Uncomfortable revelations seem to be my lot in life.
You know, the kind you get when you’ve been super judgmental of something or someone and then you suddenly find yourself in their shoes . . .
For example, my older brother had three kids before I had one. I remember riding in their van and being astonished by the crayons and toys and sippy cups littering the floor.
How hard is it? I actually uttered those words in my head. Keeping your car clean can’t be that time-consuming.
Oh, yes. I did.
Twenty years and four kids later, my van is still a mess. I feel like a permanently-dirty-van curse was direct and swift punishment for my judgmentalism.
. . . I could give you countless other examples of this. The things I would never and suddenly am . . .
But the one that is pricking my heart right now — well, I still have a hard time putting it into words.
I’m not sure I can adequately express to you how humbling it was to go through the interview process for TANF: Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, formerly known as “welfare.”
I think I cried more varieties of tears in November and December of 2007 than I’ve cried in my whole life combined. The joblessness, homelessness, Dave’s relapse . . . painful sledgehammer blows to my pride.
And the lady in the DSHS office had zero compassion.
She shared with me in the most condescending tone that I would be better off and get more assistance if I left my husband. As it stood, we could get no rental assistance, no cash benefit, and no food stamps for at least a month (due to a technicality with Dave’s final paycheck) even though we had absolutely nothing. We were welcome to come back the next month and apply, but, she warned me, everyone in the household over 16 years old has to be pursuing full-time work in order to get anything more than food benefits. I had no idea what all that meant, other than that if I got a full time job, our youngest would go to daycare. And though I argued with her that I could make more money working part-time as a teacher and not have to pay for daycare than working full-time doing anything else and having to pay for daycare, she said those are the rules.
Once Dave had a low-income job, however, we were eligible for food assistance, for which we were extremely grateful. But every pay increase, no matter how small, reduced our assistance — even though we were below Federal Poverty Level for more than a year.
And one day, it stopped all together. Which was good, because it meant we were getting back on our feet, but I could not help wondering, as we subsequently lost free lunch for our kids and then reduced medical while still struggling to pay off debts and live, What is the point? What incentive is there to work hard and get out of poverty?
The distance between poverty and “self-sufficiency” is a no-man’s land. It’s two steps forward, three back. And there are more enticing reasons to hang on to the help when you can get it than to kill yourself to stand on your own two feet.
I remember the day I got the letter about free college tuition. My child could have free tuition if I signed up during 8th grade and was still financially eligible when she graduated from high school. I looked at the income limits and had a Scarlett O’Hara moment: As God is my witness, we will not still be that poor in four years. And we weren’t.
I have so many bottled up thoughts and feelings from being poor . . . I remember skipping recovery group because we could afford neither gas or nor child care. One of those Friday nights, I sat on the landing between the flights of stairs of our tiny two-story townhouse, planning cheap meals to maximize food benefits (which weren’t half of what I spend on food now) and make them last the full month, praying for raises and hand-me-downs, and feeling ashamed of my ignorance and judgment of people in this affluent country who ask for help. I sat on the stairs, the oddest and only place to be alone, and talked to God about how I would not forget my American poverty and would speak up and do something about it.
But I’ll be honest with you, it’s pretty daunting.
I wish we could all just see caring for the poor and wandering among us as our God-given responsibility, but we don’t. Instead we draw lines in the sand and redefine “neighbor” to suit. We pull out the worst stories of abusing the system and sling the word “welfare” like mud. Because there are plenty of entitled people out there whose behavior makes you cynical in a heartbeat.
But the truth is, there are more than we can possibly know who slip through the cracks of a system we think just hands out money to poor people and foreigners.
And then there are those for whom the system sort of works — like us.
* * * * *
The president of a rescue mission spoke these words from Isaiah to me in a phone interview early in those years of poverty and writing. I know he had no idea what they meant to me, or how they would seep into my soul.
This is the kind of fasting I want:
Free those who are wrongly imprisoned;
lighten the burden of those who work for you.
Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people.
Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless.
Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help.
Then your salvation will come like the dawn, and your wounds will quickly heal.
Your godliness will lead you forward, and the glory of the Lord will protect you from behind.
Then when you call, the Lord will answer. ‘Yes, I am here,’ He will quickly reply.
Remove the heavy yoke of oppression.
Stop pointing your finger and spreading vicious rumors!
Feed the hungry, and help those in trouble.
Then your light will shine out from the darkness,
and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon.
The Lord will guide you continually,
giving you water when you are dry
and restoring your strength.
You will be like a well-watered garden, like an ever-flowing spring.
Some of you will rebuild the deserted ruins of your cities.
Then you will be known as a rebuilder of walls
and a restorer of homes.
* * * * * *
Soon, I’m going to paint those words on the wall of our own home, over the landing between the flights of stairs.
I want to remember always to have compassion.
To not forget the help given to us by God, by our church, by family and friends and by our government.
* * * * *
Photograph: Poor whites, Georgetown, D.C. photographed by Carl Mydans, 1935 Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, [reproduction number LC-DIG-fsa-8a00144]