Original artwork that reads, “Mentally ill is homelessness, believe it!!” with buildings below.
Original artwork titled, “Mentally ill is homelessness, believe it!!” (Rodney Bell)

Many people with disabilities are dependent on government benefits in order to survive. However, the process of acquiring these benefits is nowhere near easy. It can be deeply intimidating, making it feel inaccessible for those who already struggle with disabilities.

At age twenty-five, I was becoming increasingly disabled, and circumstances forced me to apply for Social Security Disability and SSI. I have a psychiat- ric condition. The medication I am mandated to take is responsible for about fifty percent of the disability I experience.

The Social Security Administration periodically reviews the people who receive SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance SSDI) and interviews us us- ing scare tactics so that we will fess up to any money we might have earned or received that would make us ineligible for government benefits.

One intimidating factor is that you have to answer all of their questions “under penalty of perjury.” This immediately produces the fear that we will be jailed if we fail to answer all questions adequately. An additional scare tactic is the threat to cut off our benefits if we do not comply to showing up for the appointment, and if we do not produce all of the records they demand.

And, finally, there are some people in positions of authority who come off as authoritarian, and their very manner produces intimidation.

‘Society should take care of the vulnerable. Instead, the trac- tor wheels of the government plant their giant tread marks on our lives.’

The concept is that Social Security is big, and we are small. We may fear being jailed if we get caught in an inaccuracy. After years of receiving SSDI, I feel that this is intentional on the part of the government. The current system feels akin to a strongarm dictatorship, for those of us who live at the bottom of the economic ladder.

Why bother interviewing us in the first place, if you already have methods of verifying everything? Possibly it is for the purpose of keeping us in our place. Or perhaps it is cheaper and less time consuming when they can get a beneficiary to trip themselves up, rather than Social Security going to the effort of spying on people to find out if they are working under the table. Or, it is easier than making the effort of parsing through all of the banking transactions.

The other entity many of us must deal with is the US department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The local offices of HUD that many renters in California deal with are called “The Housing Authority.” The word, “Authority” by itself is intended to intimidate. If they wanted to have a friendly perception, they could call it “Office of Housing Assistance,” or something of the sort.

The Housing Authority also presumes authority over us. In the process of this, we are almost presumed criminal—as though we are trying to steal money for our own enjoyment, rather than to receive the benefits we need to survive.

This is mostly tangential, but I need to add it: When there are jobs for the disabled, we are given the most humiliating positions, and we receive the most humiliating treatment. This is because of the widespread assumption that the jobs exist merely to fulfill a government mandate in order to make the company feel that they are giving back. In other words, we are presumed to be unable to compete with the main workforce. Consequently, the pay and benefits are not competitive, and we are unable to earn a living.

We are also presumed to be of low intelligence. It is conceivable that some people of high intelligence are disabled, and thus considered unemployable. The presence of a disabling condition is not a good enough reason to assume lack of intellect.

The U.S. government deals with recipients of public benefits as a category, or as a “population,” one that must be threatened in order to keep us down and confine us to an attitude of deference.

The government is classist. And those who are unable to earn big money because we have a disability receive abusive treatment by our government.

Society should take good care of those who have difficulty fending for ourselves. This doesn’t happen. Instead, the tractor wheels of government plant their giant tread marks on our lives.

Jack Bragen is author of “Revising Behaviors that Don’t Work,” “Instructions for Dealing with Schizophrenia,” and “Jack Bragen’s 2021 Fiction Collection,” and lives in Martinez.