Monday, August 24, 2015

What We Talk About When We Talk About The Poor

I know I haven't used this blog as much as I used to in the last little while. Moving and general life mayhem have kept me pretty busy. If I have time, maybe I'll start sharing some of it here again, like my mom keeps bugging me to do. Or at least post a picture of some of the crazy plants invading our new semi-tropical Florida lawn. But this week a topic has been heavy on my heart, so I wanted to take a few minutes and write about it, see if I can make any sense of it.

We moved last month, our sixth move in eleven years, this time from Texas to Florida. I like it here a lot. People are friendly to us, the weather is not quite so hot, there are tons of garage sales. It's an extremely politically conservative area, which we knew before we moved, so most of the people here do not share most of our views. Nevertheless, we've been getting on pretty well. I've been going to a new church the past couple of weeks, and this week I sat in on a Sunday School class, my first in years. (At our church in Texas, there was little emphasis on Sunday School, and at our church in Cincinnati, we already had to leave an hour before service to arrive on time!) The lesson for the day was on "What kind of justice does God require?" and it pulled verses from Zechariah 7. Here's the gist of it, in verses 9-11:
The Lord of heavenly forces proclaims:  Make just and faithful decisions; show kindness and compassion to each other! 10 Don’t oppress the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the poor; don’t plan evil against each other! 11 But they refused to pay attention. They turned a cold shoulder and stopped listening.
The rest of the passage goes on to remind the people of what happened to them when they ignored these godly rules (spoilers: it wasn't pretty.) We had an interesting discussion about what it means to plan evil against each other, in the context of things like gentrification projects that force out the homeless without giving them anywhere to go. Not the evil that is planned qua evil, but the thoughtless evil, the evil that is perpetrated when people blind themselves to the pain of others. Despite what many awesome comic book movies tell us, real supervillains are very thin on the ground these days. There's almost nobody in any position of power or authority who plans and schemes to do evil. That doesn't mean they don't do evil things, often to the vulnerable groups God is telling us to protect! But evil isn't the targeted goal, just a side effect of what they wanted to accomplish.  That doesn't make it right, or godly, but it does make it human, and it brings it home. We can most of us be comfortable saying that we're not planning evil against anybody, but are we letting evil happen as a result of our other plans? Would God draw that kind of distinction?

The discussion wended its way around topics, like good Sunday School conversations tend to do, past the idea of strangers as immigrants (and isn't that a change in how we talk about it away from Laredo, with its heavy immigrant population!), and around the work that the church does in the community. This church I've been visiting has a strong community ministry presence, which is one of the things I like most about it. Some churches are very inward-focused, concentrating their efforts on growing the membership, nurturing the congregation, keeping the property in tip-top shape and ensuring that equipment is always in the best repair. I think that impulse is understandable. It's human nature, after all, to use limited time, energy and resources taking care of your own. But human nature is what we go to church to try and transcend, isn't it? I want a church that measures its influence not by how many members have a bumper sticker on their cars, but by how many of the widows, the orphans, the strangers, and the poor feel the love of God in the touch of the church, whether or not they even believe. It is my absolute rock-solid conviction that the influence of the church is waning worldwide not because of anything culture has done, or any fundamental change in society, but because we are not conveying the message of God's incredible, transcendant, life-renewing love to the world in our words and actions. Without that love, the church has very little to offer except entertainment, and you can get that from an iPad without having to put on nice clothes and sit in a pew.

Near the end of the hour, we worked our way around to the poor, which seems to be the place these conversations always end up. The question became who should help the poor, and how, and gradually it turned into "who are the deserving poor, and how can we help them exclusively?" If you look in the verse, you'll notice that God, through Zechariah, does not draw that distinction. It doesn't matter why someone is poor or how long they have been poor, or what you think about their poverty, it is wrong to oppress them, it is wrong to plan evil against them. But despite that, the discussion always comes up and will always come up, because again, human nature. Humans have a deeply ingrained conception of fairness, and an instinctive indignation at the thought that someone else might be cheating. I am certainly sympathetic to that instinct; it's not like I relish being taken advantage of any more than anybody else. But the fact that this indignation is turned on people on welfare is baffling to me.

One thing I've noticed when speaking to people about welfare, food stamps, medicaid, and that type of program, is that you tend to see a sharp correlation in how you feel about assistance programs and how many people you know who need or have needed them. I make no secret of the fact that we were on foodstamps for almost a year in 2009, when the bottom dropped out of the economy, I couldn't find a job (and then got pregnant) and my husband and I were living on a single grad student stipend. I was on Medicaid in 2009 and 2010 when I was pregnant, and my son was on Medicaid for the first three and a half years of his life. We received WIC benefits through his babyhood. The people I know, the people I've told, have never condemned me for this, no matter how conservative their politics, or their feelings on welfare in general. It might just be that they don't want to hurt my feelings, but I think there's more to it than that. The more people you know personally who need and use assistance, the less you are to see them as part of a monolithic block of "welfare people."

Welfare people are the ones folks talk about when you start talking about assistance programs. Welfare people are always anecdotal and almost never someone you know well. They tend to have lots and lots of kids, and very nice cell phones. They buy steaks with food stamps, which they receive exorbitant amounts of and are always looking for an opportunity to game the system. They have no interest in getting a job, and apparently plan on being on welfare forever. I do not know any of these people myself, but I know lots of people who know them. I have felt the eyes of the people who know welfare people on me many times, and it always makes me feel very, very small. The people who know welfare people would look into my cart when I was buying groceries with my EBT card and decide whether my purchases ($150 per month in food stamps, a princely sum to live on, if you really like macaroni) were worthy of their tax money. They were the ones who stared at me when I brought our iPad (secondhand, a lovely gift from a family member) to a doctor's appointment to keep my son entertained. Small, smaller, smallest, until I became nothing but the sum of my possessions, until the people who know welfare people argued on television about whether I deserved help because I had a refrigerator and a microwave in my home. Until I found excuses to leave the room at family holidays when my relatives began talking about welfare people, because I hadn't told them how bad things were for us, but they were still talking about me that way. Until I didn't even want to defend myself, because the best case scenario is that they would tell me I was nothing like "those people," because I didn't want to be on welfare forever and I wasn't a parasite on the system. So I closed my mouth (most of the time, though there were a few loud arguments here and there), raised my son, and hoped things would change. Which is, I think, what a lot of people on welfare do.

Here's some information about what the welfare people are really like, as a monolithic block. (The numbers are here if you'd like to see them, thank you internet!) Eighty percent of recipients of TANF, which is the non-food-stamp welfare program, are on it for five years or less. Almost twenty percent are on it for seven months or less. Thirty-nine percent of TANF recipients are white, forty are black, fifteen are Hispanic, and the rest are other races. The average benefit for a family on food stamps is $257 per month. (That figure is here.) Fourteen percent of the population is on food stamps at any given time, including 1 in every 4 children. 8.3 million women, infants and children use the WIC program. Crunch those numbers, and we were incredibly average in nearly every way for people on welfare.

My husband made 19,000 a year as a graduate student, so we never qualified for TANF, and never qualified for Medicaid except when I was pregnant and for our child. We qualified for food stamps for just under a year, until my husband took an adjunct professor job to get resume experience. The 200 dollars a month he made (almost all of which was eaten up by gas to get to the remote school where he taught) was enough to push us over the line and lose us our $150 dollars in benefits. That job, while important, substantially worsened our position. I thought seriously about picking up a part time job on weekends or in the evenings, but I didn't dare try for one of the McJobs that were all that was available. They paid minimum wage and didn't come with insurance. If our income got much higher, we'd risk losing Medicaid for the Bug, and I would rather eat macaroni and lose sleep over the bills than not be able to take him to the doctor. (There was no family insurance for graduate students, it wasn't even an option.) When I had a stroke in 2013, I didn't realize it at the time, because I hadn't been to a doctor in three years, and wouldn't have been able to go to a hospital without ruining our lives anyway.

But we were lucky. Strange as that seems to say, we were very lucky, because we had light at the end of our tunnel. My husband finished school and, after a year-long job search, found the holy grail of a full-time job with benefits. It required moving halfway across the country, yes, but it took us out of the ranks of the nearly-destitute and moved us into the lower middle class. That's not an option for a large percentage of people on welfare, who find themselves perpetually in the position where they could lose everything by trying to better themselves, and every road upward seems to be fraught or fraudulent. How do you do the calculus of whether it's better for your child to go to the doctor or be able to play sports and have school supplies? Is it better for them to be trapped in poverty with you there for them, or to have a chance at a slightly better life but never see you because you work two or three jobs? Do you try and save money for the future (bearing in mind that a savings account that is more than a pittance could cost you your food stamp benefits, no matter what you're saving for), or do you take that yearly tax return you don't dare hold onto and use it to buy a few nice things, even though you know people will sneer at you for them? Do you let yourself become small, smaller, smallest, or do you stand up and spit in the eye of people who judge you?

"Show kindness and compassion to each other, do not oppress the widows, the orphans, the strangers and the poor; don't plan evil against each other!" That's what God talked about when he talked about the poor. What, and who, do we talk about, and why?