Friday, September 19, 2014

Documentaries, Entitlement and Hurt Feelings

I have always been a fan of documentaries but I have to be in the right mood.  Most documentaries are just flat-out depressing (see Waiting for Superman, The Cove, basically anything from Morgan Spurlock or Michael Moore….) yet I find myself drawn to them.  HBO has a great series of documentaries and I most recently watched what was an actual uplifting and heart-warming film called Miss You Can Do It.  It does have some bits and pieces that were sad, but the overall focus and message was really nice.  But that’s not why we’re today.  I want to talk about a different HBO documentary, Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert.

This one left a bad taste I my mouth…more so than the typical downtrodden story featuring a sad soul.  This one didn’t leave me depressed, it left me angry.  Angry at the producer and a bit miffed at the story’s protagonist.  Now I try really hard not to be judgmental, but sometimes it happens anyway.  If this woman’s story is really what the producer thinks is an accurate representation of a single, American woman who is living paycheck to paycheck, then Mrs. Arnold Schwarzenegger is so far out of touch with reality, it’s a bit sad.  Did this woman featured in this film have it easy?  Oh, hell no….she worked for living and was raising three children with little help from their father….there are plenty of women that live that same struggle.  She had a mediocre paying job and aspirations of returning to school to get a degree.  So….where’s my problem?  Some of the choices just didn’t seem to jive with someone who truly is what is referred to as the “working poor”.  She chose to have pets, which is a luxury.  Yes, she had to sell the puppy she bought for her kids, but perhaps that was a pet that would’ve have been best placed somewhere else to begin with if it wasn’t an addition she could afford to support.  She also didn’t bother to spay her cat, which was routinely let outside… of course came the kittens (which she shooed outside in the rainy cold…she lost BIG points with me on that one).  Her children drank soda rather than water or milk.  She opted to spend quite a bit at the salon (for her birthday) after getting what was likely a very hefty tax refund (thanks earned income credit!) rather than paying off bills like she intended (*please note, the part about not paying off her bills as she intended was implied by the content of the program but never stated as fact.  If she did, in fact, pay off those bills in addition to her salon indulgence, well, kudos to her!).  I could go on and on, but I digress.  She was lucky enough to qualify for subsidized child care, which enabled her to work but beyond that, it didn’t appear as though she was receiving any other public assistance.  She and her family had a home, she had a car and there was always food on the table.

This brings me to point number two….according to

identity theft  <noun>

: the illegal use of someone else's personal identifying information (such as a Social Security number) in order to get money or credit

fraud <noun> \ˈfrȯd\

: the crime of using dishonest methods to take something valuable from another person

: a person who pretends to be what he or she is not in order to trick people

How does one segue from a documentary about living paycheck to paycheck to identity theft and fraud?  Well, when you find yourself living paycheck to paycheck, or worse, where is the line between doing something legally ambiguous out of a perceived need and breaking the law?  Let’s talk in generalities and see where it goes…..

Public assistance is a hot button issue for a lot of people.  I do not judge, this is one subject where my attitude is “mind my business”.  I’ve been on public assistance.  At the ripe of old age of 18, I found myself pregnant and working a part time job that didn’t qualify me for health insurance.  Before the dawn of Health Care Reform (a.k.a. ObamaCare or whatever catch phrase you know it by), once you turned 18, if you weren’t a full time student, you were booted off of your parents’ health insurance.  As a newly formed adult, what did I know about health insurance….what did I care about it?  Until I turned up knocked up.  Earning minimum wage ($4.25 at the time) is only an advantage when you need public assistance.  My wages were low enough for me to qualify for the Wisconsin Healthy Start program and with that, came state health insurance.  I didn’t have to pay anything for the coverage and I had no out of pocket expenses for any of my medical care as long as I found a doctor that accepted the plan.  After the boy was born, we were eligible to remain on that insurance as well as receive food benefits through Women, Infants and Children, or WIC.  WIC is a little different than traditional food stamps, or SNAP benefits as they are known today.  WIC provided me with checks that were pre-printed with food items rather than a monetary value.  I had a list of WIC approved foods and brands I could select from and, as long as I shopped at stores that accepted it, things like cereal, cheese, milk and juice were compliments of the state.  I was appreciative and after a shopping trip or two, I got over my false pride and felt no shame in using those checks.  When my little family was in better financial shape and eligible for health insurance through work, it was a seamless transition off of public assistance and I feel incredibly fortunate to have never needed it again.  I will never look down on anyone who needs public assistance.  I see memes and online heated comments like “So you need food stamps but you got yourself a new iPhone and Gucci purse”.  Yeah, well, you have no idea what that person’s circumstances were or are at the present.  Things tend to snowball and can go downhill fast, financially speaking.  What was once middle class can turn into the edge of the poverty level in a matter of months – why should they give up the nice things that they previously worked so hard to purchase?  Again…not the exact point of my rant, so….I digress.

Back to those dictionary definitions cited above.  Where is that line?

You’re living in an apartment you can just barely afford but the school system in your area leaves a lot to be desired.  Your aunt lives in a neighboring suburb with schools rated in the top of the state.  So, you say you’re living at her address in order for your kid to attend those elite suburban schools.  Your aunt thinks it’s great and she’s glad to be able to help.  Who’s gonna know….you aren’t hurting anyone, after all….are you?

You find yourself working a job that you love but it doesn’t pay very well.  To help make ends meet, you do a little cleaning on the side and the guy you clean for is more than happy to pay in cash.  That way, he isn’t technically your employer, you don’t have to claim that additional income for tax purposes….it’s a win-win, right?

You lose your job through no fault of your own and immediately fall ill to a chronic disease.  Your spouse has a job but it’s only part time, doesn’t pay much and you don’t qualify for health insurance.  Because you technically aren’t “able” to work, you can’t collect unemployment compensation.  Thankfully, you qualify for government insurance for yourself, your spouse and your child but what about living expenses?  Although you meet the financial criteria for the health insurance, you “make too much money” to quality for SNAP food benefits.  Your mother has been retired for some time and she’s doing just fine, financially, but not well enough to help out.  She suggests that you say that she is living with you, just so you have another qualifying household member because her meager social security is little enough so that you would then be able to collect SNAP food benefits.  You get the financial help you so desperately need, your mom offered, there’s no harm in that… there?

Your car just completely died.  You have no savings and your credit is in the toilet.  Your kid, who is 24, has held a steady job and has excellent credit and will never know if you get a car loan in her name.  I mean, you’re going to pay the bill every month, you can afford it, you just can’t get the credit on your own.  She’ll never know so you’re really not doing anything wrong….are you?

Let’s put another spin on all of those.  Let’s say that your aunt doesn’t know that you’re using her address to send your kid to that suburban school.  And your friend doesn’t know that you aren’t reporting that money he pays you to clean his house as income, because he uses it as a tax write off on his taxes as a business expense since he works from home.  You never bothered to tell you mom that you reported her as a member of your household in order to qualify for public assistance.  Your daughter has a membership to a credit monitoring service and knows exactly when you got that car loan in her name.

Does all of that make those scenarios feel a little different?  I’ll bet so.  But ultimately, they are the same.  It’s all fraud (and/or identity theft) and it’s all illegal.  If you put the “down on your luck/doing what you have to do” spin on things, you can make anything sound legitimate or at least excusable.  But let’s extrapolate further….

What happens when the district finds out that your child doesn’t live at the address on his enrollment form?  When your aunt has had enough of your mail coming to her house, she takes it upon herself to call the school and “correct” their mistake.  Now what?  Now you have to not only explain yourself but find you kid a new school to go to.  Or when that guy gets audited and shows proof that he’s been paying you to clean his house, he’s cleared and gets to the business of relieving you of your duties and all it has cost him was the time and aggravation of the audit.  But where does that leave you, legally?  Your mom cashed out her retirement account, had to file a tax return and now the government has sent her a notice that she was overpaid for public assistance benefits that she now has to pay back.  She’s confused and now, after speaking with the agency, really angry at you for using her name.  You fall behind on that car loan and now the collection agency has been harassing your daughter, threatening wage garnishment.

In all of those situations, not only are you legally in the wrong, you have hurt your family and friends in a way that is near irreparable.  Was it worth it?  Did you honestly believe that it would all go unnoticed and no one would ever be the wiser?  Maybe sometimes people do get away with that kind of activity but the only person they end up cheating is themselves.  Always having to be vigilant to maintain whatever façade they have built, probably to the point of believing it themselves.  I have to believe that people who take advantage like that have developed a skewed sense of entitlement.  Almost like whatever they are doing to get that end result was warranted because they deserve it.
Well, I can only hope that karma is real because I really do try and maintain that “mind my business” outlook.  I try and stay on the right path, as difficult as that can be sometimes.  I obey the law….ok, so sometimes I speed and don’t wear my seatbelt….but otherwise….ok, sometimes I throw a plastic bottle in the trash.  You get what I mean, right?

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