She wanted her clients to look to her for inspiration, so Teresa Boullemet stamped out her cigarette, popped a peppermint, sprayed herself with perfume and applied fresh lipstick. “Are you going to the farthest corners of the world today?” her assistant asked as she walked to her car. “Roanoke,” Boullemet said. “Say a prayer for us.”
And then, carrying pamphlets saying she provides “guidance and choices” to disabled people interested in working, she set out for what may not be the farthest corner of the world, but is certainly one of the farthest corners of Alabama.
Vocational rehabilitation counselor is Boullemet’s official title, a job she does for the state Department of Rehabilitation Services, but she thinks of it in far simpler terms, because the questions she tries to answer seem so simple. Can this person work? Is there someone who would hire them? And if so, how can she connect the two?
They are questions that have become increasingly urgent in a country that is hardening its stance toward recipients of government benefits.
Wisconsin wants to be the first state to require childless Medicaid applicants to undergo drug testing. Georgia has dropped thousands from its food-stamp rolls after instituting work requirements. And the Trump administration has proposed a budget that would further erode the social safety net, slicing hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade from Medicaid, food stamps, children’s health insurance and programs that serve the disabled. Taken together, the policies either amount to an assault on the vulnerable, according to Democrats, or, according to Republicans, a promotion of the most American of values: the dignity of work.
“If you’re not truly disabled,” Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, has said, “we need you to go back to work.”
The “strength of our communities depends on able-bodied Americans earning paychecks,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has said.
“If they can get back to work, then by all means, we should help them,” Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., has said.
That was Boullemet: the one who helped, at least in Alabama’s Randolph County, where more than 1 in 8 working-age adults receive disability benefits, and where she is the person they go to see when they want to get off them.
She believes work leads to confidence, confidence to hope, and hope was the only way someone could go from letting the government support them to supporting themselves.
As she drove farther into the remote county, she tried not to dwell on the realities of that transition, that only about 10 percent of her clients get off disability and that nationally, the number is even lower — 3.7 percent of disabled workers do so within 10 years of the first payment.
She instead focused on the immediate. She would meet with three clients today, which was three opportunities to apply the lessons she had learned from years of coaxing people back to work. Always smile. Always look them in the eye. Give homework that makes them vested in their rehabilitation. Never get fewer than three phone numbers, because she knows how easy it is for the poor to vanish.
There was one client, however, who Boullemet didn’t worry would disappear.She knew that Lisa Daunhauer had drawn benefits since 2011 through the Social Security Disability Insurance program and that the only job she had found was at the bottom of the American economy, as a cashier at Walmart. She also knew Daunhauer, whose disability was anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder, had nearly been fired from that job, an occurrence that was likely to destroy her chances of working again anytime soon. It had now come down to six weeks. Daunhauer had to find a way through the next six weeks to complete Walmart’s probationary period to have a shot at getting a needed raise and, eventually, becoming one of the rare few to get off disability.
Boullemet was worried about all of that, and those were the only facts of Daunhauer’s life that she knew.
On the morning of her meeting with Boullemet, Lisa Daunhauer awoke with a nervous stomach on the couch, where she spends almost every moment she’s not at Walmart. She looked around her government-subsidized apartment, seeing nearly everything she owned. The end table she’d built with wood found on the side of the road. The dirtied lamp she’d taken from her mother’s house. The electric fan she runs because air-conditioning is too expensive. And the Bible verse, stitched onto cloth and framed: “The lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.”
On this morning, peace was a breakfast of two pills — Lamictal for bipolar disorder, Prozac for depression — washed down with iced tea in a Burger King cup, followed by episode after episode of reality television to distract herself from a life that hadn’t gone according to plan. It had begun firmly ensconced in the middle class. There had been a college degree, a marriage, three children, a steady job working with medical records, and a big four-bedroom house in the Atlanta suburbs.
Now, there was an empty apartment, an ex-husband who was dead, and a weathered Chevrolet hatchback she steered through a town that, 15 years ago, she had never even heard of, let alone expected to call home. But that had been before the divorce, the bankruptcy, the drinking, and the time she checked herself into a hospital in May 2005, telling doctors, according to medical records, “I’m having a hard time dealing with life and I don’t want to live.” Then came the morning her manager had smelled alcohol on her breath, fired her, and Daunhauer went to her psychiatrist. “That’s what it’s there for,” the psychiatrist told her of disability insurance. “To get you past whatever it is you’re going through.”
She was 15 minutes early to her appointment, so she sat for a moment, looking at a desolate shopping strip that had a discount clothing store, three vacancies and the career center. It had been years since she received her first disability check, and was she past whatever it was she had been going through yet? Or was she more stuck than ever?
Her monthly disability payment, now worth $1,348, wasn’t enough to live on in the Atlanta suburbs, so she had moved with her three young children to her mother’s place in rural Roanoke, a factory town of 6,000 residents along the Georgia state line.
At first, Daunhauer had liked how isolated it felt, how nothing ever seemed to happen. But as the years went by, the quiet began to feel suffocating, and she started thinking about working again. She moved into an apartment so small that her youngest child, Jacob, 17, had to remain with her mother, and started writing to employers.
“I have 16 years of experience in a medical office setting. I am a hard worker, dedicated and dependable,” she wrote in her cover letter. “I am currently unemployed, but ... I could be an asset to your organization.”
She stepped into the career center and walked past a line of brochures. “Does your LIFE need a COACH?” one asked. “Hiring TODAY to Protect Alabama TOMORROW!” promised another. The seat she found was beneath a list of the 40 positions most in demand in the state, none of which, she had learned, applied to her.
Was it too late? she had been asking herself lately. Could a divorced 52-year-old living alone on disability turn it around? Was it her? Or Roanoke?
At the edge of Roanoke is the Walmart Supercenter, the only Walmart for dozens of miles. On the day the government checks arrive, which was today, people come from all over the counties of Chambers, Clay, Tallapoosa, where about 1 in 6 working-age adults receive disability, and the parking lot fills early, empties late, and employees are told to take spaces far from the store, where Daunhauer now parked, half an hour early.
She stepped out. On top of a blue polo, she pulled on her Walmart vest — “Proud Walmart Associate,” it said — and on top of that, she clipped on her nametag: “Our People Make The ... Difference.”
She walked toward the entrance, a knot of nerves. She knew that some customers probably would pay with aid from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), and that required complex procedures on the cash register. During training, she had been told it was important to get it right. Then less than a week into the job, a manager voided one of her transactions because of an error. She had stood by watching, feeling ashamed and unworthy, and later became so anxious that she accidentally tore another WIC check.
But there was always a chance that today would be different, so she hustled in and assumed her position at cash register number 4, between two disinterested-looking teenage employees.
The store was mobbed. A large woman in pajamas pushed a shirtless toddler in a grocery cart. Some customers tooled about on scooters. A woman’s T-shirt said, “I didn’t claw my way to the top of the food chain to eat vegetables.”
“You having a good day today?” Daunhauer asked the first customer, who handed her four $20 bills for a bill that came to $76.28.
Daunhauer handed him $23 in change.
“I gave you 80,” the customer said, “and you’re giving me a 20.”
Daunhauer laughed nervously.
“Wait a minute,” she said, only now realizing the mistake. “Thank you for being so — oh my goodness. Wow.”
Then he was gone, and Daunhauer, trying to keep her composure, was on to the next customer.
In came Daunhauer’s former roommate, who, hugging Daunhauer, said, “I didn’t know you got a job!” In came Jacob, who asked to borrow $20 and said, “Have you been crying?”
“Why?” she said.
“You look like you’ve been crying.”
“Earlier today,” she said quietly, again considering her dramatic mood shifts, which she recently admitted to herself weren’t always “situational,” triggered by a bankruptcy or divorce. It was her. She was disabled, and maybe she should stop trying to convince herself otherwise.
One hour went to the next.
After her shift, she walked outside, where she saw that nearly all of the cars were gone except for her hatchback. She drove home and cut the lights. It was nearly midnight. She went inside her apartment, sat down on the couch and fell asleep.
She was there again six days later.
It was a bad day.
Boullemet called her twice, but Daunhauer, for the first time, ignored the calls. She had instead been talking to someone at a suicide hotline, who hadn’t been trying to get her through the next six weeks, or off disability, but through the next hour. And now she was looking at the clock, seeing she had to work again in five hours, saying, “I can’t deal with it anymore; I can’t make the decisions that everyone expects of me. ... Nothing is the way I ever thought it would be.”
Today she wouldn’t find a way to go into Walmart. She would quit. She would decide she wasn’t one of the 3.7 percent who get off disability. For now, she was one of the rest, and she just had to find a way to live with it.