In many ways, Frederick County, Maryland represents the Median of America. It extends from the DC Metropolitan area to the countryside which is intersected by the Catoctin Mountain Range. Culturally, there is an overlap of the South, the Appalachia, the Mid-Atlantic and the growing influence of the Capital region. Frederick is home to many immigrant communities. Frederick is an hour away from DC and Baltimore; five major interstate highways intersect here. There is farmland and sprawling suburbia, industry and commerce, as well as our famous Downtown with the Clustered Spires, that has been visited by many foreign leaders, on the way to Camp David.
Our county is rapidly developing — people from the DC Metropolitan Area move to Frederick County for cheaper real estate and lower cost of living. Resulting increase in rent affects Frederick’s native population that doesn’t enjoy the levels of income that are available in the Capital.
Frederick experiences an extreme shortage of affordable housing. For this reason, our county is a home to a growing and extremely underrepresented poor and homeless population, which is served by an oversized, yet dysfunctional welfare system.
Being poor in Frederick (I live here for 19 years) is like being an Indian, waiting to be driven out West to clear the land for a more profitable population to take over. This is not done by guns, as before, yet by the increasing cost of living, more intense policing in poor neighborhoods and by the unreliable welfare system.
Our Municipal and County welfare system receives federal and state grants, sustained by taxes, private donations, as well as grants from the development and gentrification lobby entities such as the Frederick Community Foundation. Those entities successfully walk our welfare leaders in circles, weakening our safety net.
Our Mayor O’Connor understands the problem deeply — in December of 2019, he asked a very corrupt director of the Frederick Community Action Agency to resign.
The mayor receives complaints from all sides: homeless people loitering and driving real estate value down, complaints about excessive policing, concerns of the citizens who speak up for the disadvantaged. He understands that he may be blamed for not solving the problem of impoverishment and homelessness. Yet the surrounding establishment isn’t always cooperative, as their material interests reside over the urgency to help the needy.
After meeting with our mayor on several occasions, I understood how much of a cultural problem it really is. Non-profiteers maintain their parental roles as ‘givers’, yet this comes at a great cost to society: ‘receivers’ are trained into learned helplessness and discouraged from raising to more responsible roles, where they can become productive and contributing members of society and attain their highest creative potential.
Welfare directors are self-congratulatory, they like the local newspaper to print pictures of them planting trees or feeding hungry children. Beneath this bluff, hides the face that poor welfare users see every day: rudeness of lower-level staff and volunteers, suppression of user feedback, inefficiency and embezzlement.
As the gap between rich and poor in America is increasing, the volunteers no longer represent the poor population, as it takes more and more resources to dedicate oneself to uncompensated work. (This gap could be healed by barter economy, yet tax laws limit barter — I will write more about this in the future.) Volunteer — governed boards fall into the hands of pro-gentrification forces and no longer defend the interests of poor clients.
It also seems like there are too many of those welfare-affiliated organizations and too often, after they spend most of their budget on rent, insurance and salaries for the staff, very little money remains for the programs themselves. This appears to be a cultural problem, as directors are expected to receive an upper-middle class wage with benefits, while the poor are expected to get breadcrumbs and to be grateful. Lower-level staff, often composed of people with lived experience, also receive very little pay or recognition. The gap between rich and poor within the welfare sector itself, certainly doesn’t make it more efficient.
I have a great concern that if Bernie Sanders were to become a President of the United States and money would start pouring into welfare, most of it would remain at the top, as it happens right now, alleviating the poverty of those on the bottom of the pyramid only slightly. Concerned taxpayers will react and everything will return to where it is right now, with the election of another Republican president.
Federal law requires all construction thermal insulation to be labeled with a thermal coefficient ‘R’, in order to protect buyers from commercial trickery. Can we do the same to prevent non-profit trickery that costs us so much in taxes and in human lives, making our safety net so unreliable?
Can we measure how much money is spent on wages vs. how much money is spent on programs and mandate that each welfare-affiliated organization has to publish this ratio next to their name? (Some of them may need to be dissolved.)
Can we also require state grant-receiving non-profits to publish the income gap ratio between their lowest-paid and their highest-paid employee?
Otherwise, pathetic pictures of cute kittens, puppies and starving children would always be used to manipulate donors, politicians and voters, while our taxes would always be feeding swarms of not-so-hungry directors with their $70K+ salaries.
In America, you see “fat free” written on the bags of sugar and “sugar free” written on the cans of lard. Is it surprising that the leaders of our welfare-affiliated non-profits tend to behave similarly?
This is my warning to America: I see a deeper cultural problem that cannot be addressed only from the top-down by a miracle worker Executive figure. We already tried that in the past. There has to be a grassroots movement for a more egalitarian welfare system to emerge. A set of good metrics and economic coefficients can aid in deeper analysis of the current situation.
Collectively, tax-guzzling, welfare-affiliated non-profit directors and higher-level staff are fighting to protect their socioeconomic privileges from people like myself. None of them would listen to a person of a lower social strata, who is unhappy with the services or proposes reforms. Influential welfare directors, priests and local officials create events for themselves, where only they can speak, occasionally allowing few promoted clients to read pre-approved compliments.
The most notorious of such events is the Annual Martin Luther King Dinner:
Camera flashes illuminate the faces of our generous “Community Leaders” every few seconds as they speak in coined phrases about “diversity in our community”. There are hardly any black people among them.
Another example is “Frederick Goes Purple”, an opioid awareness event. Poor opioid users are not a part of the preparation. Neither do they receive any extra attention or care from the establishment due to this event, as the true purpose of the event is PR for the priests and directors who organized it. Poor mayor is expected to sign off on such projects as there is no opposition.
One day I walked with an opioid-dependent young man who suffers from chronic pain, (as do I) in Downtown Frederick and he asked me why all those purple lights were strung on the government and charity buildings in February, as Christmas celebration was over. I told him about the other face of our social service system, one that exists for display and for the press; the face that never greets him, as a poor client. I only know this face because I am an activist.
When it comes to grant distribution, our dear non-profiteers do not play well together at all. They compete for grants, as private enterprises compete for contracts. Grants come with Conditions of Award, which often require numbers that show how many people were served. Yet there is no incentive to measure client satisfaction or positive outcomes.
Meanwhile, peer recovery centers could benefit a lot from consensual methods of documenting positive outcomes. Such organizations have a hard time proving their usefulness in the system that values easily obtainable numbers. Despite the burden of scientific evidence that peer support helps people recover and the commitment of peers, peer support remains underappreciated and underfunded. There is a fear within the establishment that peer support will lead to a new Civil Rights movement. For this reason, we encounter a lot of roadblocks as middle-class non-profiteers are too afraid that we would no longer not need them to feed us.
There are too many over-inflated egos in the sphere of social services and they block out the Sun, preventing the grassroots solutions from springing up.
Many thriving welfare services resemble a cattle drive: herding clients through and counting heads becomes a priority that the services are optimized for. All welfare nonprofits have to play by similar rules and the despotic director that our mayor asked to step down, was proficient at playing this game of numbers.
There are two more metrics that could help optimize our welfare and healthcare here in Frederick County, Maryland, as well as in the entire United States of America:
1) How many clients have given up, knowing how difficult it would be to obtain a service.
2) How many clients went on another loop, out of despair. (very important in the mental health world)
These may be guidelines of the World Health Organization — I could not confirm that.
Please write in the comment section, if you know their origin.
I tried to suggest the implementation of the two metrics at various meetings, on multiple occasions and received a lukewarm welcome every time. I have spoken about counting cases 1) and especially 2) against the regular headcount, in order to improve the quality of services. This could help decrease the loopiness that an average client experiences, as well as operational costs. Such metrics would also create an incentive to help clients achieve self-sufficiency and graduate from the programs and into productive life.
How can we expect people to recover if the system itself is so loopy?
I also suggested that our County could obtain vital feedback by making follow up phone calls and asking clients of the 211 phone services about their experience and the usefulness of the advice that they were given. Once again, it felt like I was speaking to a brick wall every time.
It is difficult to attend all the meetings that govern our welfare system. They happen in different locations, usually during work hours. (This prevents poor, especially working poor citizens who don’t have a car from attending them.) Transportation between welfare services is also a serious challenge that many poor people experience on a daily basis.
I suspect that the problems that I had described are nationwide. If I am right, I expect national support. I have enough material to write a book on this subject.
If some municipality organizes a welfare system too well, a migrating population of poor people from other areas would take advantage of it, shifting public opinion about welfare in the other direction. Perhaps, prioritizing clients who had lived in Frederick County for some years would serve, if we happen to resolve our welfare crisis.
I believe that if our society demanded more vocally, that those who become our welfare directors were to behave as humble servants of the public, we would not have a crisis of the welfare system right now. It would also increase the performance of our safety net during a national emergency, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
Currently, there is no place for client feedback in Frederick County welfare system. I have learned how to leverage for attention in order to survive and soon I may be ready to teach this life-saving skill. I had to reach a level of recovery and courage to become so outspoken — this cannot be expected of a guilt-ridden welfare user, such as myself, three years ago.
As a survivor, do I have to chase after our “community leaders” and directors to tell them how to make the system less traumatizing? Or should I make some of them resign their comfy positions, sending a humbling message to others? Only the responsibility for collateral damage prevents me from actively taking down heads.
I have supporters. They range from homeless to executives, yet we are vastly outnumbered. Poor people are afraid to speak out about the system that they depend on for their survival. Executives have to play by the Machiavellian laws of their realm. Thus, it may appear as I am the only one who is bewildered by what I witness in Frederick County.
My drawing was inspired by the attendance of various local government meetings.
#nonprofit #communityservice #volunteer
#socialwork #socialworker #mentalhealth #socialworkers #socialworkerlife