Wednesday, August 08, 2007

A costly bag of groceries

I just want to remind readers (and myself): It's a hell of a lot of work to be poor.

Today I visited a friend who lives on disability. She said she needed help.

It seems that over a week ago my friend had gone with her health aide to a local market to buy groceries. It was late in the day; they were tired and hurried. They assembled enough food to fill one bag -- and remember being a little surprised at the check out when the tab came to over $40. But that's how it was ... my friend paid directly out of her bank account with her debit card. The aide carried the food to her home and put it away.

The next day, she couldn't find the receipt, nor could the aide. So my friend called her bank to find out exactly what she had spent. She was aghast to hear she had been charged $191 on the previous day by the grocery store.

Now lots of us in the middle class might not ever have noticed if this happened to us -- or at least not noticed for a while. But my friend lives on a precarious patchwork of Social Security Insurance and various "social service" programs, so she needs to know to the penny what cash she has. And she doesn't have hardly any. So this was a major emergency.

Right away, she gets on the phone to the store. They say they'll investigate; does she have the receipt? Well no, that's part of the problem. They still say they'll investigate.

That afternoon she goes over to ask in person. This is not easy. She needs a health aide to help her navigate her motorized wheelchair down an elevator and across a big street. Fortunately, the manager of the store has been there for over ten years and she has for shopped there over ten years. They recognize each other, though they are not friends. He says he'll investigate.

Same the next day. A phone call, a visit, and a promise to investigate. And so it goes for more than a week. More phone calls, visits, and promises to investigate. My friend was getting desperate. This is about having no money. Finally she asked me to go along with her to the store today. I doubt I'm going to be any help, but I've shopped there for over 30 (!) years -- I'll try.

Before we go through all the rigmarole of getting her into the wheelchair, she decides to make one more phone call. Finally, the manager says he's gotten approval from the management to give her $150 even though they are still investigating. He just needs a letter from her describing what happened. So we write one. Later, she and the aide make the trek and get the $150.

Everyone in this story behaved decently (aside from whatever computer glitch or human error led to the mistaken charge). My friend was patient and reasonable; the health aide stood by her employer; the store manager worked his own hierarchy to get her the money back. Nobody was being actively obstructionist or unkind.

All fine and dandy -- but still I figure that bag of groceries cost my friend about 8 hours of struggle to get the charge corrected and over a week of angst. It's a hell of a lot of work to be poor.

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