When you are a child, there is a lot you do not understand about money. You notice that your mom scolds a bit louder and cries more often. Sometimes you pour water on your cereal instead of milk, you eat lots of things from cans, and you get a smaller, dingier room in a new neighborhood. You understand that your mom needs money. So you color her something resembling a green rectangle, and you watch a sad smile spread across her face as she thanks you, then tries to explain why you don’t need to color green rectangles anymore.
In a recent piece I wrote for the Huffington Post, I responded to Mitt Romney’s statement that 47% of Americans do not pay income taxes because they see themselves as victims, and they expect government handouts. What I did not say was how much that idea offends me. My point then and now was not about party politics but the wrong-headed assumptions many people make about the poor of this country. In that post, I cited the research of social scientists to debunk some major myths about poverty and welfare. I want to follow up that post by citing some personal experience. My mother summed up the way I feel on Facebook the other day.
Okay. I cannot take it any longer. The next friend whose posting is filled with comments from holier-than-thou folks who are certain that the poor are poor because they are lazy and enjoy living off the public dole is going to be blasted by me even harder than my last blast. In the early 80s, I was a divorced mom of 2 whose ex didn’t pay child support and I was taking home about $90 per wk after paying for child care while I worked. If I’d been stuck in my old job, I would have $20 left after paying for child care. What do you people advise moms to do with kids while working? Lock them in a closet? And let’s not forget the car from hell that I needed for transportation in an area that had no public transportation. STOP DEMONIZING THE POOR until and unless you’re willing for the government to give them the tools they need to get themselves out of poverty.
Blaming the poor for their poverty oversimplifies the problem. For most people, poverty is temporary. For those who have a difficult time staying off welfare, the problem is not that they do not want to work. Many of them do! The problem is that their work is not steady enough, does not pay enough, or does not provide them with the benefits they need. For instance, I once met a woman I knew from church, working at McDonald’s. During the conversation, she said she had been working there for several months, but she would have to quit soon because the weather was changing. Her kids got sick during the winter. McDonald’s did not provide realistic benefits, but it also meant she made too much money to receive Medicare. She would have preferred to keep working, but she had to quit in order to be able to provide for her children. This is not a work-ethic problem. It is a systemic problem – lack of a living wage and lack of affordable healthcare – and it is perverse!
Quality childcare, healthcare for all, and even more public transportation are simple tools we can give the poor to help them improve their lives (which is what, I think, most people want to do).
In a sense, some of the poor are victims. The deck is stacked against them through no fault of their own. My mother’s earning power was stymied by a severe hearing she suffered as a child. In her small town, that meant she received a sub-standard education (some teachers still balk at the idea of giving “special treatment” to disabled children). My mom was eventually able to overcome her poor education because she is very smart. For instance, she told me that she did not learn how to reduce fractions until she was an adult (because math teachers tend to talk while facing the blackboard). So she would make an educated guess at the answer by converting the fraction into a decimal and then estimating it back into a fraction again. Her answers were often wrong, but the process shows she grasped the concept. She did not lack brains or diligence, only an education system that met her needs. (How many inner-city and rural kids today are victims of similarly sub-standard schooling?)
My own experience with poverty was relatively mild. We qualified for free and reduced lunches but made about $100 too much per month to receive food stamps. So we took donations from food pantries instead. The official poverty line of the United States is extremely low by comparison to other industrialized countries, and yet those who share Romney’s belief in the 47% still think the poor should stop just taking from the nation. They need to give a little, too. My mom had something else to say about that.
Rant warning: I am glad that my children are too young to remember the poverty years of a few sprinkles of FlavorAid in the water being called KoolAid, the Christmas of used toys and underwear, and esp. the day that a friend picked up the dog and took it to a kill shelter for me because I just couldn’t do it but couldn’t afford to keep it. I am sorry for the meals of $0.19 damaged cans of spaghetti watered down to serve the 3 of us. I am not sorry, however, that I paid no federal income tax for 2 years (but I did pay state income tax, etc.) A third of my income went to child care. My ex did not pay support. I had health insurance payments, housing, etc. and transportation expenses. Why are so many of m y friends ignoring stories like this and insisting that “everyone needs to pay something”. Just how many meals do you want them to skip to pay that “something” What will they give up to make that “token payment” that you insist is so all-fired important to you? Can someone please explain this to me?
I don’t think my mom has anything to be sorry for. Like most people, she did the best she could with what she had at the time. I think this is true of most people. We are all just doing our best for who we are and what we have right now.
My mother did pull herself out of poverty. Today she works on computer systems for the military, she is a published author of many short stories, and an accomplished fencer (about to travel to Austria for a major competition). But there are far too many people who are not able to accomplish what my mother has. They want to, but they lack the resources. The government gave us some assistance, but not much of it. Even though we ate watered-down cans of pasta, we still “made too much” to qualify for aid. Fortunately, my mother had tools outside the system, especially a grandmother who could watch us on our sick days so that my mom could keep working. She had family who could afford to give her interest-free loans when she decided to start going back to school. Not everybody has that kind of help.
I wonder how many of those who believe the poor are living it up at the expense of hardworking taxpayers have ever truly been poor themselves. They might be less inclined to wag their fingers if they had spent a little time coloring green rectangles for their sad mommas.
Jesus once said, “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12, NKJV). This requires empathy, which is hard. A basic fact of our fallen condition means that we all tend to think the world should revolve around us. We have difficulty imagining our lives as anything other than what they are. We seem to be especially bad at empathy when it comes to poverty, but it might help if we remember that the poor are human beings. They too are made in the image of God. Like middle class people, poor parents want to give their children better opportunities than they had, and if we believe in the “Golden Rule,” then we need to help them.