feature image via thebluedolphins.blogspot.com
A few days ago I listened while Francesca, a woman I’ve come to know during a decade of working with criminalized women, ranted about “the bitch” over at the welfare office who refused to give her food stamps. According to Francesca, “the bitch” didn’t believe that Francesca had not received the letter telling her that she needed to re-certify her eligibility. This, I thought, is a systematic problem: Access to vital services typically is tied to having a permanent address. As a consequence, the ability to receive services is linked to a level of financial stability that the people who most need these services are unlikely to have. Since Francesca had not had a secure place to live for over a decade, it’s no surprise that the letter didn’t reach her. But for Francesca, at least at that moment, the systemic problem was not on her mind. Rather, she focused her attention on “the bitch” who, so it seemed to her, wanted Francesca and her children to starve. Never one to hold back, Francesca had “let the bitch know what I thought about her” before she stormed out of the office.
Francesca is a fabulous raconteur and as I listened to her retelling of the food stamp office story I shared her outrage, and probably would have joined her had she proposed a return trip to yell at “the bitch”. But when I had the luxury of some time to think over what she’d told me I realized of course, that the welfare worker had no authority in this matter: However much she liked or disliked, sympathized with or looked down on women like Francesca, she was not authorized to give food stamps to someone who had not re-certified her eligibility.
Over the years Francesca has confronted two other “bitches” in my presence. One was a hospital nurse who “refused to let me see the doctor.” The other was a parole officer who told her that if she didn’t keep up restitution payments on an old crime committed by her ex-husband she would be sent to jail. Both times Francesca barraged the “bitches” with pleading, tears and finally curses. I don’t know if they felt fear, anger or shame (probably a combination of all three), but I do know that they are placed in untenable situations like this on a daily basis.
As the public face of social services, they face the despair and rage of people trying to maintain a sense of dignity – albeit sometimes in ways that backfire — in a culture that treats food and housing and freedom as commodities rather than as human rights. Perceived (mistakenly) as the gatekeepers to food, medicine and freedom, the “bitches” Francesca confronts are targets for the anger of hungry, sick, homeless, battered and poor clients who cannot access the help that they need, especially in this era of cutbacks in social services.
In popular culture, “Type A” men drop dead from heart attacks brought on by the stress of their powerful positions. Yet a weighty body of literature shows that the most severe job strain is not characterized by high levels of authority but rather by low levels of authority coupled with high levels of responsibility. Workers tasked with keeping people alive while lacking power over the necessary resources and policies to do so are especially likely to suffer poor health, chronic physical and mental distress, and greater risk of death.
The hundreds of thousands of women who predominate in the lower and middle rungs of the health and social service professions live with the heavy responsibility of granting or denying access to potentially life-saving goods and services to desperate women like Francesca. Deflecting the anger that should be directed at the (usually male, certainly higher paid) policy makers, administrators and supervisors, they are stuck enforcing rules that they have no power to shape or change.
The “bitches” at whom Francesca vents her (righteous) anger are butts of nasty comments about government bureaucrat “fat cats” though they often earn salaries that are barely above minimum wage. As women they most likely carry the double load of paid employment and house / wife / mother work – the impossible task of trying to raise healthy, well-adjusted children in a world of violence, air pollution, aggressive consumerism and 24/7 headsets. It’s likely that they themselves have applied for – and perhaps been denied – food stamps; that they have children or siblings struggling to pay court fees in order to stay out of jail; and that they too can’t get the kind of medical attention that they need.
I’m not sure how I’ll react the next time Francesca blows up at a clerk or a caseworker. I’d like to think that I’ll be able to persuade everyone concerned that the real enemy is not the woman on the other side of the desk but rather the powerbrokers who keep them there. But in truth, I’ll probably be so wracked with feeling both responsible for keeping Francesca in line and powerless to ameliorate her situation that I’ll come down with a migraine.