Section 8 Vouchers, the blue card, masters degrees and respectability politics
This time around, I already knew the drill. If communication wouldn’t be face to face, I would use my school email with my signature to inquire about rental properties. If communication was face to face, I made sure I wore my school’s t-shirt and pronounced all my words with “ers” or “ing’s” all the way out. I made it a point to conjure up conversation about what I was studying and plans for the future to butter them up. Respectability politics — on, Alana — off.
It had to be around 20 different landlords that I had contacted to see if their units were still available and if they accepted Section 8 vouchers. Less than half responded to me — either because they already picked an applicant (I try to remain optimistic) OR they simply didn’t feel like dealing with a Section 8 recipient. I knew about the stigma that went along with the program but it’s different when you’re in it. You begin to take things personal. It forces you to be in constant state of “proving your worth” and making others understand that “you aren’t like them” …. Whoever them is.
The self-consciousness that came with being a welfare recipient this time around heightened to a level of anxiety. I would go to the grocery store and swipe my blue card facing my palm so the customer behind me couldn’t see it; Make small talk with my case managers so they didn’t address me with an attitude like they did the lady before me. I would spend too much time thinking about how I thought others would perceive me — pulling the foodstamp card out the Kate Spade purse at the Schnucks housed in a city where less than 1.4% of the population live below the poverty line and has the highest median income than any other city in the state. Little did anyone else know, I actually won that Kate Spade purse.
I had gotten admitted into the top Social Work graduate program in the country so ONE WOULD THINK that pursuing a degree in public service would ease my mind, except it did the complete opposite.
I had just received my Section 8 voucher after completely forgetting that I signed up on the waitlist 15 months before. I lived 30 minutes away from campus and wanted to live closer to have a shorter and more convenient commute to my school as well as my daughter’s but I knew the cost of living around that area was something I wouldn’t be able to afford without this voucher. The search began……..
“Good afternoon ________,
My name is Alana Flowers and I am a graduate student at ______ pursuing my masters of social work degree. I am interested in your property at xxxx something something dr. Is this property still available? If so, do you accept Section 8 Vouchers?
Hope to hear from you soon.
Alana Flowers, MSW ‘17"
I knew my student status would be important because the landlord would want to know how I would be paying rent but where and what I was studying had absolutely NOTHING to do with my inquiry about renting a property. However, I had seen it work for me several times before. Like the time my case manager told me to spend an hour filling out a job search log stating that I spent 30 hours/week looking for a job (knowing I didn’t) during my winter break just to keep my TANF benefits.
Me: “But I’m not looking for a job. I have to complete 600 hours of practicum and I’m taking 18 credit hours. I’m a full-time student. Why do I need to look for a job?”
Case manager: “I know, Alana. It’s dumb but it’s required. Just fill these sheets out and return them to me so you can keep your benefits. I know you are handling your business. It is protocol, though.”
Or the time when my case manager extended my deadline to submit the necessary documents to keep my food stamps because she was “proud of me.”
Or the front desk attendant at the housing authority who made it a point to say that my case manager spoke very highly of me.
Or the time I heard my cousin say, “Trump needs to get rid of Section 8 and foodstamps cuz they all need to go get a damn job anyway” but I was different because I was actually going to school and doing something with my life.
It worked and with indifference, I ate that shyt up. So I figured I’d try it again.
I got slammed in the face with silence from landlords who never returned my phone call or emails.
After weeks of trying, I found a landlord who was willing to take a chance on me. After seeing the unit in person, it still came down to: “Well, you are a student at _____ getting your masters, I’m sure you are responsible. I’m sure there won’t be any problems with you.”
BUT WHAT IF I WAS THE FOOD WORKER OR THE JANITOR AT THIS SAME INSTITUTION?! WOULD THEY STILL BE PROUD OF ME?! WOULD I STILL BE HANDLING MY BUSINESS?! WOULD I STILL BE SPOKEN HIGHLY OF?! WOULD I STILL BE LOOKED AT AS RESPONSIBLE?!
Annoyingly enough, I know how to play the game. I’ve been conditioned to excel at this game from the household to the classroom. It’s coated with words like professionalism, networking, business casual, and proper english. It dictates access, wealth of information, assistance, and opportunity.
It continues to nourish a system that I am slowly but surely believing will never be dismantled — a system that I’ve reaped benefits from.
It’s not that I’m ashamed of all the help I received to get to where I am; it’s the frustration in knowing the amount of code switching, acceptability, passivity that went along in this journey with random moments of “admiration for this strong Black, single mother on welfare and all of her accomplishments.” Its internal turmoil almost on a daily basis the older I get and feelings of ambivalence towards my parenting. I don’t want her to know what code-switching is or how “to play the game;” I don’t want her to ever feel ashamed of asking for help should she ever need it or fight to convince people how “respectable & well-mannered she is” just for people to treat her like she’s human.
We believe the hype; we’ve fallen for the okie doke and sipped all the damn kool-aid. We are quick to acknowledge that the “system” was set up for us (minorities, low-income….anybody not rich and white) to fail but shun the very same people for seeking out resources to help with necessities; to stock their fridges; to pay off high utility bills; to send their kids to a quality childcare facility; to live in a low-poverty area; to work 40+ hours a week and still not make enough for rent. We aid in their shame of having to ask for help and those of us who use it, we walk with timidness to grocery stores when purchasing food, doctor’s offices when the desk attendant politely tells you they don’t accept medicaid, and on craigslist when the ad for the perfectly priced unit in the prime location boldly states SECTION 8 NOT ACCEPTED HERE.
Ultimately, I’ve found humility in dual life. The praises I received for my student status and the “welfare queen” scrutiny that came with it because I wouldn’t have been able to do one without the other. This is the first time I’ve been blatantly open about my road to graduation and a lot of what I experienced in between. My baby’s belly is full, another degree has been attained, and the heat stayed on every winter. Respectability — off, Alana — turn up!