Monday, November 15, 2021

Too Poor For Heat

I wrote stories on a variety of issues during my tenure as a news reporter. I covered everything from the local governments (county, towns, even state offices) to endangered mollusks to pet awards and stuff in between.

One story that has stuck with me, though, was one I wrote about heating assistance through the Virginia Department of Social Services.

The story dates back to sometime before 2008, so it was during the Bush era. I can't find the article and I wish I could.

I'd like to say things have changed since then, but I'm not sure they have.

We have a thing against poor people in this country. People are poor, allegedly, because of some innate fault within themselves. They made wrong choices, or they're not godly enough, or they simply have bad luck - but whatever the reason, it's their own fault.

That was one of the first things the person I talked to at Social Services made sure I understood. People aren't poor because of socio-economic reasons. I called bullshit on that and didn't write the story that way.

While that was appalling enough, what really got me was the list of things that poor people do that kept them from obtaining assistance.

Having a cellphone was number one on the list. Cellphones weren't quite so necessary prior to 2008, I suppose, but even then they were becoming the number one way people communicated. But if a poor person wanted assistance, they would have to decide if a cellphone was a necessity.

The Social Services representative also gave me a long list of things poor people could do to stay warm in the winter.

One of those was to leave the oven door open after cooking, so the heat would escape in the house. That provides what, maybe 20 minutes of extra heat?

They were expected to keep the thermostat on 65 - that's too cool for most people - and wear layers of clothes, although if they couldn't afford heat I don't know where they were supposed to obtain the clothing. Goodwill, perhaps.

They could also use kerosene heaters, which my husband has told me causes more house fires in winter than anything, even fireplaces. He's also had to put out house fires caused by people using the oven for their only source of heat.

Basically, the poor were expected to burn the furniture in the middle of the room and hope the house, apartment, or mobile home didn't go along with it.

It gets cold in Virginia. We haven't had 0 degrees in a while, but it's not uncommon. It's been 26 degrees here already this month.

The Social Services person even gave me a brochure that listed all of these little things people could do to cut costs and find heat. Of course, I have tossed all of that information, but this story always aggravated me. It was demeaning and distasteful, and while it was successful in that it actually increased donations to the local Social Services office for their heating program, it left a nasty hole in my heart because it felt so mean and hard-hearted.

I can't find similar information on the Virginia Department of Social Services website today. Maybe at some point they changed the program and they no longer advise people to do these things. Maybe now cellphones are considered a necessity.

The attitudes toward the poor, though, are still prevalent. If anything, they're worse, and we have more people who are headed into poverty through no fault of their own. The current inflation woes (which I believe are corporate imposed, as they are posting huge profit margins) only add to the hard times.

I feel fortunate to have a home. We keep the heat low and I use a space heater in the room I'm in. I'm not sure that is the most cost-effective way to heat as a space heater can cost up to $4 a day in electricity, a representative with a power company once told me. I can't type well if my hands are cold.

This has been on my mind this weekend. I'm not sure why this old story has popped into my brain. Maybe the chilly wind and cold temperatures reminded me that there are folks not so lucky out there, people who are living in their cars. Yes, I know, there are plenty of jobs. Most are low-paying. I suspect some of the people living in their cars work these jobs.

No answers here, really. Just a lot of questions, and a desire to warm the world with goodness and love. It doesn't keep the body warm, but maybe it helps somebody feel better in other ways.

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