I read an article about a woman in Texas who shot herself and her children in a food stamp office, after being denied benefits. It moved me to tears. I have been in that woman’s shoes—without a gun, and without the desire to shoot my children. I have languished in a big stock pot of humiliation and grief caused by our poverty.
Poverty is painful. Poverty causes anxiety in ways most people can’t imagine. A simple knock at the door can cause you to go into psychotic state of paranoia. Are they coming to cut the power off, because it’s 100 degrees outside? Are they cutting off the gas, because it’s 20 degrees outside? Are they coming to evict me? It’s an endless game of mental endurance to be poor in this country.
By the time a person gets to the food stamp office to apply for food benefits or temporary financial assistance, you, the poor person, are worn to an absolute nub. By the time you get to the food stamp office, you have sold off every possession of value for a fraction of its worth just to survive. Sentimentality and abject poverty cannot co-exist. You name it; I sold it, before I went to get food stamps. By the time you get to the food stamp office, you have begged and borrowed from everyone in your orbit, because going to the food stamp office is the one thing you never, ever want to do. Going to the food stamp office is the entry into the Matrix of the American Poverty System, Inc., and once you get in it is nearly impossible to get out. When they enter your name into the computer, you are officially POOR.
The process of getting assistance in this country is a series of hoop jumping, hurdle hopping, and marathon running. You have got to be strong, if you’re going to be poor.
Yes, there are scammers who don’t give a good damn about bilking the system. What surprises me the most about the way our country has devolved in our discourse about poverty and politics and race is that reasonable people get irate over a woman getting food stamps to feed her kids. Yet, they admire and defend the millionaires who rape and pillage the federal government’s coffers for billions of dollars in bailouts.
Being from Alabama, race and class and poverty are so interwoven, that the poor can’t see the inherent racism of the system and the folks who want to drug test/castrate/screw the poor do not (or maybe they do) realize how racist they are for suggesting such Slave Era justice. I have now been poor in Alabama and Oklahoma, and let me just say, there were 20 poor white faces for every 1 black face I saw. I counted. I couldn’t help it. I’d never seen so many white people at Poverty, Inc. Being from Alabama, the story I’ve been force fed on a hot buttered biscuit my whole life says only blacks are poor, and WE deserve it!
If we want to talk personal responsibility, then I suggest we look at the middle class. Stop spending more than you have. Period. The poor already do this. When we don’t have money, we don’t go buy a new pair of Prada shoes. We go to Goodwill, and we pray that there are no lice and foot funk left in that pair of one size too big sneakers that we are going to plunk down three bucks for.
As a nation, how can we sit back and punish OUR children by denying them food and shelter from the heat and cold? Who are we? What have we become? It is not the poor black children of America who are taking your jobs. It is not the poor children of Hispanics who are closing your factory and moving it to China. It’s not some poor white kid who has meth addicted parents that sold you a mortgage that is worth more than your McMansion.
I don’t condone what that woman in Texas did, but I understand. The process of getting benefits is humiliating. By the time you put on your big girl panties and walk in the food stamp office, you are already emotionally destroyed by the failure you are. You are already reduced to an empty shell. You already feel like you are nothing. You already feel lost, alone, pathetic, worthless, hopeless, meaningless, and ready to die. As a parent, you are charged with providing for your children. By the time you get to Poverty, Inc., you have already conceded that you can’t provide for your babies. You look into their eyes, and you wonder why they picked you, a failure, as a parent.
Poverty is painful, especially for those who had the luck or blessings of being so close to the American Dream. Poverty is harrowing. Poverty is like taking a dull meat cleaver to your soul. Poverty hacks away at your hopes and dreams, one rough chunk at a time. Poverty, abject poverty, going to the food stamp office poverty makes you want to end it all. Poverty damages you.
The system of poverty in the country destroys families. Poverty, Inc. denies the country the fullness of citizens who, if they just got a break, an opportunity, a job could and would be contributing taxpayers. The scamming Baby Mama is no different than the Wall Street banker. They are both cheating the American taxpayer. One just does it on their private jet.
But the family that just lost all of its income, the little old lady living off of Social Security, the solider back from Iraq, the single mom who can’t collect a dime in child support, the dad who works 3 minimum wage jobs, the guy who just got laid off, the woman who can’t get a job because she is in default on her student loans, these are the poor in country.
The new poor is comprised of people who once wrote checks out to the United Way, and now find themselves sitting at a United Way agency, 50 deep in a waiting room built for 20 people to get a little help with utility bills. These are the ones who need help. Poverty, Inc. isn’t helping. Poverty, Inc. is damning Americans into a revolving hamster wheel of dependence.
My husband and I are doing everything we can to extract our family from the death grip of poverty. We will take any job that comes along. He was a man who once handled multi-million dollar projects in Israel, Spain, and Mexico. He now makes pizza, fixes doors, and rakes leaves to keep our family going. I use my worthless degrees to scrub other people’s toilets. I save aluminum cans. I bake pies. I do whatever I can without breaking the law to keep my kids warm.
I hate being poor. I hate the pity. I hate how people think it’s going to rub off on them. I hate failing my kids. I hate the pain in my husband’s eyes. I hate the pain.
I understand why that woman in Texas wanted to die. I understand. The only difference between her and me is I haven’t given up hope, yet. Poverty, Inc. hasn’t cut the last chunk of hope I have left. I have faith that it will work out for me and my children. The lady in Texas used a gun to end the pain of poverty. Words are my weapon of choice. As long as I can tell the story of what it’s like to be poor, I will.
My greatest hope is that one day my words will provide me with the money that will help me avoid having to walk the walk of shame into a food stamp office, again.
I haven’t lost my will to hope, dream, pray and plan my way out of poverty. I want off the hamster wheel. I don’t plan on ever going back.
I pray for those children, whose Mama saw no way out. I understand.
I pray for my own children. When I gaze into their eyes and see the flecks of ocean, amber, and army green, I pray my children don’t see us as failures. I pray they don’t see me as the ultimate Southern Archetype: the poor, black, maid who bowed down and stayed in her place, never courageous enough to get the hell out of the William Faulkner novel. Similarly, I pray they don’t see their Daddy as the ultimate anomaly: A handsome, blue eyed, strong, intelligent WHITE man, who through no fault of his own isn’t rich or powerful.
Being from Alabama, the gravity of race always weighs on my heart. I was programmed this way. Being a black woman married to a white man, it matters to me that we don’t end up being a cautionary tale for interracial love. Being the Mama to two biracial boys, it matters to me that my boys will grow up happy and comfortable. The stares and pointing and whispers will come because of their almond skin, beautiful curls, and kaleidoscope eyes. I don’t want the points and stares to come while we are in line at a soup kitchen, or in the waiting room of Poverty, Inc.