When I was in high school, my fellow students begged our teachers to grade on a curve. Their theory, of course, was that if everyone did poorly, no one would fail. That wasn’t necessarily true, but we were self-absorbed teenagers with little concern for broader implications.
If you’re not familiar with the grading curve, it’s a tool used by some educators to distribute grades on a bell curve. When an assignment or test is scored, the average score becomes the average grade. The scores above and below the average are distributed accordingly. That means, if you get a really high score, you might skew the curve for everyone else. It also means some students are guaranteed to land at the wrong end of the curve.
Back in the 1980’s, my teachers rarely actually graded on a curve. But when they did, I knew two things would happen:
1: I would get grief from all the other students in class warning me not to do so well that I would mess up the curve, and,
2: I had an opportunity to prove that I didn’t need a curve to do well. And that opportunity far exceeded my concern about anyone else’s grade.
At the time, my self-worth was completely wrapped up in academic success. I truly thought that the only thing at which I could excel, and which made my existence matter, was getting good grades. (Yes, I completely related to Brian in the Breakfast Club).
I also believed that getting good grades was simply a matter of working hard, and that anyone could work hard. I had little tolerance for my peers who got mad when I did well. To me, they just needed to try harder.
And so, I shamefully admit, I always tried to burn the curve.
Needless to say, I’m embarrassed that I used to think that way. I now realize that I had so many advantages: educated parents, good nutrition, a safe place to sleep, a home free of violence, a family that embraced education, a mother who believed women didn’t need to depend on men, and a father who expected as much of his daughter as he did of his son. My list of advantages could go on and on and on.
But now, all these years later, I recognize how some children start off at disadvantage simply because of the family they are born into or because of a disability. Some struggle to read. Others struggle to overcome loss of at least one parent in the house. Others were never encouraged or never had an adult who even recognized their potential. And when you are struggling just to get by, studying for test isn’t a priority.
That’s why, more than 30 years later, I may be ashamed at who I once was, but I am also ashamed of some of the former classmates who still embrace the bell curve. Some of the same people who encouraged me not to exceed are now blaming their neighbors for falling at the negative end of the curve. I know this because I see their posts on social media.
They complain about people “on welfare”and how they don’t want their hard-earned money going to support people who are lazy and just don’t try. The want to drug test individuals who receive SNAP (food stamps) because they aren’t deserving. And they have the misguided belief that if people just try, they can find a job that pays more and provides benefits.
When I read such opinions, I can’t help but wonder if my former classmates remember back to the days when I, the person at the top of the bell curve, had similar thoughts about them.
But, over time, I learned that each of us has fought both visible and invisible battles to get where we are, and success looks different for everyone. No one’s achievement shouldn’t be denied or belittled. But neither should we think everyone has the ability to achieve what we have.
Such thinking only accomplishes what the bell curve does: ensures an elite few stay on top while someone will always be struggling to just get by.
If you don’t know anything about “the welfare system,” then drug testing “people on welfare” makes sense.
After all, your hard-earned taxpayer dollars are being used to support “people on welfare.”
Even on days when you don’t want to go to work, you show up because that is what is required for you to bring home a regular paycheck. Obviously, “people on welfare” are looking for an easier way to get money.
And, because they aren’t working hard like you are, they must spend their time doing whatever they want – including watching television all day and doing drugs. Since they don’t have jobs, the money that “people on welfare” use to buy those drugs is obviously coming from their “welfare check” that we, the hard- working taxpayers, provide them. If they didn’t use the money from their “welfare check” to buy the drugs, then they don’t need a “welfare check” at all.
To ensure that no one “on welfare” is using our money to buy drugs, then we have to drug test them. That way we won’t be wasting taxes, right?
The seemingly ongoing demand and state jumping on the drug testing band wagon isn’t based on facts and statistics but rather on prejudice, stereotypes and misinformation about “the welfare system.”
It’s also a waste money. Requiring drug tests for individuals who receive social services benefits has consistently been shown to increase administrative costs with little else to show for the efforts.
When the State of Tennessee started testing individuals who applied for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), only 37 out of more than 16,000 applicants failed drug tests during a six month period. Those results weren’t much different from those in other states, such as Utah and Florida.
I don’t know what the cost of administering those tests was, but I do know there is no way that those results can be spun to indicate cost-effectiveness. But then, the outcry for drug-testing people who receive TANF has never really been about cost-effectiveness or even helping families with drug addiction.
Despite public perception that “people on welfare” are lazy and don’t do much to contribute to society, the life of people who receive TANF isn’t all that restful. First they have children to raise.
TANF, which was established during the Clinton administration, is only available to families with children. It also requires recipients to participate in programs that help them learn skills and gain employment. In West Virginia, TANF recipients are required to sign a personal responsibility contract which they have to follow or they will lose benefits.
Even if they do all that is required of them, federal law prohibits them from receiving more than 60 months of assistance during a lifetime.
For a small amount of cash assistance (in West Virginia, a family of four receives an average amount of about $385 each month), TANF recipients must go to classes, do volunteer work and actively seek employment. Studies show that the average time any individual receives TANF is 24 months, and that is usually the result of unfortunate circumstances like the loss of a job or divorce. Much like an insurance policy, TANF was available to these individuals who had been taxpayers but fell in tough times until they could once again be taxpayers.
I have many more friends who never used TANF not because they never had financial difficulties but because they had the resource friends and family to help them through the crisis. Not everyone is surrounded by people who have the resources to help.
But even when we look beyond the stereotypes about who receives TANF, there are even bigger issues.. For example,what happens when someone does test positive for drugs? What will happen to their children (since they must have children to even receive the assistance.) Just as critical, who will be responsible for treatment and recovery services? In my community, those services are usually unavailable and inaccessible to low-income and rural individuals. Advocates have been complaining for years about the lack of treatment programs. Before we focus on drug testing anyone, we must have the community capacity to help those who struggle with addiction.
The call for drug testing “people on welfare” only makes sense to those who either don’t understand the social services system or who don’t want to understand it. It only makes sense to people who don’t mind stereotyping low-income people or who don’t realize that’s what they are doing. And it only makes sense to those who think that subjecting people who are already struggling to additional accusations is more effective than subjecting them to a helping hand.
I’d be lying if I claimed I never stereotype people. But I am being completely truthful when I say I come by those unfair stereotypes honestly.
That is, they aren’t based on propaganda or how I was raised. They are based on experience.
Take, for my example, my instant assumption about women who wear fur coats and multiple diamond rings on their fingers. There’s a reason I automatically label them as being self-centered.
Years ago, on a bitter cold December day when I was in my twenties and living just on the right side of poverty, I spent my entire lunch hour waiting in line at the post office. I was hungry and irritated, which are generally interchangeable for me. I was also uncomfortable and sweating. The temperature in the post office had been bumped up to fight against the frigid temperature outside, but I was wearing my winter coat. I was also carrying numerous packages and simply hoping the line would suddenly advance.
It didn’t. Every customer had multiple packages, and, even though we were smack in the middle of the holiday rush, there were only two clerks working at the counter. As we inched forward, I tried to find ways to amuse myself. Since this was in the days before smart phones, I counted the tiles on the floor and made up stories about the other customers. I even tried to strike up a conversation with the person in front of me, but he was even more irritable than I was.
And then, she arrived.
The woman wearing the fur coat and lots of diamonds swept (yes, she really swept) into the post office with an armful of packages like the rest of us. Only, unlike the rest of us, she took one look at the line and loudly announced, “I don’t have time to wait in line. I have a lunch appointment.” And then she simply walked to the counter and insisted she be served immediately.
While the rest of us stood with our mouths hanging open, the clerk accepted her demands and began processing her packages. She swept out in a manner similar to the way she had swept in. Only now, unlike the rest of us, she no longer carried packages.
And she never apologized.
From that time on, I labeled women who wore furs and diamonds as entitled.
In years to come, I would hear others use that same word to describe individuals and families who have depended on government assistance. And I would always cringe.
I was picking up a few things at the grocery store and was checking out in the express line with my seven (yes, I counted them) items. As the customer in front of me finished checking out, a women walked in the door of the store.
She had rather straggly hair and was dressed in cheap clothes. The little girl tagging along behind her didn’t look much better.
Instead of getting in line, she glanced at me then entered the check out line where most people exit. She simply walked between me and the man who was checking out. The clerk also glanced at me, as though unsure what to do. But the woman took control of the situation. She ordered three packs of cigarettes and then, when asked if she was using a debit or credit, almost rebelliously said “credit.”
I was disgusted. She had blatantly cut in front of me to charge cigarettes. And she had done it with a child in tow. She behaved as though she were…entitled.
And that’s when I got it. I understood how one experience can easily shape our opinion about all people who look or act in a certain way. And I understood that entitlement has absolutely nothing to do with social or economic class and has everything to do with individuals who think more about themselves than about others.
And neither one is right.
Over the past couple years, I’ve been doing my best to hold my tongue and tolerate people who use social networking sites to post rude and mean-spirited comments about specific groups of people. But this week, I finally snapped.
I’m calling out these people for what they are: bigots.
According to the dictionary, a bigot is someone who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices, especially in regards to members of a group.
As America grows more and more diverse, such attitudes against people of different colors or nationalities has become less and less acceptable.
But bigots are haters and, as my kids tell me on a regular basis, haters hate.
So, the haters have set their sights on poor people, particularly those who have had to depend on government assistance when they face tough times.
I’m not the only person whose been noticing this trend.
This week, a colleague stepped into my office, and during a casual conversation, broke into tears.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m just so angry. I had a relative post the meanest thing on Facebook.”
The post she was referring to was a meme that compared people on welfare to a dog: lazy, unemployed, with no known father.
“I wanted to give her the facts,” she said, “but I know that won’t matter. She just won’t listen.”
I know how she feels. For years, I’ve been trying to share the facts with those who demonize people “on welfare.”
In July 2011, I tried to educate them: my rant about people who rant about welfare. People continued to make judgmental comments.
Last Thanksgiving, when people bragged that they never asked for handouts and didn’t want their tax dollars going to those who aren’t willing to help themselves, I tried to explain that very few people succeed on their own: I’m thankful for the handouts I’ve received. The people who should have read that blog obviously didn’t.
Over time, I’ve come to believe that efforts to educate people who wrap themselves in indignation and self-righteousness are simply ineffective.
And yet I still try.
So, for all those people who continue to point fingers and won’t listen to facts, at least listen to this:
When you are making judgmental comments about any group, you are actually referring to individuals who comprise that group. Unlike skin color and despite your preconceived notions about how people on welfare look, you don’t always know who is part of that group. Some of your friends and acquaintances may have, at some point in their life, depended on social services.
These individuals have feelings. When you laugh at people on welfare, you are doing absolutely nothing to encourage them. When you blame them for taking your hard-earned money, you are doing nothing to help them succeed. And when you call them lazy, you are questioning their integrity and intentions. You are simply making them feel worse than they probably already do.
I am under no illusion that people will change their political opinions or their values based on what I write. But what I am asking is for more kindness and understanding. I’m also making a final plea that people get the facts before they make comments about anyone.
I know there’s a platitude that ignorance is bliss, but given the ignorance I’ve observed recently, I disagree. Instead, I think ignorance is just another excuse for bigotry. And that’s just not acceptable.
Some of life’s most important lessons are the ones we sometimes never learn at all.
And some of life’s simplest lessons are the ones we often just ignore – like the problem with rocks in the road.
As a bicyclist, I ride an average of at least 10 miles a day. Because of that, I ride over a lot of rocks. For the most part, I don’t even realize the rocks are there. But every once in a while, my tire hits a rock and – due to speed or angle – I get knocked off course and sometimes even knocked down. Getting knocked down hurts, and sometimes the resulting injuries even leave scars.
Because of that, when I do notice a rock, I try to avoid it. And when there are a lot of rocks, I might even change course.
That’s life on my bike.
But I’ve noticed a lot of “rocks on the road” in the rest of my life too.
These rocks are often comments or actions that people believe are completely normal and appropriate. But to the nearby traveler on the road of life, those same words or actions may be slightly offensive or, at worst, hurtful. Sometimes they can also cause people to change course or fall down.
Just the other day, I was having coffee with a colleague who told me that years ago she had come to my office to talk about the possibility of interning with me. When she dropped by for the unscheduled visit, she was told I was in a meeting but that I was just with my intern and could be interrupted.
That one word “just” was enough to make her turn around and walk out the door. She didn’t want to be “just an intern.”
To be honest, I think I might have been the person who told her not to worry, and she changed the story to make me feel better. I don’t remember, but regardless of who said it, the word “just” became a rock in her life’s road.
Fortunately, for my colleague, her change of course is working for her. But she also had the advantage of already having several life successes under her belt. She could handle that rock.
I worry more about people who have so many rocks in their road that they can’t avoid them: people who have been knocked down so many times that they don’t trust that the road ahead gets any easier. Sometimes they’ve fallen so much, they have permanent scars.
For the most part, I don’t think we are doing this on purpose. But, at times, I think we are, especially when we make judgments about people whose circumstances we know nothing about. That’s when we become victim of the rocks in our heads.
I’ve noticed a trend of people posting comments online that belittle others who are “on welfare” or “on food stamps” or that make assumptions about people based on appearance. I don’t know which is the bigger rock: those comments or the bitter ones about people with expensive shoes, phones or cars who are receiving some sort of government assistance.
Here’s the deal. I, like most people I know, don’t believe that government assistance should be a permanent way of life. I also don’t believe that government assistance should be used for anything but basic needs. And I don’t believe smart phones and SUV’s are basic needs. I also agree that some people manipulate the system, and that we need to be diligent about stopping such abuse.
However, I also know that most people who receive assistance have fallen on hard times. Some may have previously afforded a lifestyle that included expensive clothes and cars. But then they lost their job or faced another crisis that caused them to deplete all their available resources, including help from friends and family. After that, they were forced to seek public assistance. That expensive car may be all they have left after losing their home, a spouse or a way of life.
Instead of assuming the rocks in their road are their own fault, maybe we should think about how we can pick some up, roll them out of the way or help these individuals navigate a new course.
Doing this follows the simplest life lesson: do unto others as we wish them to do to us. I know if and when I hit tough times, I don’t want to ridiculed and/or blamed.
But this lesson is so simple that a lot of us ignore it when convenient. Or until there’s a rock in our own road. Or until we get the judgmental rocks out of heads.
Unfortunately, sometimes those rocks in our heads are harder to get rid of than the rocks in our roads.