I am a slow learner, or a glutton for punishment, or maybe just an old-fashioned masochist. Clearly, there is something wrong with me, because, even after my whole personal Internet troll experience, I continue to click on those little “referred by” links that show up in my blog’s analytics.
Do not do this, people. Let me be your cautionary tale.
Anyway, I was reading forum comments on a post of mine, the one about feeding a family on $300 a month. Many people were kind and supportive, but in other remarks I noticed a disturbing pattern. It’s not anything that anyone says out loud; at least not anyone who doesn’t get paid to piss people off. I’m not sure that folks even know they think this, though it comes out pretty clearly in comments like these (italics mine, spelling theirs):
- “The lunches and dinners work from a getting the kids to eat and staving off hunger perspective. I’d certainly hope there are long term plans to change the circumstances”
- “they are making the best out of there financial shortcomings and finding ways to make it all work with assistance (not abusing it it like so many others might)”
- “The article says they are both college educated professionals. Does anyone know what they do for a living? Are they deeply in debt or have huge SLs to want to eat like this on top of receiving WIC?”
There is an underlying assumption here that people are poor because they are not smart enough, or hard working enough, to figure out how to be rich. Not to mention, that first comment that implies that I am somehow an exception to the rule that poor people would rather just BE poor and milk the system than do something productive with their lives.
Yes, there are some people (not many, I’d wager) who live on public assistance, always have, and intend to do so as long as they can. But if you think getting government assistance involves sitting in front of soap operas, smoking Kools, and waiting for your check to arrive, you are sorely mistaken. Oh, no. It looks more like this:
The Truth About Getting Welfare
- Get up at 4am so you can be at the DHS office by 5. They don’t open the doors until 6, but unless you are one of the first ten or so there, you’ll be waiting until noon. You’d better hope you have someone at home to watch those babies, and you aren’t nursing, because, if not, you are in for a looooong morning.
- Fill out 15 pages of documentation and pray that you have all the supporting documents to back it up, including the list of personal references. Dear God, who should you have DHS call to prove that you are who you say you are, and you are, in fact, poor?
- Sit in the plastic chair for 2 1/2 hours and remember not to fidget. If you move too much those cracks will pinch the back of your thighs until they bleed.
- When you finally get called to a window try not to scream at the person who takes your paperwork (without looking up), and hands you a little slip of paper that tells you when you should COME BACK for your appointment with an actual case worker.
- Return two weeks later for your appointment at 7:30am. Wait until 1pm on those plastic chairs (remind yourself not to move) until you are called back only to be told that half of your file is missing. Try not to scream (again) when you’re told that you must resupply the documents and make another appointment.
- Get up at 4am so you can be at the DHS office by 5. They don’t open the doors until 6, but unless you are one of the first ten or so there, you’ll be waiting until noon…
I am, in fact, a college educated professional. I have a relatively good handle on the English language, I’ve spent years (with toddlers) practicing anger management, and I’ve got an above average IQ. Still, that shit about did me in. I don’t know how a new immigrant, a person with an eighth grade education, or a person with mental illness or delays can handle it. You could not pay me to do that for a living. If only those “welfare moms” knew how much easier a regular job is, they’d jump at the chance.
So, what about those other unwashed masses that are not just
sitting in Social Services for days on end watching Judge Judy? Why can’t they come up with a plan to get it together? You know, show a little initiative, get a second job, pull themselves up by their bootstraps and “change their circumstances”?
Well, I certainly can’t speak for everyone in my income bracket. I’m not even going to try. But I can tell you my own story – not to garner attention, sympathy, casseroles, or anything else, but to try to increase understanding and diminish misinformed preconceptions.
My husband is a teacher. He teaches theater at a private school designed for college bound students with specific learning disabilities. The school calls these “learning differences”, which is actually a more accurate term, but the general population considers things like dyslexia, ADHD, dysgraphia, Aspergers, and Autism disabilities – so that’s that term I’ll use here.
He is a really, really smart guy. There are about a billion things he could do that would make A LOT more money. Believe me, I know. I’ve looked into this. But he thinks what he does is important.
It IS important.
I know what you’re thinking, “Teaching theater? Directing plays? How is that important?”
Here’s how: He takes kids who have felt “not good enough” their entire lives and shows them that they have a special light, a unique light, and a community to belong to. He takes kids with autism, who have incredible difficulty with interpersonal relationships, and shows them how to look surprised, how to look uncomfortable, how to speak as though they are afraid; in the process these kids learn what surprised, uncomfortable, and afraid look and sound like in the people around them. Motivational speakers will tell you to act “as if” – as if you are successful, as if you are popular. Mike shows kids how to do it. These kids leave school and carry these skills and this sense of belonging into the world. Some of them have even gone into the arts, God bless ’em. Mike gets paid a pittance to do this but he – we all – consider it “taking one for the team.” When he’s not working 18 hour days trying to get a show off the ground (look here for an example) he’s working extra jobs running lights or sound until 4 o’clock in the morning. During the summer he runs a theatre/rock and roll camp.
And me? What do I do? Well, I spend a lot of time chasing/cleaning up after/feeding these five little clowns. Yes, I have five kids. That includes a set of surprise twins. You’d best not judge or it might happen to you. I also run an in-home piano studio where I teach about twenty students. It’s lovely. It makes my hundred-thousand-dollar BM (Bachelor of Music) almost worth it. It works out well, really. Since full-time childcare for my three youngest would cost $2700 a month, I net about three times more doing this than I would in any full time job. Except stripping. And, well, did I mention I’ve had five kids? When I’m not teaching, or wiping butts, or bandaging knees, or filling sippy cups, I’m here – going over Aldi receipts, trying to figure out exactly how little I can spend to feed my family and writing about the results. So, while I may be poor, I’m not lazy.
I’m also not ashamed of the choices that my husband and I have made. Why should I be? We both work hard. We both contribute to our community. We are both raising hard-working, healthy, happy, relatively well-adjusted kids. We are living the American Dream. It’s just, we’re doing it right on the federal poverty line. That, my friends, is not my failure. And I’m certain that we are not the only family in this position.
We’d all like to believe that America is a meritocracy. We’d like to believe that if we are smart and hardworking, everything will work out – we’ll buy organic food and go to Disney World. And that is, in fact, the reality for a lot of people. But it isn’t the reality for all people. And if it isn’t the rule FOR All, well then, scientists would tell you, it isn’t a rule AT All. This is a hard pill to swallow. I understand why people get so defensive and judgmental. If “Work hard and you’ll be ‘successful'” isn’t true, what do we tell our kids? “Work hard and run a hedge fund”? That’s a bit limiting.
I’m not suggesting that there is something inherently better, more authentic, or morally superior about choosing a career that does not pay well. I have several dear, dear friends who have become wealthy pursuing careers that they feel passionate about – careers that also, just so happen to be lucrative. I’m thrilled for them. I’m also thrilled when they pass along their hand-me-downs.
What I am suggesting, is that perhaps money is not the best valuator. A person’s income doesn’t tell you much about their societal contributions, their intelligence, or their work ethic. Really, all it tells you is what their employer reports on their W2. And that, my friends, is a pitiful little to judge by.