Regarding the Shutdown: Two Weeks Later

I’m so lucky to have a friend who is in a position to voice advocacy. She helped inspire my personal statement. This letter will be hand-delivered to Dan Benishek tomorrow morning.

Congressman Benishek,

On October 1st, I received an email from the Corporation for National and Community Service, the organization that serves as my supervisor during this, my second term serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA. In the email, we were told that “The lapse in federal appropriations does not directly affect your status as an AmeriCorps VISTA. The goals of your service are unchanged and all terms, conditions, and benefits remain in place. You are expected to continue your service and will continue to accrue your living allowance, but you will receive payment of your living allowance retroactively once an appropriations measure has been enacted. Other benefits, such as health coverage and Education Award accrual, remain unaffected.”

I read the line over many times: “You are expected to continue your service and will continue to accrue your living allowance, BUT you will receive payment of your living allowance RETROACTIVELY once an appropriations measure has been enacted.” I laughed and shook my head. As a second-year VISTA, I am not unaccustomed to the vague language that CNCS uses with us. It’s similar to the language they used last July when we went seven days without payment because of a technical glitch in the payroll system.

I took a vow of poverty in order to serve my community in this capacity. I even took the vow again in order to continue in to my second year. That is a choice that I, and I alone, made and for which I am solely responsible. Having been raised in poverty, I felt it necessary to give back to the community that kept me grounded and carried me through without asking anything in return. Once again, this is a choice that I made for myself and I acknowledge fully my sole responsibility in that.

However, the vow was presented to me with stipulations for which CNCS and the federal government took full responsibility. A living stipend, however small, will be dispersed on a biweekly pay period. An educational award will be earned by those who complete their service, and that award can be used to pay back loans that have laid in forbearance since the beginning of term.

Unfortunately, CNCS and the federal government can no longer uphold their end of the bargain and, instead of providing us with any answers or support, expect us to refrain from asking questions and continue our work as intended. Work that has been dictated to us as “24/7 service in the field of ending poverty.”

In light of all this, Congressman, how can I remain blindly faithful to the vow I took to end poverty when my own poverty cannot be prevented?

As AmeriCorps members, we are allowed (nay, expected) to partake in government programs for poverty-striken individuals, including food stamps. Yesterday, the EBT system was shut down because of yet another technical error.

So, I’m not getting paid, nor am I being supported enough by the state government to even purchase groceries. Are you getting the picture?

I told a friend of mine yesterday, “depending on how long EBT is down, I might just stay in bed forever so I don’t have to worry about spending money to feed myself or do anything else.” While dramatic, this is a sentiment that I have been feeling but don’t want to enact.

I am dedicated to my work, so much so that I took a vow of poverty to do it. I am dedicated to my community, so much so that I have worked in this capacity, on less than $800 monthly, for two years. My term is set to close on November 1st and while I love the work I’ve done, I can’t be more excited to see that day come. I feel trapped until then, and want nothing more than to see everything go back to normal.

Instead, I have looked to my ever-strong support system to see me through. My friends avail me to a beer or two at their expense, and my grandmother took me to lunch last week. My mother calls daily from Lansing to ask how she can help but, having grown up in poverty, I still feel uneasy about asking for her financial assistance. My sister has given me rides and provided me with a Leelanau color tour this weekend to cheer me up.

But I’m one of the lucky ones. There are plenty of others whose support systems are too far away to provide comfort and assistance, and plenty more who have few to call upon. I won’t lie and tell you I don’t know how lucky I am. I will say, however, that I’m feeling the crunch just as much as the next VISTA and, while I’m trying not to let it get me down, my bed is looking more and more inviting.

All I ask, Congressman, is that you consider us when sitting in session. Remember that we are earning poverty-level pay already and to lose it has been detrimental to our budgets, our goals, and our self-worth. Remember that we are forbidden from taking other paid work and that our $5550 educational awards are at stake if we leave our terms early. Remember that we are doing work that few are willing or able to do and we have chosen to live paycheck-to-paycheck because of it. Remember that, without a paycheck, we’re barely able to leave our beds and to live at all.

Sincerely yours,

Erin Bernhard