OWS and Demanding Your Benefits as an Act of Protest
Two of the big issues I've been hearing about from the Occupy movement are student loan debt and health care. I don't want to reduce the Occupy movements to these issues, but they're important ones and not just because the health care system in America is inadequate, or because students loans as they are now have the potential to be staggeringly burdensome. They're important because the legal and administrative structure of student loan repayment and social health care don't reflect the bureaucratic realities of these systems. In political discourse, the social benefits are discussed in their theoretical, structural implementation. A politician can say, in a sense truthfully, that in Massachusetts we already have socialized health care for the lowest income families and individuals, and that that health care is pretty good; a politician can claim, also in a sense truthfully, that student loans are structured in such a way that repayment should never be burdensome, and that there are repayment plans, forbearances and deferments that allow those with very low incomes to pay nothing on their student loans without going into default.
Theoretically, structurally, both these arguments are correct. Underemployed and unemployed residents of Massachusetts are eligible for MassHealth, and once enrolled in the program, the benefits are quite good. Similarly, forbearances and deferments are available for student loans when the debtor experiences financial hardship, and the income contingent and income based repayment plans have cutoff points— minimum incomes below which the debtor's payments drop to zero while still being considered in repayment. Right now, my family of three (wife and a three-year-old daughter) has an income in the form of student loans and a generous stipend from my graduate program that is considerably less than twenty thousand dollars a year. My health insurance is covered by my school, but my wife and daughter are both on MassHealth. My wife and I are both in “repayment” of our student loans, with monthly payments of zero. We are poster-children for the theoretical success of social health care and generous repayment plans for student loans.
The problem, of course, is that the theoretical structures do not overlap with the bureaucratic realities of either of these systems. My wife and I were trained and coached in detail by an excellent loan counselor at our undergraduate college about our repayment options, and how to advocate for ourselves in the repayment system. When we confronted the bureaucracy of repayment, the information we received was often contradictory, often wrong. We were told, wrongly, several times that we had not submitted the necessary information to change our repayment plan. We resubmitted information half a dozen times. We would call the student loan office and have a representative tell us “to ignore” the information displayed about our account online. We were assured that we were in the correct repayment plan by one representative, only to continue receiving bills and be told that we hadn't finished our application by another. It took us months to get into the repayment plan we're in now, and we still devote a few minutes each month to maintenance on our accounts, to make sure we're in the right program, to make sure we don't owe anything.
It's the same with MassHealth. Three years ago, when our daughter was born, I submitted and resubmitted copies of her birth certificate, her social security card, my income. A representative would tell me that my daughter was covered, and two days later we would receive a rejection letter. This summer, after returning from China where I taught for the past two years, we had to re-enroll, and it was the same process all over again. We applied, and we were sent a rejection letter. We called about the rejection letter, and discovered that all they wanted was another document to prove my income. We submitted the document and received a rejection letter that told us we earned too much to qualify for benefits (three people on less than twenty thousand dollars, remember). We called about the rejection letter and were told that it was our fault, that we didn't submit the document in time. We called back six times just trying to get through and waited on hold for two hours only to find that we had submitted the document in time, but that the person who received it didn't bother to change our status in the database. The problem was corrected, and two days later we received another rejection letter telling us we earned too much. We called back and were told to ignore that letter. Finally, after months of this frustrating back and forth, my wife and daughter received their MassHealth cards in the mail.
We look at a government website, and even when it seems absurd for us to do so, we have a strong impulse to trust it. We trust the website when it tells us that we don't qualify for a program, or that we're enrolled in a program. We look at a rejection letter from MassHealth, dense with text, explaining to us that we make too much money to get benefits. We have an impulse to trust it. But the letter is lying. The website is lying. And if we want our benefits, we have to assume that letters, websites and government representatives are all misinformed or lying. We have to bash our heads against the bureaucratic wall over and over and over again before we get through.
It shouldn't be this hard for people to claim their benefits, and the difficulties involved belie a vast disparity between the theoretical access to our government's most generous social programs and the reality of that access. My wife and I were trained to fight, not just by a devoted, professional loan counselor, but by our fairly privileged, white middle-class families who never doubted that the government should exist for their benefit, and who had been trained by their parents to advocate for themselves. What do we do about families who have good reason, like our country's history of racism, to doubt whether the government exists for their benefit? What do we do about families who have good reason, like our country's history of social Darwinism, to doubt whether their advocacy will be efficacious? I'm glad that I was trained to fight, but nobody should have to fight their government for social welfare. The fact that we have to fight our government for access to social welfare means that this theoretical social welfare shouldn't be invoked by politicians as a feather in their cap.
But it is being invoked that way, and that's at least partially responsible for the absurdity of contemporary political dialog about social welfare. Politicians can point to the theoretical structure and talk about how generous it is, how it might even be too generous. Meanwhile, low income students and families are defaulting on their student loans and going without health insurance because the systems that should exist to facilitate them actually thwart and confuse them. The lack of communication, whether by design or incompetence, is maddening.
“We're already so helpful to the poor,” says the politician.
“But we can barely feed my family, and we don't qualify as poor!” say the poor.
“Of course you do! Look at the structure,” says the politician.
“Then why were we rejected?!” demand the poor.
“It must be an error,” says the politician.
But the error is not addressed, and meanwhile the discourse moves on towards how to cut this already “too generous” program of social welfare, this program so generous that it is costing the nebulously-defined middle class too much.
And this is why claiming your benefits can be a form of protest— not the only form of protest, and not a form of protest that backs down from the demand that more people should have access to these benefits or that these benefits should be improved. But it's a form of protest that attempts to use the theoretical, somewhat illusory discourse of the State against itself. “If you offer these benefits,” we should say, “then we demand to receive them.” We need not only to fight for our benefits, but to teach the people around us how to fight for theirs as well. We don't need only those culturally empowered for advocacy to fight for their benefits— we need to empower all who are eligible to fight for their benefits.
There's a looming question, I might add, behind this form of protest. What happens if everyone who is eligible for health care gets it? What happens if everyone who is eligible to pay nothing on their student loans pays nothing? Does our government budget for the reality of their theoretical generosity? Imagine millions more on health care, millions more with relief from student loan debt, millions who fought to claim what the government offered them but the bureaucracy denied them. In their current paradigm, can the government afford such a thing? And if they can't, would they dare wrest those benefits from the hands of millions of citizens newly empowered to fight bureaucracy?
There's only one way to find out.
Christopher Michael Luna is a Contributing Writer for The Propagandist