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...
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