Tuesday, March 06, 2007

...will always be with us. --Wait, who's "us," again?

Over at Ilyka Damen's, GenniMcmahon tackles another mammoth in the parlor:

I recall being maybe 8 years old and standing in line at the grocery store with my mother. A woman in front of us was paying for her groceries with a combination of personal check and food stamps. My mother hissed to me, “LOOK at that. She’s wearing a leather jacket and has PICTURES on her CHECKS! Maybe she could find some ways to save some money!” Even at that age, I remember thinking something like, “Well, maybe her husband got hurt or sick and can’t work.”

Setting aside the whole jackpot that was my assumption that the husband was the wage earner; I revisited that conversation every time I, as a food stamps and WIC recipient, felt the people in line behind me analyzing my every purchase and deciding if I was spending their tax dollars appropriately (I wasn’t). I was raised in the mid to upper-middle class by blue collar parents who both earned college degrees during the time I was in high school and college. I had no experience with poverty beyond the typical cultural indoctrination that poor people are poor because they deserve to be. Yet, at the age of 23, I often sat at my parents’ dinner parties, listening to their friends complain about how irresponsible the poor were in spending the tax dollars given them by the system. It was at that point that I learned that it is as difficult to be a “good” poor person as it is to be a “good” woman.

I learned that if poor kids were dirty and unkempt, they and their mother were contemptible. I learned that if poor kids were clean and well dressed (which mine always were), their mother was obviously cheating the system (hello, leather jacket and printed checks). I learned that if I took my kids to the doctor frequently, it was because I had Medicaid and was abusing the system. If I didn't take the kids to the doctor frequently, I was ignorant and a lousy parent. I learned that if poor women were minorities, they were lazy and stupid and opened their legs to any man who came by so they could get an extra $50 a month from the system. I learned that as a poor white woman, I was obviously a slut, and possibly a drug user who had thrown away her privilege and advantages. In other words, it was always the fault of the poor women that they were poor. The men were entirely invisible, as if maybe I and my gang of poor women had found the babies under rocks and just wouldn’t stop bringing them home.

The only reason that I am not still in the system was that I was not raised in the grinding desolation of generational poverty, so I had the tools to work my way out. I was well educated, and went back to school. Oh, and I got remarried, a solution not without pitfalls. This was not, however, because I was better than anyone else; it was because I had more information and privilege than my peers in poverty. But, my solutions came about because I was not typical of the welfare-mother population...

(more, go read)


Dan L-K said...

While I've never had to cope with being a woman or having kids while in that situation, I've been on food stamps (in a leather jacket, no less!), and I am here to tell you that no matter how self-assured you are, and no matter how conscientious and responsible you try to be with what you put in your cart so as not to appear "extravangant" (because being poor means you deserve nothing but white-label beans and rice, yanno) - nothing ever prevents that twinge of shame at the register when you're paying with pastel money. No matter how much you know damn well you shouldn't.

I think of the road I've taken out of the times when I was struggling, and I invariably come to two conclusions. The first is that the reasons I am not currently in the same position have almost everything to do with a combination of good fortune, privilege, and plain dumb luck, and almost nothing to do with how hard I worked to get out of where I was. The second is that the fact I couldn't make a living wage working retail - in jobs where I spent hours and hours on my feet, dealing constantly with difficult people, and generally had to perform highly in a hostile environment more or less all the time - as opposed to my current job where I get to sit on my ass all day and occasionally play on the Internets, is a pretty damn sad way to build an economy.

Nanette said...

In a chatroom once, there was a woman, oh... so proud of herself! She related how she was in line behind some woman who was purchasing items with food stamps and, horrors of horrors, the woman had a birthday cake! in the basket. Store bought! With writing on it!

She was so incensed, she said, at this egregious waste of her tax dollars that she followed the woman out of the store, watched her get into her car and then followed her home to see what sort of house/apt she lived in - positive she would find a mansion of some sort, I'm sure.

I was sooooo disgusted... but not speechlessly so, thankfully.

I just don't understand people like that. A good portion of women (and men) who wind up needing state aid are people who have just hit a bad patch and need a little help, but even that little (and believe me, no one gets rich off of welfare) bit of help is begrudged by some, to the point where they feel they somehow own the poor. Well, not in the manner of owning that implies responsibility or care for someone/something, but in implying that someone owes them an accounting for all their actions, purchases, life decisions, so on.


belledame222 said...

what. the fuck. stalkeriffic much? and: that is just ALL SORTS of ewewew. christ.

but christ jesus forbid anyone cast their eyes -upward- to see where their tax dollars (and what should have been their proper salaries, and benefits, and money used to actually make the neighborhood livable/make sure of clean air and water/and and and) ACTUALLY goes. hint: it'd take about 4 quadrillion birthday cakes. and it isn't anybody's fucking birthday.

Chuckie K said...

"paying with pastel money" - Last week when I did my grocery shopping the woman ahead of me was paying with her vouchers.
So I reflected as I always do, why don't they just use a debit card system? Not only do the vouchers turn into a visual symbolic stigma, they slow down the line, where too many folks are too antsy about their time anyway. If you wanted to design a low-grade punitive system you could hardly do better.
Although from my sister's stories about that post-divorce unemployment, the application process sounds far more abusively demeaning than the public harassment.

Dan L-K said...

I believe here in Maryland, we do have cards (the last time I was on the dole was nine years ago and in WV, so I don't know what's changed there). It does indeed go some way to alleviate the stigma, though it's all the same if the person ringing you up is insufficiently discreet.