Guest Opinion

These days, the Arizona Department of Economic Security is not fulfilling its mission

They want you to give up and leave," someone shouted recently at a Tucson Arizona Department of Economic Security office. Those hopeful of receiving benefits and the chair-swiveling number-callers both seemed justifiably indignant. The language was R-rated, and the mood was bleak.

The Arizona Department of Economic Security's Web site includes text that reads, "Every child, adult and family ... will be safe and economically secure." That is a bold statement, to say the least.

It was my fourth such trip to the showdown, and it was as fruitless as the previous three occasions. I worked full-time as an AmeriCorps VISTA member. I gave an entire year of my life to fighting poverty through work with underserved populations. I could easily earn four times the amount of the stipend paid by the federal government. A component of the VISTA program is living in poverty; the government puts members in that position to feel the effects of poverty, to relate to those we serve. The work of AmeriCorps members is a necessity, especially when considering the current state of the economy.

Have you ever called a business and got the automated-phone run around? "Thank you for calling. Press five for blue. Press star seven for red-blue. Stay on the line for an operator. Thank you for calling. Goodbye." The service provided by DES is very similar, but also includes months of hunger pangs, missed days of work and an infinite amount of stress-inducing questions such as, "When can we get groceries?" and "What's your case number?" and "What number are they on?"

My foray into this obstacle-filled, ulcer-laden land began in October 2008. About one month into my term, pride gave way to hunger, and ego gave way to understanding. With my head down and my heart heavy, I walked into a DES office. Two hours later, I realized that I didn't have enough time for a two-hour lunch break and returned to the office.

According to every piece of DES-related literature that I've read, each applicant is guaranteed a response within 30 days. About 45 days after faxing in my application, I'd only received calluses on my fingers from checking the mailbox 15 times a day. Eventually, a letter arrived. It said my window to receive benefits had closed. "You knew about the 30 day window. You should have called us."

One month later, I reapplied. At that appointment, case worker "Jacob" intimated that within two weeks, I'd have a food-stamps card. I knew it wouldn't be that easy. The next five weeks included a new round of callused fingers and many successfully completed, yet ignored faxes. I made calls, mailed pathetic pleas and sent no less than three pigeons. When finally, a female voice answered the DES line, I was shocked into almost a full minute of speechlessness: After hearing my sad tale of empty promises, ramen and water, she provided me with a secret phone number. "We don't deal with the cards here. They're sent from an independent company."

That next call ended very quickly with, "Please enter your card number now." Were they referring to my library card or the very same food-stamps card I'd yet to receive?

It seems that DES does everything possible to give as little as possible to the smallest amount of people. It makes sense: If the process were easier, if they just handed out food and health care to those who need it, then everyone would be healthy and happy. We can't have that.

In fairness, the chair-swivelers have a much tougher job than I'd initially imagined. They are frequently berated and corrected. Their days are filled with screaming children and odorous adults. During my last visit, the entire wait area began chanting the next number to be served, in rhythm. At my counter encounter, I-Hate-My-Job-Lucy laughed at me for not having my new case number, which had not been given to me by mail or phone.

I left that day motivated: That would be the last time I watched doors shut in the faces of hungry children. I decided that some measure of reform must happen. Writing this article was my last act of service as a VISTA member.

"Every child, adult and family ... will be safe and economically secure." I don't know if that's a motto, a mission, a hope or a joke. I do know that it doesn't belong on any Arizona Department of Economic Security materials.