With all of the odds stacked against them

One of the things that really, really, really grinds my gears is to hear people talk bad about people who use “welfare.” Words like “welfare queens” are trigger words for me. I end the conversation right then and there and walk away. (It used to be that I would engage in discussion with people who use derogatory terms like that, but I’ve come to understand that they’re beyond understanding.) I am the product of welfare assistance, and I still receive welfare to some degree.

When we first came to the United States, my mother’s legal degree from Mexico didn’t transfer over. So she had to make the daily trip back into Juarez to practice law and earn a living. However, as you can imagine, that living was not enough to sustain us here in the US. So mom applied for food stamps, and she also got an “Earned Income Credit” with her tax return. (There are some programs now where colleges and universities will give someone a ton of credit for a degree earned in Mexico. Earn your degree in Europe? No problem. Come right in.)

Those food stamps and that extra cash helped a lot. We got to eat good food, made at home by either mom or my grandmother. The extra cash came in handy, even if it came in a little late — as a lump sum — to pay for the previous months’ rent and other things. As a result of that cash shortage, mom ran up her credit, something that she is paying for still to this day. And it was the same for me. As soon as I turned 18, as a sophomore in college, I applied for and got a credit card, no questions asked. (Seriously, I just mailed in a postcard. It’s a thousand times easier now with online applications.)

I got through college through a combination of help in the form of cash from my mom and dad, cash from part-time jobs, and cash from grants and student loans. So I was lucky to have cash around to pay for rent and other needs, even if I did mismanage it a lot because money management skills were not taught to me at the time. (I learned them the hard way.) I also had a small amount of food stamps that paid for groceries, though I mostly ate at my aunt’s house or grandma would come over and make something for me. (Mom had moved to Nebraska.)

Today, I am happy to report that my credit cards are under control, my student loans will be manageable once I finish the doctorate, and my wife and I own our home. (Well, the bank owns it.) We are gainfully employed, and I even got a full-ride scholarship for the doctoral degree. We still get welfare benefits, though. The state and local taxes that we pay on the home are tax deductible, my student loans are on deferment (so the government picks up the tab for the interest), and our employers provide us with healthcare insurance (while the government subsidizes the employers, by not taxing them, for giving us insurance).

All of us benefit from the government in one way or another. There are plenty of people who would like to think that they are truly independent, and that only “welfare queens” are receiving government benefits and abusing them. But they’re not. When I point out to them how they are benefiting from tax dollars more than the amount of taxes they pay, they are quick to call me names. C’est la vie. I’m not here to entertain them.

Yesterday, I went to a talk by Dr. Kathy Edin, a professor at Hopkins who is a sociologist and social justice advocate. She wrote a book titled “$2 A Day“, about how the extreme poor in the United States (those making less than $2 per day) have to make ends meet. Her book is filled with stories of people who seem to have all of the odds stacked against them. They can’t get a job because they live in very poor counties without public transportation to take them to where the jobs are. Or they move to cities and live in squalor because the jobs don’t pay enough to live in a better place. Or they get vouchers to live in a better place, but, again, they’re far from work.

Time after time, you can see the systems and institutions that are seemingly against people who are extremely poor. (Extremely poor in the world’s biggest economy, by the way.) They get welfare benefits and use those benefits to lift themselves from poverty. Then they make “too much” money and are thrown back into extreme poverty when the welfare benefits dry up. Or they’re at the whims of politicians who pass laws to stop welfare abuse and end up hurting a ton of people in order to punish a very small percentage of abusers.

During the discussion, one of the other professors from Hopkins there mentioned something that got a big reaction from the crowd. Someone had asked about “responsible companies” who raise pay to their employees because of public pressure or because they realize that employees who can make a living are more productive, more likely to come through for the company and put in more hours and deliver a better product. The professor mentioned that Starbucks is starting to pay living wages in many parts of the country, and that they offer healthcare insurance to their employees working at least half time. “Hopkins doesn’t offer insurance unless you’re working 75% of full time.” Everyone voiced their disapproval of that.

I don’t run — or have ever run — a healthcare organization as big and complex as Johns Hopkins Hospital (and/or University). So I might be thinking too simplistically when I reason that a big, world-renowned hospital, one that receives some pretty big gifts from abroad, would be able to provide healthcare insurance to all of their employees. “If you work here, and here is a hospital, we should be able to see you without you losing an arm and a leg, figuratively,” is what I would say if I ran that place. But I’m sure that the reason they don’t offer health insurance to all of their employees is complex.

Or maybe it’s not complex and they could do it right away?

So that’s the sad reality that so many people in the United States of America live with today. All the while, fat and privileged people keep voting against funding to help the extremely poor because “we have to live within our means.” If that were the case, the extremely poor would just up and die, because $2 a day is not something you can live with, not in this reality. I wonder if that’s what the “live within our means” people mean when they say that? Do they want the extremely poor to die?

Of course, when some people hear the sad story of a mother of four who is on welfare and unemployed, they are quick to say idiotic things like, “Maybe she shouldn’t have gotten pregnant.” What they don’t know is that she maybe didn’t want to get pregnant but had no access to contraceptives. “Well, then she shouldn’t have had sex,” they say. Like that is so easy to do. Like only the women are at fault for pregnancies. Then they ignore the stories of women who were once married, with two kids, and then something happened that had the family lose their home and their savings. That financial loss leads to stress in the marriage and ends in divorce. Then, a couple of years later, some dude comes along and woos the woman into a relationship, running away scared the moment she gets pregnant. By the end of the cycle, you have a new cycle of poverty starting, multiplied by the number of children who had to grow in that cycle.

In that scenario above, it could have all been avoided if the fat and privileged had done everything possible to keep predatory home lending in check. Or if they had done everything possible to keep people from losing their homes to bankruptcy. Etcetera. Etcetera. But we’re not known for doing the things that make sense. Our Legislature has long been about reacting to crises (most of them created by their lack of foresight) rather than preventing crises by enacting legislation that is fair and well-informed.

Maybe someday they will. I won’t hold my breath.

A family lives in this house in the Mississippi Delta. (Image via Jimmy Smith on Flickr, CC By -NC -ND 2.0)

I'm a doctoral candidate in the Doctor of Public Health program at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. All opinions posted here are my own, of course, and they do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my school, employers, friends, family, etc. Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @EpiRen

5 thoughts on “With all of the odds stacked against them

  1. Some begrudge the poor welfare, all the while championing corporate welfare via tax breaks that never “trickle down”.
    I have read some tea party types actually suggest that the poor be left to die. They didn’t like my response at all, some told me I was privileged to live in this land.
    I explained that being a citizen of this land isn’t a privilege, it is a Constitutional right. I was born here of US citizens, one of whom was a Daughter of the American Revolution, the other the son of immigrants who became US citizens.
    We’ll say that the conversation devolved, as such conversations do with dedicated tea party idios, complete with death threats. To the treats, I explained a bit about my military history and experience, suggesting that the one leaving in a body bag would not be myself.
    I’ve even had some of these ever so wonderful and generous people suggest that veterans who have put in 20 years of service or more should not receive a pension. Those quickly lost the room, as worship of things military is common in this nation and pensions are also desirable.

    Today, instead of discourse, we get shouts, threats and denouncement (as if denouncing anyone actually has any power). Discussion has ended, the farthest right gets their way or nothing is allowed to be done.
    All the while, these people continue to vote against their own self interests in favor of the most wealthy in this nation.
    If anyone has a good idea how to return this nation back to its former calm self, do enlighten me.

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    • Unfortunately, I think we’ve reached a point where even a national emergency won’t bring us together. People were at risk of dying during superstorm Sandy, and all one side could do was chastise Chris Christie for asking for FEMA help, while the other side mocked Obama for providing it to the Republican governor.

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  2. Then there are the disabled. That includes veterans who have been injured in combat, and the all but forgotten. Kids who were born with disabilities and those disabled by diseases. I am a parent of an autistic adult.

    After he got an associates degree at the community college no one would hire him. Probably due to his speech issues, ungainly gait and disheveled hair (that he musses while stimming). So far he is getting an EBT card (a modern version of food stamps), state paid health care and job assistance from the state’s Department of Vocational Rehabilitation. He is paying rent to live at home. Since he has no income it is tabulated in a virtual account, and he is now over two thousand dollars in debt with us.

    Am I happy about that? No. But I am even less happy with the mercury militia diverting attention away from the needs of autistic adults to their pet anti-vaccine and cureby side shows.

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    • Typos are evil: “That includes veterans who have been injured in combat, and they are all but forgotten.”

      There is a very haunting photo in a group of slides taken by my dad during the 1960s that my brother had digitized, and then sent copies to me. It is of a teenage girl sitting in a chair wearing her prom dress, looking very sad. My brother, who is six years older than me, actually remembers the occasion of that photo. It was in the trailer home of an Army officer who was part of a “Reduction in Force” not long after the Korean War. His family was living on the edge of poverty, since his Army pension was meager and his job prospects were thin. My dad took the photo of the daughter in the dress because her dad could not afford a camera.

      According to my brother, this situation prompted my father to avoid such a situation. So he had no qualms about my mother working (trust me, she was a better mother when she worked than when she did not… in third grade when we were assigned to draw a parent at work, other kids did their dads doing Army stuff… I drew my mom working at a desk with a typewriter). Every cent my mom earned was invested. She died when I was eleven, and I am sure over forty five years later he is living off of those funds. (and oh, does he still love her… there is a photo album in the house of her photos that he made after her death… while we siblings were attempting to take it away to scan he stopped us, he does not want it to leave his house).

      Wow, your mom is a lawyer. My mother was a trained artist, but worked as a receptionist/secretary/assistant because she could type and take dictation at amazing speeds (and was crazy smart, she was the one who helped me in math, like explaining number systems like binary as part of my fifth grade math homework). And every time we moved, she had to start right at the bottom of the chain, and work herself up in one to three years before the cycle repeated with another move. I really admire your mother.

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      • My mother drilled me mercilessly in phonics and reading, for hours at a time, day after day. That began right after our family doctor diagnosed me with dyslexia.
        Today, my dyslexic moments are when I’m tired and I have to guard against gaffs or more serious errors.
        My wife is dyslexic, but her dyslexia was never diagnosed until we were married and I noticed trends in errors she made reading and in her artwork. A few minutes at the doctors office and my suspicion was confirmed. Unfortunately, her reading was harder to remediate as such is part of language development, which is easier learned in one’s early years. Still, errors in hear artwork have disappeared and her sales have improved, commissions come in on occasion and one of her pieces sits in the home of the Crown Prince of Qatar’s home.

        The United States of America has always viewed lower class people being literally disposable. Whether it was the African slaves, the Chinese Coolies, the Irish railroad workers, onward, such were ignored, placed in the dirtiest, most dangerous jobs for poverty wages.
        Are we the greatest nation on Earth? Well, if we judge our nation based upon how *all* citizens, poor, disabled, elderly and wealthy are treated, greatest nation my ass.

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