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A Poor Perspective on Poverty

When I was in elementary school, my mom made most of my clothes. As a child, I loved picking out the patterns and fabric to help design something uniquely for me. And when I outgrew those clothes, we donated them to what my parents called “the needy.”

I had a vague understanding of who “the needy” were. They were the kids who came to school dirty and sometimes smelly. They were the kids whose parents didn’t socialize with our parents. They were the kids that lived in neighborhoods where we were told not to go.

I thought that giving my clothes to “the needy” was some kind of measure of moral superiority.

Then one day, a girl in my class came to school wearing one of the outfits my mother had made.

I was shocked.

She was needy? I talked to her. I played with her at recess. I even sat with her at lunch sometimes.

I was even more shocked when someone asked her about her new clothes, and she described a shopping trip she’d made to Portland with her mother. At that age, I was just as unfamiliar with lying as I was with “the needy.”

I made the mistake of calling her out on her lie, but she didn’t relent and insisted she had bought the outfit at a store in Portland.

After that, I didn’t talk to her, play with her at recess or sit with her at lunch. I started equating “being needy” with being a liar.

Decades later, I still feel guilty about calling the girl out. I wish I could go back in time and go along with her fantasy about clothes shopping at fancy stores. She simply wanted to fit in, and I understand that now.

We live in a society that equates products with social status and success. Just carrying an off-brand purse gets me looks from women who pride themselves on carrying name brands.

And the extent to which our children are buying into that materialistic culture even surprises me. I’m usually not at a loss for words, but there is an exception to everything.

My exception came in the form of a ten-year old boy who lives in a house much larger than mine. His parents drive newer and more expensive cars than my husband and I do. His family seems to be on vacation every time school is out while my family rules the staycation. In other words, I think of his family as being “well-off.”

The boy, however, told me his family is poor.

I didn’t know what to say. Even with money out of the picture, I can’t begin to describe his family as poor.

His parents are attentive and loving to each other and their children, who are involved in numerous extracurricular activities. The family worships together and is actively engaged in community service. Simply put, the family lacks for nothing.

The boy, however, was adamant that his family is of limited means. He was sure because he has friends who not only live in a bigger houses but also have beach houses. Their cars are even more expensive, and their vacations even more extravagant. In his eyes, his family really doesn’t have enough.

I understand how this boy reached his conclusion. It’s called perspective. But that’s not an excuse for him or for all the adults who look into that same short lens that distorts everything.

Recently, a local official asked me why the percentage of children living in poverty had grown while the median household income in his county grew by more than $18,000 during the same ten-year period. Before I could answer, his colleague responded.

“There are more poor people, because the poverty level goes up every year. A family can make more money and still be considered poor.”

I was proud of my reaction. I was appropriate, and I didn’t even make a face. Instead, I noted that the local numbers simply reflect national data that show a growing income gap between the rich and the poor. Then I asked, “have you actually looked at the poverty level?”

When I didn’t get a response, I added, “This year, the poverty level for a family of four is $23,500. Personally, I don’t know how I could live within that.”

The topic quickly changed, and I’m not sure if the discussion had really ended or if a genuine conversation about poverty was just too uncomfortable, as it often is. Instead, we misdirect by categorizing the poor as deserving or undeserving. We dress up and attend charity events that make us feel good about helping. And we pride ourselves in giving to “the needy.”

But there are times when I try to change my perspective and look at how we treat the poor from the eyes of my former classmate. I’m pretty sure she’d tell us to stop pretending that poverty is something that happens to other people. I also think she’d say that we should stop pretending that name brand clothes or a big house reflect on our character or our importance. And I’m positive she’d say that we shouldn’t pretend that charitable giving is more meaningful than really listening to someone who is struggling.

And in return for her opinion, I’d tell her that I think she’s right.

A Bit of a Rant About People Who Rant About “Welfare”

I am all for letting people have their own opinions.

I better be, especially since I have a lot of them myself. And I’m also all for letting people express their opinions, because I’m pretty sure I’d explode if I couldn’t express mine once in a while.

But here’s the thing.

I don’t pretend I know about everything. In fact, I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know much at all.

The recent debate over the national debt?  While I have an opinion about how our “leaders” behaved, I certainly never thought I had the answer. That’s because math, finance and anything to do with numbers was never my thing. Same with legal issues. While I can give a small amount of advice to nonprofits about issues they should consider, I would certainly never try to pretend I actually understand the legalities involved.  And when it comes to anything medical, technical or mechanical? Forget it. I can’t contribute anything.

But I do know a thing about social services and about issues facing people in poverty.  Which is why my blood starts boiling when I hear people ranting about the “welfare” system, the” lazy people who use it”  and how people who “get welfare” should be drug tested.   I’m pretty sure I’ve seen these topics come up on Facebook at least once a week for the past couple years.

I sometimes wonder if  people who make these comments really understand the issues at all.  Or if they realize that some of  “those people” might be people they sit next to in church, or who care for their children or who are members of the PTA.   I also wonder if they’ve ever considered that any of us, through some series of unfortunate circumstances, could have been – or still could  become-one of “those people.”

I’m not going to use this space to elaborate  on the  multitude of  reasons, some of them societal, that people end up “on welfare.”  What I really want to do is set  people straight about what “welfare” actually is.  However,   I do spend a lot of time at our local Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR), often called the “welfare office,” and I highly recommend that everyone spend some time there.  It’s very enlightening.

It’s also not a happy place to be.

First, the waiting room is always crammed full of people who are down on their luck.  Secondly, because people often have to wait all day just to see a worker, many arrive before 7:30 in the morning so they don’t have to come back the next day and wait again. And third, there is no specific profile for people who need assistance. When I’ve seen people I know  in the waiting room, I’m generally surprised and they are they are generally embarrassed.

With that said, I’ll be the first to admit that there will always be people who want something for nothing. And there are always be people who try to work the system. But,  in my experience, about  90% of the people seeking assistance are honest and have simply fallen on hard times.   Those people “driving cars nicer than yours?” That car might be the last asset they are holding on to after losing everything else, including a good paying job. They may have gone through their savings and  exhausted  all help from relatives only to  be in a place they never imagined.  That woman with three young kids? She may have just escaped a domestic violence situation in which the controlling husband or boyfriend didn’t allow her to work. Now that she’s finally left him, she’s left with nothing.  And then there are those people who’ve never had any support or resources their entire life.

Based on what I know, I wouldn’t say these individuals  are taking the easy way out.  But a lot of people seem to think that.   I recently had a friend call  and ask me what to tell a family member who told her son, “There’s no reason you should go to college or worry about getting a job.  You can just go to the welfare office and the taxpayers will support you. You’ll get a free place to live, a free car and a free phone.”   The family member wasn’t actually encouraging this. They were simply complaining about how their tax dollars are supporting people who can live a good life without working.

Not true.

Just for the record, there is no actual assistance called welfare any more.  What used to be called welfare is now Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or TANF.  TANF is a federal program and is only available for families with children.  Single people or childless couples cannot receive TANF, because the purpose of it is not to help people live comfortably but rather to ensure that the children in those families have their basic needs met.  It also intended help recipients  become more employable. If you actually look at  how  much money TANF recipients receive,  I  can’t imagine how you think they can live comfortably.

Also, TANF recipients don’t get something for nothing. Anyone who receives TANF must participate in some kind of job training and work activity. If they can’t find a job, they have to volunteer. If they don’t participate in these activities, they are sanctioned.

And TANF isn’t a lifetime deal.  A person can only receive a LIFETIME maximum of 60 months of assistance.  And because TANF is a federal program, they can’t get assistance in WV then move to Maryland and start over. The assistance they received in WV is counted toward the 60 months.  Many, many, many TANF recipients  never even reach 60 months, because they are able to get back on their feet months, and sometimes even years, before their benefits run out.

As for the free housing? Free car? Free phone?  First of all, housing is a completely different program than TANF and has its own set of guidelines.  In West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, where the cost of housing is much, much higher than the rest of the state, there is virtually no public housing available. Last I heard, the two-year waiting list was closed because of high demand and limited resources.

There is a non-profit program that provides donated cars to TANF recipients, but the purpose of these vehicles is to provide a way for people to get to the work they are required to do while receiving assistance. There’s not much public transportation in rural West Virginia, and without a car, they can’t get to work.   Also, the availability of these cars if very limited. These are  donated, used cars.  If people don’t donate, there are no cars. The cell phones are provided by a private company, and there are no taxpayer dollars involved.

I’m sure by now, someone who is reading this is thinking, “I know someone who doesn’t have children, and they still got welfare.”  Granted, there are other financial assistance programs out there.  Some  serve people with disabilities, and many disabilities aren’t obvious. Also,  West Virginia has a program called Emergency Assistance that  low-income individuals can receive during a one-month period only once a year.  And when I say low-income, I mean really low-income.   The income eligibility guidelines haven’t changed since the early 1980’s.  Which basically means the limited financial assistance  is like putting a band-aid on a wound that requires surgery.

I also know there are people who feel that churches and charities should be providing the bulk of the charitable support.  I  think that would be great  if only it were actually feasible. But,  it’s not.  I encourage you to 1)take a look at the budgets or nonprofit organizations that serve low-income individuals and families, and 2) review the amount of assistance they can actually provide.  Most only provide a very small amount of assistance and limit assistance to once a year. There are simply more people who are hurting than there are dollars or donations to help. And most organizations have criteria for assistance, just as DHHR does.

Which brings me to the issue of drug testing those who receive “welfare.”  To be honest, I really don’t have a strong opinion when it comes to the issue of civil rights and drug testing.  As I said before, I’m not a lawyer and I would never pretend to be.

But, as my husband is constantly pointing out,  I’m a very practical person.  And drug testing individuals who receive TANF… or Emergency Assistance or whatever people consider welfare… just isn’t practical.  First, DHHR officials report that they just don’t see much evidence of drug use among the economic services or “welfare” clients.  (They do, however, see a lot of evidence of it  with families who are involved with Child Protective Services).  Secondly,  drug testing requires resources: every drug test costs money.  It has to be administered, it has to analyzed, and the reports have to be given to the clients.  I doubt DHHR workers could provide the results because of a conflict of interest.  If  there were a positive test, I’m sure there would also be a complaint that “DHHR told me I tested positive so they wouldn’t have to give me money.”   So  in addition to personnel costs, there might also be legal costs.

I’m not sure  where the money for drug testing would come from.   For those of you who say it could come from the TANF dollars that the  clients would receive if they didn’t test positive? I refer you again to my first point… there’s no evidence indicating that the majority of   individuals who receive economic  assistance use drugs.  I’m just not sure the dollars would be there – even if they could even be used for that purpose.

And, let’s say I’m wrong and a  lot of people did have positive results.  What then? These are low-income individuals to begin with.  Should they just be left to fend for themselves  or would treatment be provided? If  treatment is provided, where would the money for that come from? Treatment services are already very under-funded and have long wait lists.

Finally, since helping individuals develop the skills, knowledge and habits to gain and maintain employment is one of the primary purposes of TANF programs, I don’t understand why we would put up barriers to participating.  Don’t we want to help people improve their situation?

So I  rant. And  I am sure there are those who are going to disagree with everything I say.  Feel  free.  As I said before, I think everyone is required to an opinion.

I just don’t think those opinions should involve blaming or marginalizing any segment of our population. And I don’t understand why people who have more than enough to meet their basic needs– food, housing, clothing, and health care– feel that they are being punished by being asked to help their fellow-man. To me, that’s a privilege.  Besides,  as the saying goes,  you can’t take it with you. But I’m pretty sure good deeds stick with you forever.