“Are you really sure you need to be here?”
That was the question Georgia had to answer every time she was in the social services office. Every worker always asked her that question, with that same knowing tone and skeptical glare. She understood their reasoning, but that didn’t make it any better.
“I know it looks like we’re doing well-” she started.
“Two incomes, three kids, one in college and the other working herself, these aren’t the normal circumstances where we authorize food stamps.” Mrs. Simmons, the caseworker seemed more hostile than agents normally did, but that might have been the job. The state had been reducing benefits for years and she’d heard rumors they were recruiting openly antagonistic people.
This was the fourth time Georgia had to sign up for some sort of welfare benefits and she knew that wasn’t a good sign. There was always initial skepticism when she applied, the old two paycheck trap. Still, as long as the workers were willing to actually look at their finances she had a chance.
“Yes, but that doesn’t cover expenses.”
“Human Services aren’t here to make it easier to afford luxuries ma’am,
This woman didn’t offer much hope. She was haggard, had more than few streaks of grey cutting into the subdued blonde coif, not to mention the glazed over glare of a low level bureaucrat. Fear was one of their tactics, she just needed to explain herself.
“Most of your expenses seem appropriate, student loans, mortgage, car payments, although you DO seem to spend a lot on food.”
“There’s four of us, I clip coupons, buy storebrand, and check the sale papers, but there’s only so far a dollar can be stretched.”
“Have you tried eating less?”
Georgia had to grit her teeth, it had happened so many times, but it still bothered her. Every time the economy faltered and they had to reapply for social aid, her weight was always an issue. Whether applying for food stamps, housing assistance or school lunches, everything came down to her weight. It was becoming increasingly difficult to justify why her family shouldn’t be forced to starve just because they were fat.
Besides, why did she have to justify their weight every time she applied for benefits? Half the country was obese, throw in the overweight population and that grew to three quarters of the country, heck even Simmons wasn’t the thinnest woman on earth. They were the overhelming majority, had been since 2022, and yet eight years later here she was, grinning through snide comments just because the caseworker was five pounds shy of the 200 mark.
“Your records show almost no savings, how is that possible?”
“I was hoping the halftime was temporary, or a better job would open up, but the only way to keep from losing the house was to dip into the savings.”
“Did you reduce spending?”
It was questions like that which infuriated her, mostly because the social service woman’s tone was so indistinct, there couldn’t tell if she was being snarky or not. After she dropped out of college Georgia had worked a few jobs like this, having to ask fairly obvious questions, but it was all part of the job. McDonald’s would fire you if you forgot to ask if they wanted fries too many times.
The Department of Health and Human Services seemed unlikely to have such requirements though. There was also that undertone, slight but there, that reeked of moral superiority. She couldn’t say anything though, the moment she seemed uppity the meeting would be over.
“Yes, we cut costs everywhere we could. We haven’t been out to eat in months,” she knew to say that as soon she could. “Our entertainment budget has been eliminated, our clothes are hand me downs or from Goodwill now.”
“This doesn’t show the type of budget reductions we typically like to see, especially for returning clients.”
“If you know how to lower a mortgage, or pay fewer taxes, please let me know.”
Georgia regretted that the moment it came out of her mouth. It was the snark she had been trying to keep under wraps the entire meeting and now, she just blurted it out. Simmons looked noticeably flustered, her cheeks were reddening, and she was frantically huffing.
“It’s not Maine’s fault you weren’t able to plan ahead.”
“I understand that,” she explained, slowly. Simmon’s stern glare forced her to slow down, otherwise she’d start stammering or stuttering.
“but these aren’t fancy luxuries we’re talking about, we’re poor.”
“That’s for the system to decide,” she scoffed. Simmons typed and the computer started it’s algorithms. These days the system was so efficient that it usually only took a few minutes. In fact most people used the online system rather than bothering with the caseworkers.
Georgia however knew the little secret that DHHS kept from getting out, the caseworkers could override the machine. Only at the margin of course, they couldn't give benefits to anyone who didn’t qualify, but they could help those right on the edge. Or they could give the proverbial finger and refuse to help.
Simmons' computer bleeped and she checked the result. Her expression did not change, nor did her breathing, although there was a weird echoing in the room all of a sudden. Finally she spoke.
“The system didn’t take kindly to your income, pretax or not.”
Her stomach seized up and the back of her throat tickled, as though she were on the verge of vomiting. There were some antacid tablets in her purse that might have helped the gurgling pit in her stomach, but she felt too weak to move. All she wanted to do was sit in the chair and look at the floor, pretending she hadn’t gotten an answer yet.
“However,” Simmons continued, typing, “I was impressed with your attempts at reigning in the budget, I don’t think the system will crack if your family joins.” Georgia was handed a card, every printer was equipped to print them out now, but she didn’t notice. She was putting all of her effort into not crying.
“One thing though, take some money and get a gym membership, try to take a chunk out of the tax bill, okay?”