Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Taxing the Kindness of Strangers

Everyone seems to be discussing the Washington Monthly article by Benjamin J. Dueholm, a Lutheran pastor, writer, and foster parent in Chicago. Entitled "Taxing the Kindness of Strangers," this essay talks openly about how frustrating and even humiliating it can be to try to get one's foster child's needs met by the system. Those of us who are foster parents, regardless of our political beliefs or class status, must use programs like Medicaid and WIC and public childcare subsidies to care for our foster children. This means we foster parents are necessarily dependent on social welfare programs such as WIC and Medicaid, and therefore dependent on the whims of an increasingly budget-cutting government and electorate. The article is also one of the first pieces I've ever read that discusses the financial reality of foster parenting in a public and honest way and shoots down the social misperception that "foster parents are doing it for the money."

Some choice quotes:

About the relationship between foster parents and the state:

When Scott Walker in Wisconsin sought to cut the workforce that administers foster care in his state, we went up to Madison to join the protests in solidarity, because we knew how helpless we would be if there were no caseworker on the other end of the phone to answer our own urgent pleas for help and guidance. And the threats have continued, as House Republicans repeatedly propose cutting trillions of dollars in domestic spending to reduce the debt while making room for sustained upper-income tax cuts. The way this hits home for us is simple. A foster parent joins hands with the state in order to take care of a dispossessed child. For the last year, the state has been trying to slip free of our grasp.
About being a middle class person using programs like WIC for the first time:
We adjusted rather quickly to being treated like morons and petty thieves by bureaucrats. The social anxiety that comes with buying welfare food among our fellow citizens was worse. Middle-class people like to think of themselves as self-sufficient. But after a few months of shopping with WIC coupons, and contemplating my own sense of shame at this, I came to realize that we are rather selective in the forms of dependence we disdain. People who would not give a second thought to claiming the child care tax credit or the mortgage interest deduction will blanch at getting a bag of frozen peas on the public dollar. A WIC order grinds the line to a halt and prompts me to feel all kinds of self-consciousness about my deportment, my children, and the purchases I make with my own money. I got to know which cashiers were least given to suspicion or contempt, and I gratuitously mentioned Sophia’s foster status to defuse my own irritation. I don’t relish using the coupons, but they really help.

I must also mention that it breaks my heart that foster parents in an incredibly expensive city like Chicago get less than $400 a month of help from the state. This means that unless they take in several foster children, fostering is something that a loving and stable working or lower middle class family simply could not afford because of the amount of money that would come out of their own pocket due to the living expenses in an area like Chicago. Just the difference between rent on a 2-bedroom and 3-bedroom apartment (for example) is more than $400 a month, let alone food, clothing, baby equipment, and excess daycare costs not covered by the state.

Does this article hit home for those of you who are foster parents? Is it similar or different from your own experiences?


  1. I think it was horrible to have to wait 3 hours for WIC to get us in and out. And since our 3 foster children came onto WIC at different times....we were forced to do this several times within a couple of months.

    We finally asked if we had to do this. They told us we didn't- so we stopped! It caused us more stress and grief than help.

    We could afford it, but I know there are others who couldn't. Are there states that say you have to take it?

  2. I don't think anyone is forced by CPS to use WIC coupons- I think a lot of us are forced by economic realities to use them, however (realities such as being a working or lower middle class person receiving as little as $350 month to care for a child whose special needs may require that you work less or not at all!) We are reasonably middle class but we are really hurting when it comes to groceries now that we are not using WIC coupons due to the inconvenience. Some time in the next few weeks I'll be going back to WIC to re-enroll.

  3. The essay really hit home for me and was very validating... It's nice to know that I am not the only foster parent out there feeling and experiencing these same things. I struggle a lot with financial piece as a single foster parent and I do use WIC every month because I have two infants and a toddler. There's no way I could manage without it for at least the formula. I just ignore the impatient looks of the people behind me in line and the condescending comments of the cashiers. I endure the nutrition classes I have to attend because I truthfully admit that I feed my toddler grapes, which are a choking hazard. Do they ask me how I feed them to him? Nope... Don't care that I cut them up into little slivers so he won't choke.

    Luckily, I have a wonderful pediatric office that I take all of my kids to and have had mostly good experiences with medical/dental care here, however, when I lived in a different state, there was definitely a difference in the way we were treated by medical professionals.

    I for one am really tired of feeling shame about asking for what my kids need because of the belief people have that we foster for the money. Please show me where in the holy heck the profit is in this? I spend way more than I am reimbursed, and I do it willingly and expect no one to notice or praise me for it. I only ask that you just spare me the judgmental attitude that there is some type of financial gain for me in fostering - it just ain't so...

    I have to say that some of the worst offenders in thinking we do this for the money are the caseworkers. Some of them guard the available extra allowances and special rates my state offers like I am asking them to hand me money out of their own bank account. It's really frustrating and discouraging.

  4. Megan - I really appreciate your comment. It makes me mad that you were given flack for giving your kid grapes. Most doctors and nutritionists only recommend cutting grapes into halves, so those of us who cut them in quarters are a step ahead of the game! WIC here makes *everyone* go through nutrition classes, which as a nutritionist myself is a bit humiliating. I am SO impressed that you have three foster kids as a single mom. Any chance you'd be willing to do a brief blog post about how you swing that logistically and financially? I think my readers would love to hear about it.

    Don't feel shame about advocating for your kids' needs. Easier said than done, but you're doing what you're supposed to be doing. I figure if all the service professionals think I'm a little persistent and annoying, I'm probably doing my job

    I'm sorry you have encountered caseworkers who think you are profiting off of foster care. I fail to see how it's possible to do so unless one has a fully paid-off home that they own and has many foster children - Especially in states that only pay $300 or $400 per child, which is FAR less than the cost of raising a child of any age even for a thrifty parent (especially if you factor in the cost of renting or buying a larger house). Caseworkers these days are under a lot of pressure to save the state money - Which stinks, because most of them would probably just as soon focus on the kids' and families' needs rather than the bottom line, but they're getting pressure from up top. I've been hearing stories from our CW's about this and it stinks for everyone.

    Thanks again for commenting!

  5. While I appreciated a lot about this article (and your post) I just wanted to correct a few assumptions. Daycare is completely paid for by the state. The children recieve medical cards so that all medical expenses are paid. Young children get an "equipment voucher" which pays for purchasing most of the things a baby needs - like a crib, high chair, car seat, bouncy chair, etc. Rent is not that much different from a 2 - 3 bdrm apartment - about $50 to $100 dollars. Plus, the rule is that foster families are supposed to be able to pay for all their living expenses without the assistance of the board payment. So, if the family can not afford a 3brm apartment without the check, then they should not be allowed to become licensed. This rule is designed to protect foster families from becoming dependant on having a foster child placed in their home.

    I'm not saying that $400 is a lot of money, but there are a lot of other things that are subsidized in IL.

  6. SocialWkr24/7 - Great to have you comment here. I am a fan of your blog. Are you in a rural or other low-cost area? Because my friends who are Chicago foster parents say they can't find even a decent daycare that accepts the state daycare subsidy as payment in full in their neighborhoods I was shocked to learn that in one friend's Chicago neighborhood decent daycares are over $1000 per month! In my area (very expensive, high income area in another state) it's also challenging to find daycares that accept the subsidy as payment *in full*. We pay several hundred dollars a month out of pocket so that our younger foster child will be in a decent daycare because the places that accept the voucher in full are mostly pretty gross. And we get no equipment voucher. Please remember that the hands-on financial reality of raising a child is different than crunching numbers on paper.

    I have to also question your assertion that a 3 bedroom apartment is $50 or $100 more than 2 bedroom apartment. I don't know where you live, obviously, but I am in an area that is cheaper than parts of Chicago, and here there is at least a $200 difference and often more (assuming you're looking one neighborhood, at apartments of two equal quality but simply different size). I've been a renter for 13 years in 4 states and I have yet to experience the difference in cost as being $50-100. Perhaps in rural or other very low cost of living areas, but certainly not in pricier urban/suburban areas.

  7. Re: affording housing costs with/without subsidy check.... I actually brought this up in a previosu post. But keep in mind that foster parents are often told their services are so badly needed that not only will their home be filled but they will likely be turning down calls at all times of the night and day - In effect, making it sound like for the majority of the year (at least) their home will be at capacity... I cannot even count the number of foster families that told me this, only to find that they never got called a year later. I even know people who were asked to keep space in their home for a LARGE sibling set, and it never happened - On the one hand, that's fabulous that their services haven't been needed because it means there's no large group of sibs in crisis. But on the other hand, is it reasonable to think that there's no financial impact of their keeping those rooms open indefinitely? As long as agencies are not realistic about this type of thing with foster parents (making it sound like they're desperate for foster parents and paying for the recruitment and training of parents they never end up using, such as happens a lot in my area), foster parents will continue ending up in situations where they are living in homes they can afford but just barely. Sometimes they will even be pressured by agencies to move to a larger space only to not end up having a placement (I've seen this happen!) Foster parents will continue to be led to believe they will have foster children in those homes, when in fact the counties cannot guarantee that or are moving away from out-of-family placements. There are so many ambiguous situaitons. One friend is having a real struggle knowing that their child's sibling could come back into care and trying to figure out if they should move into a house they can just barely afford in order to be prepared and have room for him - Knowing they can hardly make rent if they do, but if they don't they can't have the sibling placed. I know lots of families in ambiguous situations like this. It's easy to say that one should be able to meet all their own living expenses without foster board payments - Obviously that's made clear during training and homestudy. But foster parents (at least where I live) are also told the board check is intended partly to pay rental expenses of having a larger place to live, and that CPS is trying to make sure that people who aren't solidly middle class but are loving and stable folks can still foster. Count us among the many who've been encouraged to move into a larger home in order to take more foster kids, only to never get any calls (despite being open to significant special needs and a wide age range). So it's not as simple as financially unstable foster families making poor decisions to move into houses they can't afford. Sorry so rambly, i feel like I've repeated myself like 5 times here. I clearly need some coffee.

  8. Sad to hear that prospective foster parents are "guaranteed" placements, because even I know that the intake and need for caregivers varies wildly.

    I prefer for my location to stay anonymous, but its safe to say I am speaking from experience in regards to Chicago's housing market.

    I know that raising children is always more expensive than is taken into account. But the idea isn't that these children will be completely covered by the state. There is still an expectation that foster parents will have to spend money on them. Which is why I will always defend foster parents when it is accused that they are "in it for the money". (Although I have known some that do take advantage of the money they recieve and don't use it towards the children - that is the exception, not the rule.)