How Poverty Taught Me to Get Every Dollar I Deserve From Coronavirus Relief
When the coronavirus hit a year ago, I knew that as a television writer, I was extremely vulnerable. Productions all over the world started shutting down, and I had to face the possibility that my big break—a four-part BBC drama I’d written and created that had been greenlit for production—might be dead. I applied for unemployment, an Economic Injury Disaster Loan, and the Paycheck Protection Program.
As a writer earning less than $75,000 a year, I received a stimulus check of $1,600 for my son and I, and I was eligible for both the EDIL and the PPP because I file as an independent contractor rather than a waged employee. Because I’d only received one W9 last year, my unemployment amount was pitiful—$107 a week—until it got topped up with the unemployment supplements many received. It also took me seven months to receive a payment, because I’d become a U.S. citizen and changed my name just weeks before lockdown, so I was flagged by the system. Fortunately, I qualified for $5,423 from PPP and received a low-interest loan of $17,000 from the SBA. I hate debt, but I was living entirely off credit cards for the first six months of the pandemic. It made sense to consolidate that debt into a low-interest loan.
But while I quickly reverted to government aid, over the months, I gradually became aware that many of my fellow writers and creatives—especially in the film and television business—were either unwilling or unable to pursue the state support they needed.
A friend of mine whose husband has been out of work for nearly a year still insists on paying more than $1,000 a month for healthcare. Neither she nor her husband applied for PPP—they missed the first round of funding and misunderstood their eligibility. They did not apply for a Small Business Administration loan because she did not think they were likely to get approved, and they were concerned about repayments. Similarly, she distrusts Medi-Cal, California’s Medicaid program, and felt CalFresh, California’s food assistance, is not a program for people “like them”—previously affluent homeowners working in entertainment.
I couldn’t understand why they won’t rely on the programs that exist to help at a time when only the very rich seem to be OK, but prejudice and shame are very real impediments to those seeking help, whether through deterrence or castigation. Their hesitation was due in part to fear of the stigma that surrounds government aid in the United States, and, quite simply, a lack of familiarity with the logistics of using aid programs. Would people know? Could people see? Could they still legitimately claim food stamps if they owned their own home, even if they weren’t currently paying the mortgage? (Yes!)
I had a very different reaction to the promise of COVID-19 government aid, in part because of my recent history. In 2011, I was married, financially stable, and saving for the first time in my life. By 2014, a divorce and custody battle led to strict limitations on my ability to travel for work from Los Angeles to the U.K., where my employment as a writer for British television productions was located. This meant that as a new mother in my mid-30s, I had to suddenly find a new source of income in southern California, 6,000 miles away from family, friends, and work colleagues. I slipped onto unemployment, then CalWorks, MediCal, EBT, and GAIN. My car was reclaimed. I filed for bankruptcy. I bought a cheap 30-year-old tank from a friend—a voluminous, shuddering mass that had once been a Volkswagen but had now morphed into a completely new being because of the multiple fixes and additions that tricked it into a spluttering start every day. I left my two-bedroom apartment in Venice Beach, and squeezed my family into 450-square-foot one-bedroom cottage 20 miles south in San Pedro.
This previous experience with poverty, as hard as it was, put me at an advantage when it came to confronting the economic disaster the pandemic wreaked. Being poor had essentially prepared me for the economic and social effects of the coronavirus with the ruthless efficiency of a bootcamp. I had acquainted myself with the quirks of California’s Employment Development Department website, the unbearable tedium of filling out endless forms, splaying my starving bank accounts out like spatchcock chicken to strangers at the end of an email to “prove” I was poor enough for benefits or last-resort hardship grants. I was used to passing up nights out because I couldn’t put gas in my car or afford a drink.
Part of the difference, too, was I had not grown up with the idea of American individualism, a concept that has created a culture “addicted to the concept of individual responsibility,” as the writer Meghan O’Rourke put it. Instead, born and raised in the U.K., I was a product of a more collectivist society. Maybe because I was British, or maybe because I had already experienced crippling poverty for the last few years, I had no misgivings about using services that exist to stay off the street and keep a roof over my family’s head. Being on government assistance in the U.S. wasn’t pleasant or easy, and the social effects haunted me: In 2014, a rep from Child Support Services screamed at me in the crowded corridor of a court house to “get off cash aid and get a job.” Friends slipped away like ghosts when I no longer lived five blocks from Venice Boardwalk. But the shame I started to feel was a learned response from being in America; it wasn’t innate.
This time around, the shared distress of experiencing a disaster like the pandemic has noticeably change things for the economically vulnerable. Government assistance has become normalized and entered a wider, more diverse range of households, highlighting the deficiencies inherent in a system that promotes the individual at the expense of the collective well-being. I sent my friends instructions on how to apply for a PPP loan, why they would be eligible, and encouraged them to apply to everything and anything, rather than declaring in advance they weren’t eligible. This is something that is quite hard to grasp, but as a writer used to fielding rejection, I’ve developed a thick skin and a pragmatic attitude when it comes to applying for anything—be it jobs or aid. With a new $1.9 trillion stimulus package passed by Congress, trying to second-guess your own worth or need in comparison to others is irrelevant. If you are not yet on your feet, take advantage of any opportunity you can. I know well that there is no use to feeling ashamed.
For my part, in December 2020, I finally received the call that the BBC show I’d spent the last three years of my life working on would be shooting in 2021. This monumental moment in my career would finally happen, moving me out of the quagmire of “paid but not made,” when screenwriters get stuck working on scripts which never make it to production. It had better get good reviews after all of this bullshit.
Ruth Fowler is a Welsh filmmaker, playwright, screenwriter, journalist and photographer living between London and Los Angeles.
Co-published with Slate.