A friend was putting together an issue for an online magazine. The theme: “work.”
“All I do is write about work for an agency questioning whether people can work,” I told them.
We agreed I’d submit something. I sent an email that I’ve now given a title:
How Do You Make It Work?
I’m writing this much later than I should be, in part, because I’ve just had another birthday, and as I age, I become more reluctant to do more than one job. In school, I had a full-time job, up to three gigs that recurred from regularly to rarely, plus a full-time course load. I do not wish this on anyone, and how normal this has become at present is a disgrace.
Now, middle-aged and far less able to run purely on spite, my one job is to decide who has the ability to do at least one job: I make disability determinations for the Social Security Administration.
I wish Studs Terkel were still alive, and could tell you about this work, tell the stories of the lives of others in the most humanizing way, and to let the decency of folks speak for itself. Instead, I only have my voice, to tell stories of false starts at dignity and hard stops at livelihood due to disease, injury, and trauma. All I’ve had to contend with is the question of how to live well when you start off with nothing. The people asking me for help in my capacity as a government agent are trying to make do with even less.
People even older than me, despite having had to work much, much less, would yell things like “Get a job!” instead of making any earnest attempt to articulate why they’re annoyed, but the cranks in my cohort have been fond of telling others to “learn to code.” These are people with access, born in the right time and place, lucky enough to have supportive families — or at least their supportive finances — and to have avoided major bodily and psychic injury. With two of each limb, a pair of ears and eyes, intact executive function, an immune system not too busy attacking itself, few pathogens of consequence, and relatively dormant ghosts in their heads, “learn to code” could very well seem like sound advice to these ghouls.
Do they offer the same panacea, to “learn to code,” for people earning second-percentile scores on the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale for matrix reasoning, block design, working memory, or processing speed? What would happen if they were to experience crisis themselves? Do they expect to pull their own weight, if, after a traumatic brain injury or stroke, they can no longer organize thoughts or schedules, or else develop an entirely new personality? Do they have someone prepared to take dictation should multiple sclerosis progress to the point that their hands and feet contract and curl involuntarily when they’re stressed, and their fingers can no longer be coerced into using a keyboard?
What happens when you cannot work for a living? Do you have family to support, stuck in a place that used to have jobs and a downtown, churches, and lawns, before the local government got suckered into giving tax breaks to the company that built the now-dead mall? Do you have enough wealth to pay for the healthcare you need to manage your chronic illness now that you’re out of work and out of coverage from whatever plan the invisible hand determined was best for you — according to your employer?
Are you able to pay for food without thinking about what it costs, without entertaining plans to five-finger-discount Kroger’s “Family of Companies,” which posted $45.2 billion in profit for the first quarter of 2023? Do you really think that tens of billions in profits would suffer if you walked out without paying for the razor cartridges in your basket?
And what if you’re sick forever?
Although some can ask for help without prompting, such moral value is assigned to work that folks often come to me unable to tell their stories because of their feelings of worthlessness and shame. Still, every one of us can talk about the minutiae of our exhausting jobs in exhaustive detail, so asking what someone used to do for a living is typically my only hope of coaxing such people to talk, in many instances for the first time, about why they cannot work. They have to explain their former jobs, sometimes hated, sometimes beloved, but without which, they’re fucked — and frequently they cry, because they are aware of this last fact. They must share details with a stranger otherwise only described to their doctors (although increasingly instead to nurses, physician assistants, naturopaths, psychics, faith healers, and other snake-oil salespersons), about why they can no longer do what had given them some sense of worth. Some have never been able to get or keep jobs because of voices that tell them to do things, or because a childhood of serial abuse has caused them to second- and third-guess themselves silent, or because their blood disorder causes sheer pain for a few days every two to three months, requiring days in hospital beds receiving morphine and transfusions. Those are harder to convince to talk. Still, some don’t want to talk to me at all, because although this is all conducted privately, this process is not kind and the results are hardly rewarding.
Regardless of whether their work exists anymore, people often must pretend that the jobs are still there, and then prove they cannot do them. It doesn’t matter that the manufacturing centers of the United States are referred to as the Rust Belt, that their job has been shipped somewhere that does not require the board or their boss to abide minimum wage, child-labor, or occupational health-and-safety standards (and that has a much cheaper labor pool than Missouri!). It doesn’t matter that tech and greed continue to erase work for human beings; these human beings still have to show that they can’t perform their now-imaginary former job’s tasks. Compounding the humiliation, if the stranger evaluating their case selects them for severe destitution by denying their claim rather than marginal subsistence by awarding their claim, these humans are presented nonsensical rationale supported by a Department of Labor publication that hasn’t been updated since 1991, and the testimony of professional witnesses relying simply on their “professional experience.” The results are often absurd, and perhaps the spirit of 1991 has a laugh knowing someone was denied because they are not too sick to be a microfilm mounter, elevator operator, dowel inspector, or addresser.
All day at work, it’s pain and humiliation — largely that of others — and knowing that the folks who I am able to help remain in poverty regardless. Feel free to remind your dad next Thanksgiving that the notion that anyone bilks the system is belied by the fact that the average payment for disability insurance benefits is less than $1,400 a month, with an additional $600 or so for whoever qualifies for supplemental security income. Depending on your locality, it might just cover rent — but not rent and food, clothing, or medical care, or transportation to medical care. Luxuries like childcare, recreation, and travel are out of the question. No one on the rolls compares to Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” bogeyman. That idea belongs in the same heap as “learn to code.”
Yet, while the job can be awful and seemingly futile at times, some of the people I get to meet will have better health coverage and access to care than they would otherwise, and some will become eligible for contingent benefits from their home state or city to assist with stable housing, home upkeep, or benefits for their children. I have my hand on the scale now, so I can jump through fewer hoops, save some time otherwise wasted on smoke and mirrors, and extend some help to people in need.
Though I’ve reached hair-level with the glass ceiling for agency jobs available to my social class, and — unless the US abolishes tuition or the government adopts an employee tuition-reimbursement program — I cannot afford any more education, the pay is fine. I only have to work one job, which I never saw coming. I don’t have to rely on my shoplifting expertise anymore and can eat what I want. I get to question and discuss policy from within, take bureaucrats to task, support my colleagues in the three unions with members in the agency, and do work that doesn’t involve distributing more wealth to some rich, megalomaniac failson.
But I could use more collaborators.
Edited by Sarah Madges.
The header image was created from the poster "It works ...when you can't / U.S. Dept. of Health, Education and Welfare, Social Security Administration" (1965), Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. The image adjascent to the author's bio is "Causmonauts Heaven" by SKoparov.