In my social work I’m constantly realizing how much trust is required from society, and it’s a lot. The people I support and motivate have experienced such hardships and traumas that many find it hard to trust in others, trust in the many different systems and networks that society takes for granted.
For example, I’m reflecting on the person I accompanied to a mandated health appointment earlier today. The city government requires this person to attend this appointment. If the person misses the appointment, they will most likely find their public assistance entitlements discontinued next month. So much of this person’s life operates in this manner- reacting to mandates and directives, to receive the meager $90 cash per 2 weeks. I asked the person what they think about getting a bank account, and the reply I got was distrust, the fear that once they get a bank account the federal government could end up tracking how their money was used and have an excuse to discontinue their entitlements, the anxiety that banks can control their money. It’s acceptable to think that the average American has a bank account to handle their finances, but there is a hidden reality in these neighborhoods and communities that often get overlooked, and I realize that when I consider that almost all clients I came to assist in my social work career do not have a bank account.
Senator Bernie Sanders has said something to the effect of, “it costs a lot of money to be poor in America.” In my everyday work, I see how true this is. The thing is, when you don’t have a bank account, you will find yourself subject to all sorts of charges and fees to be able to manage and spend your money.
There are people who receive their Supplemental Security Income (SSI) via their debit card. To turn some of that into cash, they have to go to an ATM machine or a check cashing store, both of which charge fees for each and every withdrawal transaction. When making online or phone bill payments, there are service fees for card charges, and this can be very costly. There’s an online company called ClickPay which enables tenants to make rent payments to their landlord online and if they make a payment with anything other than a bank checking account, there’s a service fee, which is 3.5% of the amount paid. So if someone makes a rent payment of $203 with their SSI debit card, they also have to pay an additional $7.10 because of the service fee. When they make payments to Con Edison utility company to pay their electric bills, there’s a $3.35 service fee for making payments with anything else other than a bank checking account.
There are many reasons a person can’t or won’t have a bank account, and the inability to trust in a financial system or institution is something I have witnessed as one of the most common reasons. Poverty and low income itself is a huge barrier. To start a bank account, you first need money. Capital One Bank for example requires a deposit of $50 start a checking account. For some people, especially someone like my client who has to survive on $90 per two weeks, that is an unaffordable expense.
There’s someone else on my caseload who can’t afford to have an active phone service. I had been assisting for the person to obtain phone service of some kind and in the meanwhile the person was anxious and worried about their son who lives out of state. They wanted to get in touch with the son. I offered for them to use my office phone to contact the son, but they declined, saying they were worried some hacker or government agent could have bugged the phone.
It’s probably easy to think this behavior as paranoia and crazy, but I had a different reaction. I saw how vulnerable we allow ourselves to be so we can live and communicate in our everyday lives. It’s not wrong in this day and age to believe that our phone conversations are monitored and tracked. I mean, not the content of phone conversations, but between which numbers and the duration, that’s definitely tracked, and we don’t and can’t really know who is tracking all that data.
The person being unable to use my office phone in their lives have often been considered as delusional. The person values privacy much more than the average person and it seems crazy to us. But perhaps my thinking is that society itself is kind of crazy for requiring us to give up so much of our privacy and allow ourselves to be so vulnerable.
Engaging with people when they exhibit these kinds of “delusions” is definitely an interesting social work challenge. I think the most important thing is to consider their perspectives genuinely and not be judgmental.
With the person afraid that my phone line was bugged, I reflected, “so you’re concerned that someone might be listening in on your phone conversation when you call your son.”
The person affirmed this concern and explained that their son may be in some trouble and they didn’t want to accidentally make the son’s problems worse by allowing someone hacked into the phone to track the son down. My focus then turned away from the issue of the phone and I redirected it towards what they wanted to do for their son. In that way, what appeared as paranoid delusions was actually love and concern for their son, and anxiety and stress over not having been able to communicate with their son in a long time.
This isn’t me saying to dismiss their mental health diagnoses. The symptoms are clearly there and apparent. Even if they don’t believe it, I can see how and why the person was diagnosed that way. But this is me just adding onto that, to say, hold on, let’s not base our interactions on what their diagnoses are, but on actively and genuinely listening to their stories and their concerns, like we do with anyone else in our lives.
It’s not easy though. I’m often so surprised to learn and learn again and again and again the things in my life that I take for granted, the systems and network I trust without a second thought. My life is in a lot of ways so different from the lives of people I’m to assist and support so I have to make efforts to try to see things from their perspectives while inserting my own insights to hopefully better guide and motivate them in their lives. It doesn’t always work out well, and it can be very frustrating. Again, I end up reflecting that it takes a lot of trust – maybe too much at times – to live “normally” in this society.