Sunday, March 6, 2011

Poverty =/= worthless

I grew up conservative.

I still consider myself to be a conservative. Possibly feminist, as (and isn't this bizzare) my research on spinning as a hobby has lead me to draw several conclusions reguarding the evolution and value of "woman's work" in history (note: still have not researched this hobby as an economic thing. Just as a "how to do it", which indicates to me that there is something to this idea). I don't think that it's the government's job to take care of people. I think that it's the individual's job to take care of people, and that human beings, collectively, have abdicated their responsability to the agency least capable of humane care.

But when I say that I "grew up" conservative, I say that this was the only "right" system of thought in my family, as Christianity was the only "right" religion. As a child and teen, I did not believe in God because I believe in God. I believed because I was rewarded with affection and the approval of my parents when I parroted back to them the things they wanted to hear. As a teen I was fully on the "homosexuality is wrong" bandwagon because, oh my god, did my parents smile at me when I handed this response back. I remember once telling several friends of mine that I wouldn't want to work with GLBT material, NOT because I did not actually want to, but because I did not want to dissapoint my family. When they reacted as one might naturally expect ...

...I realized that this was not actually something I really cared about. I cared because I got approval from my family for saying it, and not because I actually believed it was wrong. This forced me to examine a lot of things, a process that is still ongoing. I did not drop my Christianity, for example, but other than the real basics, it doesn't have a lot to do with the doctrines I was taught as a child anymore. And for the record, I now firmly believe that you can be a Christian and be gay. It's between you and God and Romans 14, and as I've never been faced with that particular issue (I'm about as straight as a ruler) I'm not qualified to say what God feels on the subject.

I bring this up because I had a moment with my family this afternoon where the differences between us yawned like the grand canyon. My brother, one of his friends and I were all sitting outside, and my brother noticed a man digging through my apartment complex's dumpster. He said, in a tone of disgust usually reserved for small, slimy objects, "I don't have a lot of patience with poverty."

This made me blink. My brother is a viking. He has the hair, the build, the attitude. He spends most of his time wandering around with a stick in his hand because we are no longer allowed to carry swords, damn it. And he's the kind of person who would sooner commit suppuku than allow a kitten to sit outside in the cold. So I said, with all the wisdom of a big sister to a younger brother, "Huh?"

"Oh, I don't hate the poor. They're the people who are trying to work out of it. But I dislike poverty. They expect you to support them and stuff."

And then I think I said something racially insensative about african poverty, but I was pretty pissed off and trying very hard not to strangle him with a few feet of unspun roving.

First of all, nothing said the man going through the dumpster was poor. My dad was the breadwinner of the family, and he made pretty good money when we were growing up. We never needed clothes, or food, or government assistance to keep our house. Because we did foster kids, we were actually able to provide a home for other people's kids. But my mother was and still is a skillful dumpster diver. She could look at a sofa sitting out on a curb and judge exactly how much more time the thing might have. She could gage the best time to arrive at a particular bin, in order to discover the best objects for salvage. The best bench we ever had was a sofa frame she rescued and sweet-talked Dad into adding slats to. She did this not because we needed money (though in the twilight years of our family, this was actually true) but because she enjoyed it. She hated to see a perfectly good object go to waste when she knew she could do something with it.

So maybe the dude in the dumpster saw something he could use. Maybe he lost his glasses or a credit card, or maybe his wife or kid or roommate threw out his W2 and he's desperately digging through the garbage in the hopes that he can still find his specific bag and get it back.

But maybe it is true. Maybe he was poor. If he is, so am I, because we both live in the same apartment complex and I have, as of late, found myself choosing between eating and paying rent and electricity. The only reason my sofa is not a dumpster find is because the kind person who gave it to me asked me if I needed it before she threw it out. I wouldn't qualify for government assistance because I don't have a kid and I make too much money as a grocery store baker. And I checked this. My father has offered to buy me a car and I have turned him down each time because I know I could not manage the gas and insurance on top of my rent, electricity and food. The internet is a lugsury I really can't afford, and paying for Audible is a decadance I can only justify by not having enough time to read anymore due to my awful job.

My brother neither has to pay rent, nor utilities. I do not want to draw any conclusions about his personal spending habits, but I do know he has never had to support himself financially.Both of us have been very sheltered by our parents. I think he believes we were poor, as he was fourteen when our family imploded (there were several weeks of ramen noodle soup and frozen corn there, near the end, and we got evicted from a couple of houses) but we weren't. He may believe the same thing now, as my Dad is often broke, but they're not, either.

I think I am almost qualified to say this, loud and proud, so I'm going to: people don't go on public assistance because they don't want to work. People go on public assistance because they need help, and nobody else is offering. And if the number of people on welfare and food stamps is overwhelming, it's because a lot of people are desperate, and not because a lot of people don't want to work.

I remember one afternoon near Christmas, when my father had given me about a hundred fifty dollars to buy my own Christmas presents. I had no idea what I wanted. Books, maybe. Or else computer stuff. I needed caffiene, so my mother and I went to the grocery store, and when we got to the check out there was a little woman (I can't say girl because she was older than me, but there was this child-like quality to her I remember) who was crying because her Lone-star card (aka food stamps) was short and she didn't have enough to cover her groceries.

And I did not think "lazy ass. Get a job" when I saw this. I thought about the many times growing up that the same thing happened to me and mom, though not with food stamps. My dad, as I said, made a lot of money, but he believed that when he ran out, he always had his check book. As a result, there were many times when the grocery store refused our checks and we had to go home empty handed. I still have that kind of reaction when I get to a check out counter, this kind of stomach-drop, oh fuck, count my money kind of tensing up. I saw this woman standing there with what was probably her Christmas dinner, and maybe a couple of extra things for her kids--because given the hoops you have to jump through to get on food stamps, she probably had kids--and I remembered the many times I stood next to my parents while the same thing happened to us, sans the government assistance part. I remembered thinking, what are we going to do? when this happened. I remember thinking what are we going to do? when I watched my family implode, and we didn't have enough money for food because ... well, because. I still don't know where it all went. I remember living in that hell hole of a relative's house for four years because we couldn't afford to live on our own. I remembered cutting myself because with the emotional abuse in there, it was not safe to cry. I remembered how Mom tried to help me, but there wasn't much she could do because we had nowhere to go. I remembered Dad handing me money, just giving me a hundred fifty dollars and then walking off, and I remembered a time not too many years before when that would have been an awful lot of money to just hand somebody, and we could have used it for food or rent or car payments or something else that would have allowed my family to survive another few months, or else gotten us out of that relative's house before it broke me.

So I bought that woman her groceries. Because I remembered how much I used to want someone to do that for me.

Selfishness is never okay, and calling judgement on someone else is never okay. Poverty is not something people fall into because they don't want to work. It's something that hits them. Every day. It's in how hungry they feel, their bad house, their poor neighborhood. Maybe they anesthesize this pain with alcohol or drugs and wind up finding just another place for poverty to hit, the itch for drink or for a needle when they can't afford to buy food. I got to taste this a little bit, once, and I didn't like it. I can't imagine this going on for years. I don't like where I'm at, and I make too much money to qualify for food stamps or public assistance. I can't imagine what life is like for people who can. How desperate they would be.

I can imagine what life might be like, if the people who had extra money bought someone's groceries instead of another television set. If instead of buying a new car for Christmas when they have a year old one that's just fine, they went to a social worker and offered to spend that money on another family, or on a foster kid that needed it. If we lived within our means, and then took what was left over and gave somebody else who needed it a leg up. Extra month's rent. Extra groceries. Extra time. 

I don't think the government will ever be able to take care of people. It's too big and by necessity, too impersonal. But I do believe that as long as we ignore other people and assume that you're poor because you want to be, the government will have to. If you don't want programs like welfare and food stamps, then buy someone else their groceries and help someone else pay their medical bills. You can do a far better job than the government can, and if you're ever hit in the face by poverty, that's what you'll want someone to do for you.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go work in my horrible job.


  1. Here is something to think about, I understand where you are coming from on this as I pretty much grew up on the streets myself. I had seen all of this in my life. Now as a grown up and struggling to keep my own family together ( as you know some of my fucked up problems ) one thing I see that really changes my mind about people who are in need of help. As you know, I take my breaks outside, as I am out there, I see people walking out with three to four baskets of groceries that they had just bought with their lone star card and yet, they get into a fifty - eighty thousand dollar vehicles. I know a women who comes to our store who had taken care of her father for many years and because of that choice she made, she never married. Well anyway, she can't work now because she is a senior citizen and now lives alone because her father had passed away about two years ago. She only gets about less than a hundred dollars a month on her lone star, while younger people are getting five hundred and driving fifty -eighty thousand dollar vehicles. To me, this gives me reasons to believe that people like that don't want to work and figured out how to cheat us the tax payers. And you are right, if we all help those who really need it, then things will be different.

  2. Oh, hell, I see the cheating all the time too. I hate--I mean HATE--activation day, and I see the people who are either cheating on their own, or cheating through somebody else (though it's much more common in my area for people to sell their cards for cash, thus allowing a non-chain convience store, say, to stock up on things like milk and eggs. These are the guys with the big expensive cars in my area, and I can tell because nobody buys eighteen galleons of milk and a couple packs of soda).

    But to decide that welfare and food stamp programs are bad because people cheat at them is allowing the bad behavior of a few individuals to dictate what the rest of us do. These few individuals are IMHO why we need public assistance programs--we don't want to help people personally because we don't want to wind up helping these people, and we don't want to help people impersonally (via public assistance) because we don't want to wind up helping these people.

    Public assistance DOES help the people who need it. Unfortunately, scammers manage to get in. The problem is that scammers will ALWAYS manage to get in. Nobody and no system is con-artist proof. I do not believe it is right to allow evil (and I consider con-artists to be about as evil as predatory murderers) to dictate good behavior. Now, if the number of scam artists outnumber the number of actually needy people, then I can justify revamping the program, but I don't believe this is the case. I just think that the "good" people are too quiet and embarissed about it to call attention to themselves.

    Also, I remember from when my mom tried to get food stamps, it's really really hard to get both Lone Star and own a car (the computer sign up sheet suggested she sell the car, then reapply. Not kidding) so either the fancy car owners scammed the govrnment when they signed up, they bought the cards off someone else, or they bought the car when they had money, and have enough small children to make car ownership plus Lone Star card a possibility.

    Re: the latter possibility, I suggest reading this article: Just because somebody had money once does not mean they will continue to have money later.