Self-sufficiency or community effort?

IMG_1646In a job interview this week I was asked about my philosophy on self-sufficiency programs.  The interviewer was referring to public aid.  I spoke without thinking based on assumptions I have held for years, and then I realized that my perspective has changed.  It is far more nuanced than it used to be.

My current job has shed much light on the subject, and life experience has made me wiser.   I still believe, as I told the interviewer, that society is healthier when it provides safety nets for the most vulnerable, and I am very conscious of vulnerability, having lost my physician father and my vibrant yoga teacher at young ages.  I don’t think a society that tosses people aside at the least infirmity is a society at all.

Working at a disability center has shown me another side to the whole issue of public aid.  I meet people who just cannot work because of illness or physical disability, and I meet others who experience a job loss, temporary illness, or divorce, who lose their ground and cannot regain it.  Time stretches on, they lose skills and confidence, and some never get back in the race.

Yet I am most struck by the “invisible disabilities.”  Actually, the term “disability” becomes meaningless because it seems one sees it everywhere.   Personality disorders like narcissism, for example, or a nervous temperament, or alienation stemming from abuse have a profound impact on a person’s work life.   Some people possess undefined cognitive issues that hinder them in the work place, problems they were able to compensate for when they are young, but which trip them up as they age.  Some people may even be affected by birth trauma in ways that are difficult to understand.

I work with people on the staff who have CP, quadraplegia, spina bifida, multiple sclerosis.    Some use a minimum amount of help and make the most of it, while others spend a fair amount of time soliciting and getting all they can.  Why is that?  Is it character?  Personality disorders?  Were some of us taken care of too much so we became overly dependent?  Are these issues even quantifiable or interpretable?  There is so much that is murky.  These days I wonder if that uncle who was a “ne’re do well” had cognitive processing issues that tripped him up.  Or if that college graduate who partied a lot and 15 years later is unemployed might not have experienced sexual or physical abuse and have post-traumatic stress disorder.   If that terribly shy person did not experience secure attachment with his mother and can’t get his feet on the ground.

While character and discipline are part of the discussion when it comes to work engagement, these other issues do exist, and an individual often becomes ashamed and defensive, or tells herself a story about how the world is unfair or how she is a “waste case.”  I’ve seen people who cheat, or lie, and that troubles me, but now I see how even those behaviors can come from a poor family that has used those strategies to survive.

I draw two conclusions on this subject of aid.   One is that hidden trauma can cause disordered thinking, excessive shyness or anger, or lack of confidence.  An individual cannot regulate her nervous system and develops an addiction.  My second conclusion is that discipline and integrity are as important as ever.  The people who come to work with us in our center are generally inclined to the expectation to be willing to learn new things, to change, to receive support and make the most of it.   We expect each other to be honest.

For some reason, public aid is a painful subject for me.  Probably because it appears that some of our social supports are being drawn away.  I have had my own work struggles, my own year of unemployment, and after working in a poorer community with people with disabilities, I have seen even more vulnerability.  Perhaps my discomfort stems from how deeply I believe the whole society is healthier when we provide help:  We cannot take social programs for granted, and yet I think we have done so.

These days the rich are getting richer, and the social aid systems seem antiquated and underfunded.  I think we have to start where we are and care for each other, build sustainable communities, find work for people who can do something no matter how small or easy.  I believe we people at the ground level will develop sustainable communities, if we consult our hearts.

In reading Yes! magazine, I came across a story about a Canadian man who suffered a severe neck injury and had a hard time finding a job that would accommodate his need for shorter shifts and frequent doctor appointments.  A non-profit agricultural operation hired him on flexible terms.  The organization provides work for many people who face barriers to employment.  It received loans and financing from a Canadian Credit Union that funnels a portion of its earnings to charitable giving and to building up the social economy in Canada.

This magazine details many such instances of co-operative ventures, of social economics, of businesses embracing low-income folks or those who have experienced life setbacks. We need to build a new social economy, a new social “safety net.”  It’s good to see the effort to help those in need is addressed by businesses, communities, and innovative programs, not just the government.  People working together are a big part of the solution.  They are the green shoots in the Spring of a cultural shift.

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