Standing in the County Line

“This ain’t funny so don’t you dare laugh; because it’s all about money ain’t a damn thing funny.” — Coolio, County Line

It’s 10:30 a.m. on a Wednesday in Los Angeles. I’m one of the 60-plus people anxiously waiting in Lobby 1 of the Department of Social Services. I’m not the only one here seeking government aid, but I’m 100 percent sure I’m the only person sitting here with a bachelor’s degree from one of the country’s top private Universities.

I’ve seen poverty. I grew up in South Central Los Angeles, and I’ve been sent to the store with food stamps by a relative. But, I never would have thought that I would be applying for food stamps and General Relief as an adult. The only time my immediate family saw hard times was when my dad, an engineer, got laid off from his job. As a family, we sacrificed eating out on Friday nights and our weekly family trips to the movie theater. After a grueling nine-month stint of unemployment, my dad was hired by an even larger international company than the one he had previously worked for. He saw a better compensation package, and increased responsibility.

I’ve been laid off for 21 months, and I’ve never really been anywhere near being able to afford to take care of a family. At the 18-month mark, my unemployment benefits extension was denied. I had to find an income solution—and fast—because I would soon learn that the last unemployment verification form I received that indicated I would be receiving one more check was sent in error. I wasn’t getting another unemployment check, regardless of the $3,068 that remained on my claim. Yes, they even sent me a letter telling me how much money was left on my claim that I wasn’t going to be receiving.

That’s not all: The Employment Development Department (EDD) also reported to the Department of Social Services (DSS) that I was going to receive that last unemployment payment. So, not only did they incorrectly tell me I was going to get paid, they’ve also told DSS that I was going to get paid. Because of this false information, DSS will be awarding me $14 in food stamps.

I discover this one day while standing in my parents’ kitchen, holding the letter in shocked silence. I think about all those hours I spent studying for my college exams. I think about all the time I spent working to keep a high grade point average. I think about all the sleepless, anxiety-filled nights I spent sending out resumes and cover letters. I think about how I spent the last month interviewing for a position, and how the company decided to go with an internal candidate. I think about all the hard work and dedication I gave to companies that appeared to disregard me at the drop of a hat. I think about the prayers. I think about the Occupy movement. And finally, I think about how I’m standing in a kitchen, holding a piece of paper that basically says, “You just hit rock bottom…again.”

That’s why I’m here on a Wednesday morning, “standing in the county line.” I’m trying to clear up all of the misinformation, and increase the amount of food stamps I’m eligible for. It’s now 10:45 a.m., and I’m waiting on an appointment that was scheduled for 10 a.m. I got here at 9:30 a.m., because when I scheduled this appointment with my case worker, she told me to be here on time, and that she would come right down and take care of my paper work. When I start poking around, I find out that she isn’t even in the office today.

At 11:30 a.m., I realize I just wasted more than two hours of my life sitting in a room with people who either don’t have the motivation, or the resources to do better. One guy is sitting next to me with his headphones on intensely reciting rap lyrics he had jotted down on his late model iPhone. There are also a couple girls sitting off in the back of the room playing R&B songs on the speaker of a smart phone. They turn Lobby 1 into a lounge as they loudly observe the “sexiness” of the other men in the room. Security guards are given the responsibility of corralling children who are running around wildly, and sending them back to their unconcerned parents. I don’t feel like I fit in with this crowd, or belong in a place where people who seemingly do not have “life skills” come to seek government assistance and guidance. As I exit the building, a woman with a name tag shouts at me, “job training!”

I head back home and think that I might be able to get out of this situation if I just stick with it, and apply to more jobs. In this day and age, it’s very difficult to get a job even if you’re qualified for it. You have to know someone on the inside, or find an edge, because the field is way too competitive. My Craigslist job search lands me right in the middle of a check cashing scam. I’m thinking I’ve found a way to make a couple hundred dollars a week to cover my cell phone bill and car insurance by running a few administrative errands, but these criminals are just trying to get me to launder money.

I log on to CareerBuilder, and find a freelance writing position that allows you to work remotely, only to find myself being prompted to buy something to submit my resume for the opportunity. Is this what America has come to? Is capitalism so bad in this country that exploiting people looking for employment has become a business? In this country, the underemployed and unemployed are being preyed upon for their need to make more money to survive. Someone actually sat down while creating a business/marketing plan and said, “The unemployed are an easy target.” No one should have to pay a company to hire them. Isn’t that the definition of a scam? Network marketing companies that make people pay to join their company and sell their products are a scam. All these companies are doing is selling pipe dreams, while bleeding marginal income from their members. I’ve seen many of my friends join these companies with hopes of becoming millionaires, and years later they’re still shoveling a good chunk of their income into buying products to support their so-called “own business,” but in reality, they’re simply solidifying profits for these companies.

I ask myself, “Where do I go from here?”

This is a very difficult question considering that I’ve only had one major interview in 21 months. I’ve sprained my neck trying to break into the acting world as a stunt man. I’ve sat in lobbies for interviews flanked by baby boomers with decades more experience than me. I’ve worked retail for $8.50/hour when my skill set is well worth an $80,000 salary. Going back to school seems to be my best option, but I know that a Master’s degree doesn’t guarantee income, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense to dig a five-figure hole of debt to get one.

I ask myself, “Where does America go from here?”

We’re in a death spiral that’s been getting worse for the last 10 years. When the people that are being affected by it the most speak out, the powers that be shut them up by making it seem criminal to want the American Dream. As a child of the ’80s, I can say that the American Dream was shoved down my throat every day, and I was lead to believe that all I had to do was get a Bachelor’s degree and I could get a nice job and live a nice life. Wrong—in this day and age, the American Dream is a fallacy perpetuated by substance-less reality TV stars. I used to have visions of BMWs and houses, but now I just want to make enough money to have a decent home and raise a family. How exactly is it that I’m going to accomplish this? I don’t know, but I’ll be contemplating it as I’m sucking up my pride and standing in the county line.

 

Deji Wesey was born and raised in Los Angeles, Calif. His many adventures around the world have given him a unique global perspective, which he seeks to express through writing and film. He’s the author of My Africa; A spiritual journey and cultural exploration. Photo: Flickr/Wonderlane

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23 Comments / Post A Comment

Weasley (#1,419)

I think this was a very well-written piece but I think I’d like these personal struggle pieces to go a little deeper into the “why” of it. Like as someone who seems to have had a lot of privilege (an upbringing mostly unmarred with financial stress, a parent whose career as a lot of societal capital, going to a top university) why do you think you’re struggling so much? Beyond it being a really hard situation in general. Do you think it’s all systematic of the current financial and social situation in the country?

madrassoup (#929)

I’m not the only one here seeking government aid, but I’m 100 percent sure I’m the only person sitting here with a bachelor’s degree from one of the country’s top private Universities.

At 11:30 a.m., I realize I just wasted more than two hours of my life sitting in a room with people who either don’t have the motivation, or the resources to do better.

I don’t feel like I fit in with this crowd, or belong in a place where people who seemingly do not have “life skills” come to seek government assistance and guidance.

I feel for you, I really do. And I don’t want to dismiss your sense of disillusionment over finding yourself in this situation, but I also wonder why you think you’re so exceptional? I hope you find a job and means to sustain yourself, not because you are more special or skilled than the people you look down on, but because we all deserve a fair shake, regardless of where we went to school or how we make use of public spaces. The very scenarios you point to as the reason your job search is so tough (Craigslist scams, bait-and-switch jobs on CareerBuilder) are making it hard for everyone.

I just think there is a way of talking about being surprised to find yourself struggling without demeaning other peoples’ struggles or suggesting they’ve brought theirs upon themselves.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@madrassoup Yeah, the whole paragraph you mention is so heartless and douchey it makes me want to drink bleach. These girls listened to this music and said men were attractive, where are their LIFE SKILLS? hurk.

ETA: maybe capitalizing “University” and “Bachelor’s degree” was a tipoff but that’s just my middling English degree at work

WaityKatie (#1,696)

@madrassoup Yeah, plus the fact that he probably wasn’t even the only person there with a bachelor’s degree. I know several people with bachelor’s degrees and several years of work experience who have found themselves unemployed in this latest depression. And for what it’s worth, my dad has a master’s degree, and still has been repeatedly unemployed throughout his life. I thought this was a little too much “these people! I’m not like them!” and too little “examining the structural causes of unemployment, and how it can really happen even to people who come from Good Families and have Good Educations.

@madrassoup Very well put. Everyone is struggling for a job now, and going to university and earning a degree is almost the norm, rather than the exception.

@aetataureate It seems a bit much unless you’ve been to the food stamp office. The feeling is very real, and very valid. I have been both a social worker and a teacher in very poor communities, and though I remain a staunch liberal who focuses upstream on our societies’ problems rather than blaming those who sit in the office-there is no doubt that there is a culture of poverty that does not include life skills. Exactly why it’s such a trap.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@Jake Reinhardt Okay, I believe you, but I’m curious which specific life skills you can assess while standing in line or sitting in a waiting room with strangers.

ciphressinchief (#1,880)

@aetataureate TOTALLY agree about that paragraph… made me cringe a little. “They are listening to RAP! They are listing to R&B! The children were running WILD! No LIFE SKILLS!” … yikes.

charmcity (#1,091)

@madrassoup I agree. Having spent plenty of time in food stamps offices myself, I have to say that I find it no less immediately annoying when folks there listen to music without headphone and let their kids run around screaming than I do when the parents involved are rich 30-something faux hipsters in a trendy bar. Behaving appropriately in a public setting is certainly a “life skill,” and while I have more sympathy for folks dealing with the grinding bureaucratic nightmare of a social services office than with the social requirements of a beer garden, I really don’t think either group should get a pass on Sharing Public Spaces With Others. Let’s not pretend that all poor people are dignified, long-suffering saints.

@aetataureate oh god, you can assess a lot. Especially over a period of four hours.

Not disagreeing that it’s near-impossible to find a job these days even if you did everything right and unemployment sucks and all that. But I want to talk about the “my skill set is well worth an $80,000 salary” bit. I’ve heard this sort of thing from a number of friends, who sometimes while on unemployment turned down jobs they didn’t feel paid as much as they “deserved.” Not focusing on Deji in particular, but in general: what does it mean to be “worth” a certain amount of money if no one is actually willing to pay you that?

julebsorry (#1,572)

@Sarah Rain@facebook I think this is a great point. All through college, my sister bragged that most jobs related to her choice of major “definitely guaranteed” a $100k+ salary. I argued with her that very few jobs come with a $100k starting salary for BS holders- but, she wrote me off as sour grapes. I heard many of her friends parroting the same lines and thought they were all overly optimistic, or maybe had read their college’s marketing materials too literally.

When she graduated, she did manage to land a decent job…but it wasn’t anywhere close to the salary range she expected. In this vein, $80k is much higher than the average salary in the US for BA/BS holders…hell, I have a BA, graduated SCL, am a PBK member and have 6+ years work experience, and even I don’t make that much right now. Coupled with the unpleasant whiff of elitism I got from some parts of this essay, I gave the side-eye to that $80k statement.

aetataureate (#1,310)

@Sarah Rain@facebook “What I deserve to be paid” is like “expected value at auction,” i.e. no one knows at all.

navigateher (#555)

I feel for you, seeing as you really try. And the chapter about the various scams that only seek to exploit desperate job seekers makes my heart ache.

But, this part: “I’ve worked retail for $8.50/hour when my skill set is well worth an $80,000 salary.”

I really do believe your skill set is worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it. I’m one of those people. I don’t know where you got that figure, but if that’s what other people with similar degrees / skills are being paid, then that’s what THEY’RE worth. It’s always a personal thing, a salary, and it’s not just about the skills and degrees. It’s about the situation, the specific position, work experience, the company, how well you sell your skills to them etc. And I’m sorry if that sounds harsh, that’s not what I intended at all! But I don’t think anything’s worth something no one is willing to pay, and sometimes lowering salary expectations pays off later.

lalaland (#437)

@navigateher Agreed! Essentially, market value…a house or a stock or even a person’s salary is only worth what someone else is willing to pay for it. All caveats about the market being terrible, etc. This reminds me of a friend I love but has a special snowflake syndrome – she recently told me she was way too good for her job and so much better than everyone else there. But it’s like…if you’re there and you are doing it…then you’re not “better” than it? Should we all aspire for more, whether in salary or responsibilities? Of course. But if this is the “best” job you can get, are you really “better” than it? I dunno.

sundaysun (#1,905)

I really do hope that you find a great job that suits you, inspires you, and pays you fairly. Honestly and truly. Being unemployed is horrible and getting a job is way too difficult these days.
But! when one’s dream job involves “expressing” one’s “unique global opinion” through art and film I have to roll my eyes and wonder why one’s interim solution doesn’t involve a few bartender shifts a week plus some office temp work, a bit of nannying and so on?
I work as a compensation analyst (yes, this is an actual, real job!) and a sizeable chunk of my workday is spent making determinations about what my company ought to pay for a certain role or skill set, based on market data analysis. It is ridiculous to assume that the open market values the work of budding writers at the level you mention. Simply is not the case. Richly variegated though your life experience may be, the external market just doesn’t bear that kind of compensation. Registered nurse, computer programmer, clinical researcher and senior accountant are random examples of jobs with salaries in the ballpark of $80k in a major metro area. Perhaps this is a shame. Perhaps this is a grave, grave shame and an indication that our wayward society has its values wrong. Perhaps writers and artists should earn more than nurses and senior accountants? It is society nonetheless. It isn’t even the really unfair part of society! You’re young, bright, creative, and presumably physically able to work. Recalibrate your goals and and consider the possibility that you may need to balance your Great Artistic Expectations with a couple of side jobs.

you are not any different than anyone else standing in line at welfare, it says a lot of about your character, or lack there of, for you to make such a bold statement that you are the only person there with a degree, and the others don’t have skills or motivation….you don’t have motivation..you lived off your unemployment till it ran out..you would rather live off the government than go out and work at a Job you feel is below you, its not societies fault you chose a low paying career, id rather write novels all day, but instead i went to school to be a nurse because i know it will sustain me and my family…foodstamps are an entitlement..if you qualify and are not using them, you are an idiot, this entire time you could have been working at a lower paying job while drawing unemployment and getting food assistance, the other people in line know this, and therefore have more skills and motivation than you.. you are self-rightious and this piece shows your lack of intelligence…get over yourself and go work at TACOBELL or Mcdonalds, it a great place to work with benefits, and you will fit right in with all the other people standing in a line preparing food, and dreaming of BMW’s

@Julia Sheets@facebook JULIA SHEETS DOESN’T NEED ANY DAMN PUNCTUATION, YOU GOT THAT, COLLEGE KIDS?? SELF-RIGHTIOUS CORRECT SPELLERS WITH BMW IDIOTS!!

@Jake Reinhardt sorry if my bad grammar offends you…but…ummm..i’m a college kid??…?? sorry i just have no sympathy for this guy, I know people with their GED’s who make six figures, and i can guarantee he’s the only person “in line” who would fall for a craigslist scam…I would feel bad for him though if he didn’t have such a crappy attitude, but i do appreciate his honesty

@Julia Sheets@facebook Oh my god, what is wrong with you? An ellipse is not a period. An ellipse also consistently has three dots. Maybe you’re more equipped for one of those great jobs at TACOBELL with the outstanding benefits you mentioned.

I find it very interesting that so many people have commented on the authors “80,000 salary” excerpt. In my opinion, the article raised some really good questions about the current job market along with the personal struggles that many educated Americans face today. The fact is, that we live in a country that has programmed many citizens since kindergarten, to believe that a college degree equates to a good job or career. Personally, I think that the opportunity cost along with debt and unemployment are harsh realities, which many college graduates have been forced to endure. Many colleges and universities do provide an education and valuable skill sets which improve our human capital. However, these skill sets are useless, unless employment opportunities exist in any particular industry. As the American free market dwindles in this country, so does the opportunity for educated people to create more jobs. If the money for various social and defense programs was reallocated to stimulate small businesses, maybe just maybe, America’s economy would show a bit of progressive growth on the horizon.

Very insightful piece. It was funny, sad at times, but very honest. I believe this feeling is shared amongst many in our generation and I believe it is the reason so many of us have had to pursue graduate degrees to even just get an entry level position. However,
I believe this economic situation has been a perfect storm that will pass. Baby boomers will have to retire or die at some point, I don’t believe this is the future of America and the end of the American Dream. We have just been sandwiched in a generation of baby boomers and an economic crisis that has limited the opportunities for the 30-somethings. I enjoyed your piece, and thank you for sharing and putting in writing what many of us feel.

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