“We don’t really celebrate the accomplishments of government employees. They exist in our society to take the blame.” –Michael Lewis, author of The Fifth Risk
Yesterday was a typical Thursday morning, in that I sleepily grabbed my phone and read Slate Magazine’s Dear Prudence column. Then – also a somewhat typical Thursday occurrence – I rolled my eyes at Daniel Ortberg’s response to Letter Writer #1. Here’s the question reprinted in full:
I work for the state government in the department that involves public assistance. I used to be a true-blue liberal. I supported programs that help people. But I’m seeing a lot of clients who abuse the system or purposely make bad choices. I read evaluations from clients who aren’t really disabled or hear from clients that they don’t want to stop abusing substances. I don’t want to sound like a right-wing blowhard, but I’m afraid I’m turning into one. How can I keep my liberal card in the face of what I see every day?
—Turning Into a Public Benefits Skeptic”
Ortberg’s response displayed his usual lack of self awareness of the fact that he’s never in his life worked in a government office, then hit all the high notes of White Guilt and Class Guilt without ever really addressing Letter Writer’s problem.
Letter Writer, I’ve been in your shoes, so I’m going to answer your question the way Prudie should have.
You are on the front lines working with the general public on behalf of a government agency. That’s a really, really, really fucking hard job. If, like Ortberg, you haven’t been there, you just don’t know. But let me say it again: it’s so fucking hard. Letter Writer, your difficult job is wearing on you, and that has nothing to do with your personal politics or your character or your value system. Nothing. It’s just an emotionally taxing job and you don’t have the support you need.
I was on the front lines of taking calls for a federal senator when I first graduated college. I am convinced I saw some of the absolute worst of non-violent humanity. People making their voices heard to their elected representatives is not only their constitutional right, it’s an important cog in the machine of a functional democracy. Just like providing for the common welfare and maintaining a strong social safety net. I fully realize that. But every time I hear the cries in 2019 – almost 20 years since I held that job – to “call your Senator! Call your Rep!”, do I still groan and cringe on behalf of the staff assistants without even realizing it? Letter Writer, I do.
What Ortberg and his ilk do not understand about being the face of a government agency or elected representative is that the bad apples consume almost all your time and hoover your emotional energy like rabid dogs who’ve spotted a meat truck. When I took down constituent concerns for a senator, many callers were perfectly polite. Do I remember those people? Nope! It’s the hate speech and the verbal abuse and the unreasonable demands that stick out, and it sticks out because a) it was awful; and b) it took up my time! Research shows that welfare fraud in America is at the very low rate of 3-4%. But those 4% of scammers probably take up 90% of your time and energy, right? After some time, your patience stretches oh so thin, and it cannot help but skew your perception of reality. You’re not at fault for this. You need support, and you probably don’t get it. I know I didn’t.
I believe there’s another, little-discussed aspect to what makes these jobs so arduous. One of the many shameful legacies left to us by former President Ronald Reagan is that he ultimately made it socially acceptable to be rude and abusive to government workers. He rode his horse in on the whole, “government is the problem, not the solution” bullshit, and you cannot deny the huge impact. It’s been said that Reagan built a new arena, dismantling the one previously built by FDR. He changed the framework for how we view the role of the state, and for the negative. His legacy has eroded trust in government institutions, weakened the social safety net, and championed individualism to the point of solipsism. I firmly believe that Reagan is largely why the general public feels emboldened to disrespect and mistreat government employees. The people who engage in this behavior are never shamed by so-called polite society. It’s like insulting government employees is actually part of polite society now. You bear the brunt of that, unfortunately.
You asked for advice though. Here it is. First of all, admit your job is hard. Say it to yourself, say it out loud. NEVER let anyone tell you otherwise. Internalize this truth. Secondly, incorporate specific routines of self-care into your life. It sounds hokey, but it’s important and they work. Thirdly, use your holidays wisely. One of the few benefits to government work is getting all those state and/or federal holidays off. Who else gets Columbus Day off? You do, motherfuckers! Take it. Fourthly, figure out how to set small, daily boundaries with the hostile public and bad apples you have to deal with. You probably can’t yell, “Fuck off, cocksucker!” and still keep your job. I get it. But there are little ways to shorten unpleasant interactions sometimes. Look for them and you’ll figure it out. For instance, after a few months on my former job, I discovered I could occasionally cut off abusive, long-winded complaining without crossing my bosses’ radar by asking a few direct but polite questions that corralled the rambling and gave a seamless way to end the call (my ultimate goal, of course).
You are not turning into a blowhard because your difficult job is wearing on you. You just need to internalize the complexities and inherent downsides of your work and accept that reality is probably different than you originally thought. You need to acknowledge your important work. You are a public servant and we all benefit from people like you. And you must take care of yourself. You will be fine. I’m rooting for you.
Pasta with Turkish-Style Lamb, Eggplant, and Yogurt Sauce
- Kosher salt
- 1 large eggplant, about 1 pound, cut into about 1-inch cubes
- 5 tbs olive oil
- 1 pound ground lamb
- 3 fat garlic cloves, minced and divided
- 1 large shallot, diced
- ¼ tsp Aleppo pepper flakes, more as desired
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 1 ½ tbs chopped fresh mint or dill (I’ve used both, either works great)
- ½ pound bow-tie pasta
- 6 tbs unsalted butter
- ⅔ cup plain Greek yogurt
- Preheat your oven to 450 F. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil for the pasta.
- Grease a large baking sheet. Toss the eggplant with 4 tbs oil and a large pinch of salt. Spread on the baking sheet and roast until crisp and brown, 15 to 20 minutes.
- In a large skillet over medium-high heat, heat the remaining tbs oil. Add the ground lamb. Cook, breaking up with a wooden spoon, until crumbled and cooked through. No pink traces should remain. Now add 2 of the minced garlic cloves and the shallot. Cook one minute more, until softened and cooked. Add salt, Aleppo pepper, and black pepper. Stir in the mint or dill and cook another minute to let the flavors marry together. Add the eggplant and keep on very low heat until ready to assemble the dish.
- Cook the past in the boiling water according to package directions. Meanwhile, in a small, preferably stainless steel saucepan, melt the butter. Cook until it turns golden brown and smells nutty. Yep, you’re browning butter!
- In a small bowl, combine the yogurt and remaining garlic clove with a pinch of salt. Stir until smooth.
- Now, to assemble. Drain the pasta and spread it out onto a large platter. Top with the lamb-eggplant mixture. Dollop the yogurt sauce, then pour the melted brown butter evenly over the entire platter. Sprinkle on more Aleppo pepper and extra mint or dill. Serve immediately.