Note: I wrote this post originally in August, before my husband lost his job. Now that we are on food stamps and Medicaid because of our mutual lack of employment, my reasoning and rationale behind this post is even more personal than it was before. I have added references to my own experience in blue. This is intended to be a multi-part commentary. Links at the bottom to subsequent posts.
Therefore, I reject the notion that people who receive cash assistance just won’t do anything else to survive or to help themselves. And frankly it’s comments like yours, usually founded on false assumptions and skewed “facts” that cause people to not reach out for help when they need it the most. I do believe these programs need adjustments and in some cases a huge overhaul for improvements, but I suspect we may be coming from vastly different viewpoints here. I want programs that provide better benefits, that cover more people and provide more meaningful interventions than what we currently offer. We should be helping more people and not fewer. I refuse to believe that we cannot or should not take care of each other.
But before anyone can suggest HOW to make changes, I believe there needs to be significant discussions about pinpointing and defining the actual problems.
In order to even do this much, we must…
- Dismantle the abusive and dehumanizing myth of “welfare queens”. This will help isolate any actual abuse and identify unchecked errors that need to be remedied. But more importantly, this disintegrates the angry & racist welfare narrative that has prevented empathy in both policy makers and voters. This old narrative perpetuates a righteous indignation too enamored with its own false sense of superiority to have a meaningful conversation about the issue itself. Let’s be real, the “welfare queen” is a myth. An exaggeration. A lie. A damaging lie told by Ronald Reagan on the campaign trail which incited an indignation founded in racism and sexism. It was a formidable tool in getting white voters (the more likely voters) on board with his political and economic agenda. A tall tale that has outlived its maker and needs to be put to rest so that we can approach poverty policy from a place devoid of stigma and shame.
- Next, there needs to be a long discussion about the true nature of poverty itself and the reasons it persists around the world, much less in a country as prosperous and abundant as ours. This includes describing the very real biases that people hold about poor people, the disabled, the elderly and children born into poverty including class and wage inequality as well.
- Likewise, we must include conversations about the cultural values of personal generosity, survive vs. thrive, the role of charity in society, the pursuit of profits, sustainable outcomes, autonomy in personal or family decision-making, the role of sacrifice and hardship, and well, our values about humanity as a whole.
- We also need to critically re-examine our assumptions about marriage and family so that it better reflects the cultural and economic realities of Americans today. Many children are growing up raised by grandparents so that the parents can work, go back to school or get back to health. Likewise, many households are deciding to invite roommates or even the ex’s family to stay with them as a means of creating intentional community to provide better financial and emotional support to all involved. Yet, rights do not always flow in the direction of reality. This requires a critical examination of where our policy and legal assumptions about family need to be updated and retooled.
- We need to have a conversation about our policies that promote: access to affordable health care (including substantial mental health care), keeping people in their homes, access to justice, availability to improve or access social capital, education equity, and of course, the economic cost-benefit of a living wage. This also should address access to higher education, safe and affordable options for day care for working families and the cost of caring for our elderly.
- We must also reconcile our hypocritical messages about children and families in the United States. We must encounter head-on the cultural disconnect between our agendas on abortion, prenatal counseling/care with our utter disregard for a child, the mother and the family unit once the child leaves the protective cocoon of the womb. This includes critically assessing access to all family planning options, including sexual health education, birth control (including condoms), and screenings for STIs and cancer so that they are either completely free or covered fully by insurance providers and Medicaid. Include too foster parenting, availability for adoption, equality in education, access to nutritious foods, clean environments, support for parents through all stages of a child’s development up through college, remedying the pervasive cycles of abuse and violence and creating opportunities for higher education including student loan forgiveness.
- We must rewrite the myth of the American Dream which perpetuates a cultural standard of “with just some good, old fashioned hard work, you are able to have everything you need”. Great, good. But it’s not true for everyone. Many people who are poor work hard too, often in multiple jobs; then they encounter tragedy or loss and are right back where they started. Therefore, we must recognize that our policies and indeed our national narrative that distinguishes between the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor. We draw these distinctions in all of our communities—people who are either worthy (usually those who are like us) and those who are unworthy (not like us). A rather exaggerated and selfish example of these distinctions is detailed here: http://www.snopes.com/katrina/personal/volunteer.asp . (“WHY THE FUCK SHOULD I HELP PEOPLE WHO DON’T WANT TO HELP THEMSELVES!” has become our new national anthem ).
- And finally we must confront our history and our disappointing present policies that promote and enforce gross disparities in wages and living conditions based on a pervasive culture of sexism, cis-sexism, homophobia, ableism, ageism and racism. We must recognize and come to terms with how privilege operates in our public policy landscape much less our personal lives.
Without these conversations, meaningful change cannot even begin.
Without widespread recognition of that there is a powerful and enduring cycle of poverty, the status quo will endure.
Without a significant policy shift that places an emphasis on meaningful interventions at all levels and entry points to poverty there will be no change.
I reject the welfare myth that assumes that those on government assistance are lazy. This myth permeates because it gives fuel to the righteous indignation that many feel toward the poor. Anger that is sparked by assumptions and judgments based on someone’s appearance (clothing, jewelry, phone, car, furnishings, etc.) or a news article (urban legend) that highlights one instance of welfare abuse, which leads people to a panicked conclusion that there is widespread fraud within the system as a whole.
We assume laziness is the answer, but laziness doesn’t belong only to the poor. You know who else is lazy? You are, Mr. can’t -be-bothered-to-introduce-myself-properly Man. You know who else? I am. Ms. Didn’t-put-my-laundry-away-and-left-it-in-the-hallway Woman. You know who else? The guy who pays for fast food on the way home. Or the woman who took the elevator one floor up instead of the stairs. Or the teenager who played video games instead of mowing the lawn. Or the couple that decided to sleep in and let the kids watch TV all morning. Or the politician who took a week off to unwind at his favorite resort.
Let’s be real, each of us makes thousands of decisions every day many of which could be characterized as lazy. Yet it seems to be the national pastime to review and critique those decisions in order to be deemed “worthy” enough for our help. Since when do we have such special insight into anyone else’s life that we get to judge them for every imperfect result they have experienced?
But guess who we judge for their choices more than anyone? Celebrities and the poor. Funny mix, isn’t it? Well, no one is going to question whether you spent that $8 on a wheel of cheese; however, if you’re poor that’s cause for someone like you to automatically dismiss them to the “undeserving” zone and loudly confront them in line at the grocery store: “how DARE tyou spend ‘hard-earned taxpayer money’ on a luxury item such as cheese!?! The ungrateful sods.” No one is going to question whether you ate a donut for breakfast, but if Jennifer Lopez does it, it’s on grocery stands for the next week. “The fucking cow.”
Yet, dehumanizing suffering and tragedy and ignoring a desire for autonomy and dignity is a very easy way to let yourself off the hook from feeling anything and taking responsibility for the contribution you’ve made to the system that created this mess. Demonizing entire classes of people is an easy way to dismiss the problems of the world while giving yourself a congratulatory handshake for all your “hard work”. Achievement unlocked: Douchehattery 101. But all of this is just another method of playground bullying except this time you don’t have to see them cry when you do it.
Sorry, but that is not the world that I am here to create. I do have ideas and I do have critiques, but they involve better targeting of our resources combined with an expansion of aid available for longer periods of time. All of these are based not in anger or prejudice, but in empathy and a recognition of the realities of poverty. Maybe it comes from the years of working with individuals and communities that astonish me with their creativity and resilience. Maybe it’s from my struggle to survive the overwhelming bills and debt when I was unemployed.
Maybe it just comes from being someone who believes that generosity is a virtue and that each person is deserving of dignity and respect. Maybe it’s because I believe that we’re all in this together.