Written by Melissa Hempe, entitlement program supporter (and advocate), donor, and believer in the strength of Obama's vision for America
Do Republicans really know anything about the real people that live day to day on so-called "entitlement" programs? I invite them to visit my neighborhood. The poor families that live on Oak Street.
Tonight I took a few neighbor kids to Fred Meyers to buy a birthday present. Jordan turned 16 this year, and I have watched him grow from an eight year old boy to a fine teenager. Delinquent, to be sure, but I don't judge him. His alcoholic mother drove her car into a tree and died instantly when he was only four. He showed me the tree, still bare of bark around the base after so many years. His father, also an alcoholic, can't hold a job. Lately he has been delivering the paper, and the two of them barely scrape by. Jordan often smells because his dad rations their water usage to one shower a week
The other kids at school have the newest gadgets and phones and computers and clothes and spending money. Jordan chops wood for the wood stove, takes his ratty skateboard to skate night at church once a week, and makes the best of things. He smiles and manipulates and charms me into buying things for him; ear buds, cell phones covers, a drink at McDonald's. He is quite the little player, and only once in awhile do I burst his bubble and let him know I'm aware of what he's doing. I've spent a pretty penny that I don't have through the years on Jordan, only to watch him immediately trade or lose things, so the birthday gifts are smaller now, and probably more appropriate. I have no children, and use that as a convenient excuse for spoiling him when I can. Which is once a year, and no more than ten dollars. It's amazing how much joy that money can create.
Living in a low-income neighborhood has taught me much about gratitude. Before leaving for Fred Meyer's tonight, one little guy named Christian begged me to buy him a belt, since the one he was wearing was not only too small, but ratty and unraveling. I couldn't afford it. Plus, it's always such a touchy thing, because poor parents have pride just like any other parents, and I have to respect that pride even though their kids do without. I will use excuses at times to give things to the kids. "I am trying to get rid of the clutter in the house - would you mind if I gave your girls some of my old miniature tea sets?" I interact carefully with the poorest of the moms. I sigh and speak of money troubles and the rising price of groceries and how much I respect them for raising children when I have only myself to look after. But I see in their tired eyes the pain of lack, and the knowledge that they are barely getting by. They see the same things in my own eyes, and we end up staring at the pavement many times, lost in our worries.
During the great miniature tea set giveaway, I expected a lot of fighting since such possessions are scarce and coveted. I was surprised to see how generously the little girls shared with each other. The boys are like this too; I have seen one teenager buy another a t-shirt that he will wear every day for several months, and another teen surprise his friend with a used iPod or cheap cell phone, most likely stolen. I appreciate the heart behind these gestures - let the parents teach the lessons. There are good hearts in these kids.
Almost all of the boys have emotional and behavioral issues. Cameron was beaten so badly by his father that he frequently screams and falls to pieces and is barely understandable; he needs speech therapy the family cannot afford. He runs up to me and asks for a hug, and I tell him what a good boy he is and ask him to protect me from any trouble he might see. He stands up straight and takes his mission seriously. Jordan loads up any computer he can find with the kind of porn that shocks even his dad, and has been kicked out of different schools for bad behavior. Zach is sixteen going on twenty-five and I don't even want to know what he does, but he's labeled a "bad kid" and his absentee dad and angry mom guarantee he is seen a lot on the streets. Christian has a blank stare and seems to have no capacity for empathy. His emotional bursts of rage actually frighten me at times. There is something missing, and all the children sense it.
Every now and then the police cars show up and it barely phases me anymore. Brow-beaten moms sit on the front steps of a dilapidated duplex across the street and rumors of child-abuse and suicide threats and troubled children are usually proven true. A social worker stops by rarely and rides bikes with the kids, probably chats with the parents, and does whatever else social workers do. Having no money for extras does not mean a family is unhappy. But the thirst of poverty is best revealed in the children of the home. "I will do anything for money, Missy. I will wash your car or pull some weeds or help you around the house." I tell the kids that I can't give them money, but I can give them love and hugs. Money and material things are said to be the obsession of the rich, but in reality, the poor are consumed by comparison and desire for the basic of luxuries. Which comes first, the emotional troubles that lead to an inability to obtain or keep a well-paying job? Or the poverty? It is a wicked cycle.
Tonight I set off to take a walk around the park down the street. Since I must pass the houses of the neighborhood kids on my way, I soon had an impressive posse ranging in age from three to sixteen. I asked the mom of three of the children if she would like to go with me. It was the first time she and I had really spoken. She responded that she was just too lazy and tired and unmotivated. I told her I could see why, since she had to run after three kids all day, but we both knew it wasn't just that. I made a mental note to get to know these moms a little better; perhaps start a coupon club and invite them over for a drink and a nice cool house with air conditioning. There is an apathy that comes with being poor; I understand completely the acceptance of less than the ideal.
When the kids walk with me, I have to walk at a snail's pace. I can barely keep from tripping over the wiggling, active bunch, complete with one boy on a skateboard. I decided to make the most of it.
"I'm an old woman! Slow down! " I came to a complete stand-still. "I MUST BE PUSHED OR PULLED FORWARD! I CANNOT GO ONE STEP FURTHER. I AM PARALYZED WITH LAZINESS!" The youngest kids obliged gleefully and pushed me from behind, while almost ripping my arms from my sockets while pulling. It was great fun. I continued to whine and complain.
"It's too hot out here! Why did you FORCE me to go on a walk? Missy is too fat to exercise! I AM AS ROUND AS A BOWLING BALL!" This elicited laughter and protests from the little ones, "But we didn't force you to go for a walk!" and rolling of the eyes from the teenagers, and both responses were just what I had hoped for.
"No more Starbucks for me," I lied, and Jordan immediately called me on it. "Missy, you ALWAYS say that and then you ALWAYS end up getting Starbucks at 3:00 a.m. in the morning! I hear your car leave!" Yikes. No secrets are kept when walls are cheaply made and you can hear everything that goes on outside.
"Why, that's simply not true," I said, and acted offended and shocked. "I have only had ONE Starbucks drink this entire year, and you know it."
"MISSY, YOU HAVE GONE TO STARBUCKS EVERY NIGHT THIS WEEK!" yelled Jordan. It was true. Whenever I get a gift card, the Starbucks trips become a nightly thing.
I am one of these children. I live far below the national poverty level, but I have a beautiful car thanks to the generosity of a loving boyfriend. I live in a lovely townhouse thanks to rent that is far below what it should be thanks to an excellent roommate who is also a friend. I can spend my check on improving my life instead of having to divide it between two, four, even five family members. I am the rich girl in their eyes, and how I wish it were true. Because I would give these children everything they needed to be at the same level of their peers, and then some. A belt. A decent skateboard. Speech therapy. Acne medicine. Daily showers. No more verbal abuse. Or physical abuse. Instead I give them hugs and try to make them laugh.
I remember the reason I have chosen not to have children. I knew I could not tolerate the high levels of stress that parents experience. I may sound like I judge the parents of these kids, but I do not. I don't judge them for any of it. Not the abuse, not the seeming laziness, not the neglect, not the addictions. They are doing the very best they can with the resources they have, and I'm not just talking about money. Families that accept welfare usually do so because of a lack of emotional resources. A "lack of work ethic" most often does not spring from laziness, but the inability to be consistent at . . . anything. Let alone a job. And I understand that, and I am that, and I have compassion for all of the poor kids, sure, but also for the parents.
I hope our nation continues to remember that "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy." Social entitlement programs mean just barely getting by. They are a hand-out from the government, but they are nothing to envy. Keeping a roof over one's head and cheap food on the table is about all welfare does. I find it is often the fathers who are suffering the most in these families. Unable to control or manage emotions, they know they do not fit the mold of what a father should be. They cannot keep a job, and the anger they feel at themselves boils over and spills on innocent children. Then the next generation of young men are equally unstable and unable to provide with any kind of consistency. I see the desperation in the eyes of fathers who are home all day, smoking cigarettes they cannot afford, burdened by constant financial drain and children poorly dressed and acting out. Will they make the rent next month? They can't afford to keep drinking, but only drinking makes the pain tolerable. People call men like this lazy. I call men like this broken.
Unless we want a country that reverts to treating the poor like they were in a Charles Dickens novel, I hope the wealthy accidentally drive through my neighborhood now and then. I hope the Republicans with their push to remove taxes from the rich and eliminate "entitlement programs" for the poor get a flat tire and end up walking the length of Oak Street. I want them to see a ten year old boy who begs for a belt; a mother resigned to spending the rest of her life in stark poverty, and a father whose anger is mostly at himself for being unable to provide.
I hope they see me, just as poor as the rest. If I could, I would take them on a guided tour. I would try to teach generosity and compassion and how wrong their understanding of entitlement truly is. So many Republicans and Tea Party members are holding on to wealth and a severe sense of morality. They are holding on to labels and judgments; holding on to black and white; holding on to a sense of fairness. It is not fair that those who work for their wealth should be called on to give it away to the poor. I agree with that. Life is not fair. And we are none of us alike.
We do not all start out life with the exact same foundation to build on. We do not possess intellectual and emotional equality, regardless of what the Declaration of Independence so bravely states. If those born and developed with advantages such as emotional stability and keen intelligence believe that men requesting welfare are their equals who simply haven't tried hard enough, they are terribly mistaken. The developing brain of a child born into a situation of financial poverty and stress actually creates more nerve endings to respond to chaos and fear. As an adult the brain's oversensitivity to stress causes chronic anxiety and many men use drugs or alcohol simply to calm their nerves and make life bearable. This doesn't happen with all men born into poverty or abusive homes, but it does happen to many.
There are many, many reasons why those who are wealthy become wealthy, and most of them are not simply hard work and dedication. They are abstract things like healthy emotional development, intellectual capacity, drive and motivation, a capacity for consistency. And anyway, just how expensive does a car need to be? How much gold jewelry is needed for happiness? How big does a mansion need to be for a family of four?
I'm all for being rewarded for work. Those who work hard and provide excellent products and services that keep our country and economy going should be paid richly for what they do. But I just keep coming back to Christian and his ratty little belt. I believe Christian is entitled. And at least with entitlement programs, he can afford the pants his belt barely holds up. So the rich pay a bit more in taxes. They let the cook take a day off on Wednesdays, or buy a less expensive model of Mercedes.
Because to me, the rich were also given a handout. Taxes pay for the handout life itself gave them from birth, or environment, or education, or nerve endings, or good genetics.
Capacity. It's a handout. And since most of our poor are paying the price of a lack of capacity, I do not see why the rich cannot pay the price for their own handout, no matter how much they argue their wealth came "all from their own hard work and effort."
I suppose I'll be accused of being a socialist. And pure socialism really doesn't work. But we are poised on the brink of experiencing what pure capitalism will work like in America, and it makes me want to stock up . . . on belts.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Melissa Hempe.
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