the truth about welfare

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.

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.

 Isaiah 58

* * * * * *

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]

when it’s time to burn the past

It’s good to remember what you were rescued from so that you never return to slavery. It’s good to remember who cared for you when you couldn’t take care of yourself.

There is a bittersweet beauty in burning the past.

Medical bills, credit card statements, unemployment reports, brochures from recovery centers, duplicate checks, collections files . . . stuff we’ve carried for seven years and more and can finally let go.

Neither of us has wanted to do this.

We stuffed non-essentials-that-could-be-important into a few boxes and a four drawer fling cabinet seven years ago and shut it away in storage, in a garage, and in a closet under the stairs.

Now we sift. Through lesson plans — his and mine. Through game plans — his from coaching days. I am surprised to feel no grief over reminders of the good things we once had and lost. We toss papers ruthlessly into the fire.

Files of pay stubs, of copies of forms filled out every three months to keep public assistance, pay stubs from work, handwritten budgets.

We keep a few things . . . Notes and bills helpful to see again as I write. Behavior contracts — evidence of my desperation to get a grip on a life spinning wildly out of control. Our food benefits card — witness to the year we stayed home because we didn’t have gas but at least we had food to eat.

Seven years of getting back up slowly after losing job, home, ministry all on one dreary November afternoon.

* * * * *

The long, steady ascent from the abyss began with decisions to stay.

To stayed married. To stay together. To stay in a small town where everyone connects to everyone eventually . . .

I admire his tenacity. Day after day, earning trust, respect and confidence. I hate having to prove myself again and again; I would have given up a long time ago. But he’s been at it for seven years.

Years of clocking in and marking down every hour, every minute, every place.

Years of increasing responsibility.

Years of keeping every. single. receipt.

Years of weekly meetings with men to encourage each other to keep going.

Years of speaking truth over and over.

Years of paying debts.

Years of taking one day at a time.

Seven years.

* * * * *

Every seven years, a nation celebrated in make-shift dwellings, to remember deliverance from slavery in Egypt.

Remember how I led you when you could not see?

Remember how I fed you when you could not feed yourself?

Remember how I sheltered you when you did not have a home?

At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts . . . because the Lord’s time for canceling debts has been proclaimed. (Deuteronomy 15:1-2)

Every seven years, a new start: the Season of Our Joy. 

* * * * *

I don’t readily remember the exact date. I have to look through a journal to find it.

I checked this week, when the weather suddenly turned cold and I felt the time coming.

And I feel the beauty of providence.

This week, we are purging the past, preparing to move from our 18th temporary home into a home of our own.

This week, our church provides meals for a local ministry that gives people a new start. And it turns out we are making dinner together tonight for homeless men exactly seven years from the day we became homeless ourselves.

On this day, we were set free from fifteen years of slavery to addiction and fear. Set free into uncertainty, and wandering and complete dependence on God.

* * * * *

Dear friend, sometimes you are just ready to sort and burn the burdens of the past.

To let go of the piles of guilt you’ve been carrying with you in boxes because you couldn’t bear to look too closely at the done and the undone.

To sift through it all and pull out the things that remind you of how bad it was then and keep a few to remind you how grateful you are for now.

People like to say you need to forget the past to move forward. But I don’t think that’s true.

It’s good to remember what you were rescued from so that you never return to slavery. It’s good to remember who cared for you when you couldn’t take care of yourself. And it’s good to remember the day you lost it all and commemorate it as a new beginning.

Here’s to the Season of Our Joy,

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dear mom who is trying to do everything right

I remember reading the list in the What to Expect Book carefully and following every detail. Like I was making a lemon meringue pie. Or replacing the water pump in a car. I had never washed a newborn before! I needed detailed instructions.

Somewhere in that picture, there’s a baby.

She’s wearing her “in case the ultra-sound was wrong” turned “emergency backup clothes for when I don’t get out to the shared laundry” blue long johns. (It was a good thing I had several back ups.)

I put this picture in her baby book, captioning it: Mommy was afraid she’d make a mistake! and laughing at myself a little. I had just had baby number three when I wrote it — bathing a baby wasn’t such a big deal anymore.

But the first bath? I remember reading the list in the What to Expect Book carefully and following every detail. Like I was making a lemon meringue pie. Or replacing the water pump in a car. I had never washed a newborn before! I needed detailed instructions. And when I took a step back to see what the supply list looked like in real life, well, I had to take a picture.

But it was only the beginning of trying to do it all right: crying it out, pacifiers, potty training . . .

It’s funny, looking back . . . Our first three babies each came home with a different instruction for how to lay them in their crib. Side, tummy, back . . . and car seats changed from front to rear facing. It was a struggle to keep up with the latest thing that’s best for your baby. I didn’t always. I couldn’t.

Twenty years have passed since that first baby bath. And I’ve made more mistakes in parenting than 25 year old me would care to know. She would judge me. Me and my dirty van and my belly fat. Because she was determined to get it as right as possible.

I’ve had to learn to relax a little and be okay with some imperfection. I mean, I was the mom with the birthday themes you couldn’t buy party goods for at Party City — making fancy cakes and invitations. And look at me now — I sent a cake mix, cup cake liners and candles to my college girl to help celebrate her 20th birthday and didn’t even think about frosting til I walked out of the post office.

But I have to be honest with you, every now and then an accusing voice says you did it all wrong, it’s because you didn’t ____  and other sorts of things accusing voices say.

So I listen for a minute, or a while, or a season, and try and separate the truth from the lies. And then I have to tell myself some truth: So many of the things we think are important for our kids just aren’t.

Sleeping all night by three months old? Not necessary.

Preschool? Not necessary. (Unless it’s for mom’s sanity.)

Having their own room? Not necessary.

A smart phone? Not necessary.

How do I know these things? Because none of them were a big deal until our lifetime.

Babies were born and bathed for generation upon generation without What to Expect. And babies slept next to mom for warmth and protection and were probably nursed back to sleep so they didn’t wake pa and the other kids up before morning chores. And in some states, still, kids aren’t required to be formally educated until age 8 — long past pre-school.

Oh, mom trying to do everything right, do you love your children with your whole life? Then you already are doing it more right than you know. Forget the trappings of baby and childhood that are all the rage today and gone tomorrow. Think of what lasts. It’s not the latest must-have your child needs. It’s you.

You are showing your child God’s love through every bath you give, every meal you make, every nose you wipe, every dream you encourage, every time you drop them off or pick them up when it’s totally inconvenient.

And in the middle of all that business of life, you are going to make mistakes.

But that love you have for your child, that sacrificial love, is going to carry you and that child through all the mistakes you are going to make — and all the mistakes that child is going to make because she’s not perfect either. Love, dear mom, covers a multitude of sins.* 

So why do we stay up so late then, and get up so early and wear ourselves thin and ragged?

Sometimes it’s love, yes. But I wonder sometimes if it’s because we’re trying so very, very hard to do it all just exactly right. And perfectionism doesn’t translate so well into love.

Love your children with you today. Love them even if it gets really messy and don’t be afraid of making mistakes.

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*1 Peter 4:8