When I was thinking of what ways might be best to represent the themes in my book, An Odyssey in the Great American Safety Net' I was originally torn between the personal story of my 'odyssey' and the broader social and political meanings that could be drawn from my experience.
In the end I decided to do both because I feel that the two sides of the story complement one another and together provide a more holistic understanding of the American 'safety net' than either one on its own could provide.
When Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovic -- a largely autobiographical work -- he didn't have his character opine on the fairness or lack thereof of the Soviet penal system. He simply described what one day of life there was like. I'm not equating the American 'safety net' with a Soviet penal colony, I'm just making the analogy that we both used the same literary form -- simple realistic storytelling -- that allows the reader to make their own judgements about the experience described.
My experience of American social services, however, did not end where the book did. I've gone on to advocate -- as best I can as a private citizen -- for a social services that work better at realistically investing in people, rather than just providing them with enough financial assistance to exist and survive. The later approach doesn't do society or the people receiving the inadequate assistance any good. It's a waste of time and money.
I've had to deal with bureaucratic ennui: social services is a large, overloaded system and the workers there, like the clients they serve, seem to just be treading water. They are too overloaded by the sheer numbers of people receiving assistance to find time to think period, let alone think about more creative solutions to the overall problem.
That's one factor, and a major one. Ironically, federal and state governments are cutting budgets on the funding of people and resources for social services at the very same time that the number of people needing assistance is growing. This will, inevitably, out of necessity, lead to changes. Odds are, however, as it stands now, those changes will not alleviate the problems and will most likely lead to even more social instability and economic unfairness.
Those are some of the 'concrete' reasons why social services are not really working to alleviate poverty in America. Aside from the economic factors, which is a whole other topic unto itself, there is something I pointed to in earlier blogs: the social human factor. As I wrote previously, in the same way that a generation or so ago Americans looked upon people of color, women, and gays as inferior, inept or odd, these types of attitudes exist among Americans today about people who are in need of assistance. Basically, 'there must be something wrong with them'. (It's never because there might be something fundamentally wrong with our social or economic systems.)
This is why I felt it equally important to emphasize the 'odyssey',or the personal journey, that any one of us could embark on if we get into a situation of needing assistance from others at some time in our life.
If I had to choose another literary analogy, it would be John Howard Griffin's book, Black Like Me. The book was written in 1959 by a White writer who posed as a Black man, traveled throughout the country,and recorded his experiences in order to show what it felt like to be Black in America at that time. I could have called my book, Poor Like Me (though I surely would never do that). The main difference, though, is that I was not posing to be something I was not. I did not enter the American 'safety net' on some kind of 'journalistic mission' in order to see how poor people are being treated these days. The 'safety net' was literally just that for me; if it didn't work out, I'd likely not be faring so well right now. In my book, I candidly recount the story of how I got into the 'safety net'. In my case, I willingly chose to put the welfare and security of a family member ahead of my own and paid a price for it. That's something that could happen to anyone -- and especially among people of my generation whose parents are living longer than ever. So, in that sense, my book is similar to Griffin's in that I'm aiming to re-humanize a part of the population that's been marginalized, misunderstood and stereotyped. I'm honest about the range of emotions I experienced while negotiating my way through the 'safety net'.
The point is, I think it is first of all critically important to understand and empathize with the human stories that make up the tangled web of the 'safety net'. It's only when we can do that, that we will he able to make social and political reforms to social services that will actually help people help themselves better in the future. Compassion breeds understanding, and understanding leads to real, lasting solutions.
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