty.


  11. As a state employee in another state, and completely different type of department, thanks for the kudos to state employees. Thanks for not criticizing the case workers there for the wait.

    I am praying for your family and wishing you great blessings. Thanks for sharing your experiences.


  12. Hi there! You ‘liked’ one of my posts so I popped over to visit.

    I used to work at a WinCo (for about 3 years) as a cashier and nothing made me more grouchy than someone using their food-stamps to buy nothing but junk-food. Would it hurt to purchase an apple? (Okay, that’s an exaggeration. People talking on cell phones and completely ignoring me – then getting mad at me when I didn’t talk to them – trumps just about everything else…) My co-workers and I often talked about how we wished EBT could be used for things like diapers and toilet paper, as well. Many of my co-workers were on food stamps themselves and had difficulties getting the necessities at time, and that was before the economy-bomb smacked us around.

    I feel your pain in having to go back to the H&W. But maybe you’ll get some more good material :)


  13. Having been broke for the last 12 years (Army, kids, etc), I have had plenty of wonderful and terrible experiences while working with the bureaucracy-of-the-broke. One day, I stood in line for two hours at a food bank, just to bring perishables home and discover that half of them had already perished. :-( I cried. For a couple of hours, I think.

    Recently, we found out that we make $40/month too much to qualify for food stamps. My husband is a teacher, and I can’t pay someone to hire me. I think I wouldn’t have gotten so depressed about it if DHHR provided a table of income to see whether we’d qualify or not. Instead, I got to get my little hopes up and then watch them get crushed. On the other hand, at least I don’t have to spend all day waiting at the DHHR offices. ;-) I’m pretty sure I’m not that patient.

    Good luck de-vaporizing the paperwork!


  14. A wonderful story, well told, and I really appreciate that you described the snafus and frustrations while underlining your gratitude for assistance. Most people would do one or the other but you gracefully did both.


  15. Question: Is “first come first served” how it works in every state or just in Idaho? I ask because I am, first of all, grateful for the information. I’m very fortunate that I’ve not needed it as an adult and when I was growing up and my family actually did qualify we had enough family/resources to get by until things got better. Again, we were incredibly lucky. However, so many are not so lucky, and it’s cool to have such a unique perspective – not criticizing the employees working to try to avoid needing their own services, instead, gently spotlighting the actual rule. I know a lot of people (the kind you can’t break up with – relatives) who see “the system” and the people who so desperately need it as very black and white. Your story is one of those shades of grey that, I suspect, is far, far more common. You story is a great one for me to send a link to now and then to (hopefully) educate folks and ask for non-judgement/a softening of the heart. So knowing if it’s a state or fed thing helps me actually know what the heck I’m talking about. That’s kind of important. ;-)

    The other reason I ask is a woman in my writing group wrote a beautiful piece about her husband’s ex. She mentioned that her husband’s ex was receiving welfare/food stamps for the kids, even during the nine months she was in jail, she’s on house arrest, and she gets the kids only once a month. She was wondering how that was possible. I mentioned what I read in your post, but we’re in Washington state (hello, neighbor!), so I don’t know if that applies here.

    Ridiculously long comment/question, I know, but I’m like that sometimes, haha….

    PS…. Please keep writing/posting! I love your gentle way of telling your truth and how you do it in such a respectful way that it sheds light on things others might not think of, honors your own story, and shows compassion toward the “other side”, whatever or whoever the other side may be. Nice job :)


    1. Thank you for the kind words, Neighbor. :) I actually don’t know whether that’s a state or a nation-wide policy, though my *guess* would be state… (Idaho, as you may already know, tends to be a “states’ rights” individualistic climate–and this is the STATE’s department of H&W…) However, I wouldn’t be surprised if similar conditions pertain in other states. That would certainly answer your writing-friend’s question about the ex getting foodstamps with only a monthly visit. (Though getting them while in jail is something else again!)

      I CAN share a story from Oregon, which is where my husband’s child-support case started out… (I’ll try to be brief, but it’s a kind of crazy story.) Here goes. His ex initially got full custody of the boys, with an order for child support to be paid to her (didn’t have to be paid THROUGH the state, so we paid directly to her). Nine months later WE got full custody, and a new order for child support to be paid to us. She never paid a dime. A year later all of us had moved into Idaho, so we transferred the custody case into the jurisdiction of the Idaho courts. Just a couple months ago, my husband got notice that his wages are being docked by Oregon Child Support for “past due child support.” So we called to explain that we’d paid what we owed, that SHE owed a great deal more, and shouldn’t they be “chasing” her for any money owed to the state? Nope. They said that the money owed to the state was because she was on Welfare while she had the kids, and it doesn’t matter that we’d paid the ordered child support; that money still has to be collected. Furthermore, the amount she owed can’t be used as a consideration in this matter, because they opened a new, separate child-support case when the custody switched, so our two cases are “not related.” And they closed our case when we transferred it to Idaho, so they can’t do anything at all with the case where she would owe money. Bottom line: we paid her child support AND we’re paying the state for her use of welfare, while we have the child in our home (no support from her).

      I’ll add, though, that one again the PEOPLE with whom we dealt were understanding and as helpful as they were able to be in the circumstances. They DID manage to cut down the monthly amount from the $365 they were SUPPOSED to take (out of our $1100/month household income!) to a “mere” $100…


      1. Whoa, Nelly! Wow! Did you just hear that giant thud? Sounded like a sonic boom? Maybe even felt like 6.3er on the Richter? Yeah…. that would be my jaw hitting the floor. I really do feel of the people who work there. They aren’t the ones who make the policies and I can’t imagine the amount of abuse they must put up with. Kudos to you for taking the high road. :)


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