Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Poverty, Inc.

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.


  1. Crying at my desk as I read this Tangela. We are happenstance "friends" but everytime I read of your life and observances I see you as the good Lord intended, as my sister.

  2. You are an inspiration and and enlightenment. And any employer who has passed on adding you to their staff has simply missed a once-in-a-lifetime boat!

    Sandra Nickel

  3. Tangela , I found you when I was researching for past articles about Morgan Harrington's murder. Something showed up about you as a link on 1 of my searches . I thought What is this ?
    I was astounded that while I am in Alabama , while searching for articles about a beautiful blonde college student with doe eyes who had been murdered , stumbled somehow into the World of Tangela . Tangela from Montgomery ... Hmmm I used to live in Montgomery. So I had to check out this Tangela person .

    I must say I'm so glad I did. You are a delight . You are so gifted . You have Hope & faith , but at times as most of us do , we may feel we are losing our religion because we feel so lost & alone. You're not alone , & we do need many changes in this world of today . Now you have your Momma up in Heaven watching over you & she will be working endlessly up there to assist you in any way she can. I know I've been calling Angels to surround & protect you & yours from harm & to protect you.
    Make a video Just sit & read your post & record it.
    Post it on youtube
    Just Plain Talking with Tangela

    Blessings & Love to You from
    Frances in Alabama ~~

  4. You are a great writer! I agree 100% with what you expressed. We as a nation don't do right by our children by allowing some of them to go hungry, or live without basic necessities like medical care, heat, electricity, and water. I hope that your tremendous effort to find a decent job is successful. Your children are lucky to have you and your husband as parents. Marthajane in Alabama

  5. Endure.

    We have a lot in common, thank you so much for sharing. What you wrote about the millionaires, think also about the Corporations and banks that have used the Gov tax base (us) as springboards to escape a fair and responsible way of building business...and of off-loading toxic assets and debt to an already overburdened population, they contribute greatly to maintaining the poverty base. We are become legion and the world still and light!

  6. I recently read the book, "RADICAL, taking back your faith from the American Dream" by David Platt. Read it. God is going to hold us accountable for failure to help those in need. I am not poor. I have been able to provide well for my family. I am learning every day what more I can do to help others. After all, that is required if we are Christians - its not an option. In the book I mentioned, it shared that in a 24 hour period, 25,000 will die from starvation around the world. The question is, what are you and I doing about it??

  7. Have saved your blog to my favorites. I just found it on a link on NPR about poverty in Okla. As a fellow Oklahoman, I know where you are coming from. I have a son who is going through the same things you wrote about. He is a hard worker, as is his young wife. But minimum wage jobs don't put food on the table when you have to pay day care, diapers, and gas to travel to another town to work. Their "benefits" don't cover a months worth of groceries. So they eat with us frequently. And we are glad we are able to help. Wish you lived closer because we would sure set a plate at the table for you and yours, too! Will keep your family in my thoughts and prayers.

  8. "O, yes,
    I say it plain,
    America never was America to me,
    And yet I swear this oath--
    America will be!"
    --Langston Hughes

  9. Love your writing. So beautiful, and painful. It made me cry and gave me the chills. I too am scrubbing toilets, and my husband is working harder than ever, to just scrape by. Our home is in foreclosure, and we are on borrowed time. What you said about not giving up hope, and writing about it all is exactly how I feel. I write a blog called from Prada to Payless. It keeps me sane. You aren't in this alone. So glad I found your gem.

  10. I read about your family on the CNN website this morning and went on to read your blog. God Bless you and your family! I remember well what it was like to be poor,..poor with my folks as a child, and poor later on as an adult on my own,..poor again when my husband and I fell on hard times. Now, we're doing okay and getting by, but my three adult children are all having difficulties. I so agree with all of the things you said in this post. It blows me away that there is an element in our country who do not believe in helping people who have already done all that they could do to help themselves and their children. The fact that there are politicians willing to stand up and defend this position scares the crap out of me.
    Your positive attitude and tenacity is inspiring, I hope that someday I turn on my tv and find you there!
    I'm subscribing to your blog,..take care and have a Merry Christmas!

  11. I also ready your article on CNN. I want to say to you that your ability to communicate and write in such a compelling way clearly shows that you can/will be an asset to an employer. This article alone, attached to a resume, is reason enough to give you a chance. You must remain strong, and continue to have faith in yourself and your husband. I cannot imagine the tremendous pressure that must bear down on your family. But what I can know is how lucky I am. Some of your struggle may be due to your location. It is hard to advise someone to relocate as that is a deeply personal issue. But I certainly wish you the best, and I believe you will find opportunity in the future. In fact, I have no doubt.

  12. "You have to be strong if you're going to be poor"...that is the TRUEST statement I have ever heard.

  13. Right there with ya sister. A year and a half ago I was making about $135,000 a year. This year, maybe, $10K. Long way to fall. Painful. Good luck to you and your family. God Bless!

  14. Tangela,

    The latest data from the Census Bureau states that almost 50% of Americans are in or "near poverty" based on their income. I too am well on my way to this abyss having lost a well paying job in 2008 and, although bravely trying something new, have yet to have anything resembling stability. The depression and loss of hope is just crushing as this nation was supposed to have been better than this. I had a woman tell that she never thought that she would be living through "The Grapes of Wrath". We were taught that education and hard work would be the ticket to a middle class lifestyle, aka, the American Dream. For so many the dream has turned into a nightmare from which one cannot wake up. I would leave America, never looking back, only if my wife would approve. May the Lord have mercy on you, your family and us all.

  15. Wow! Powerful article.

    Found you after reading your "Being poor on Christmas" on CNN.

  16. I read your article too....and I want a Paypal button on your site. We all need to help each other. I saw something briefly, then you took it off :(

  17. I stumbled here through your CNN article. I have been stewing over it for more than an hour, relating to what you are going through. I grew up with parents who could barely make ends meet. My school, however, was full of upper middle class children who had a steady stream of new clothes, while I was stuck with hand-me-downs. It's painful being the one without. People will judge you and say be thankful for what you have, but our society raises us to want more.

    Be proud that you are feeding your family! There are many that don't even try. Doing what's best for your children is the right thing to do. That you are willing to face the stigma of welfare shows just how much you care about your kids.

    Wishing you the best for 2012.

  18. I looked for your blog after reading your CNN piece, because your story resonated so much with me and so resembled aspects of my own. We moved back to our hometowns in Michigan from a big city in Texas, where we'd had a moderate middle-class lifestyle and expected we'd be able to find that standard of living again. Since then we've had very long periods of unemployment and low-paying jobs. My husband was an Operations Analyst for a large corporation in Texas but here he has worked as a temp cafeteria worker, Target cashier and telemarketer. We went back to school and finished our degrees, thinking that would improve our prospects, but instead we have the same jobs but now we have student loan debt we can barely afford to pay.

    Like you, I wrote about my experiences in a blog, which led to a freelance writing career. Although most people were supportive and kind, I was stunned by how absolutely hateful some people could be in response to my writing. Being intelligent and articulate as you write honest words about being poor is a challenge to all the people who want to assign blame for those situations, because the truth that it could happen to any one of us is too scary. They will pick you apart and find fault with your wants or blame you for your mistakes, but please don't let this get to you.

    Nine years after our move, we have never regained our same standard of living. We've tried to move again, but it's very difficult to get a job out of state unless you have very specific skills and work experience. I've lay awake many nights worrying about bills, wondering if we'll ever be able to undo our mistake and asking God what I'm supposed to learn from all of this.

    Long story short: I understand a lot of what you're going through. You're a great writer and I hope you'll keep your chin up, and stay strong in the face of your critics. Merry Christmas and best wishes for 2012.

  19. You have puts words to a lot of what I've been feeling the last few years. Being poor is humiliating and isolating. I'm so glad you've been able to say these things.
    Best wishes for your family and have a nice Christmas!

  20. Beautifully written article. I grew up very poor, raised by a single mother who raised five children by herself, doing whatever she needed to to rais her kids, cleaning toilets, hanging paper, painting, ironing other clothes, cooking in restaurants, etc. She was a wonderful mother. The only time she asked for help from the government she was turned down and all she asked for was some shoes for her children. In some ways I think being poor is glamourized by people who say, "We were poor, but we didn't know it because we were loved." I reply to that, "We were poor too, but I knew it and I didn't like it. I have been very poor and I have been middle class, and I prefer middle class."