Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Blog Action Day 08 - Poverty

I'm no economic expert, nor am I as actively involved as I used to be, and would like to be. The theme that emanates from my own personal experience with or about poverty have is that of choices, or more aptly, the lack thereof.

When I first graduated high school, the television pilot I'd done in the spring had been picked up for a season, so college was left for "later someday." And while that series did not last, I was paid more money than a 17-yr-old should be and it lasted me well beyond the cancellation of that tv series. I also did part-time jobs here and there to get me by, and got enough gigs that I could easily call my life my own.

It wasn't until I got involved with X that things began to change. Even then, it took another few years for it to really sink in. It wasn't really until I was a mother that it all got complicated.

Yes, I made the choice to have a child even though I didn't have a stable income at the time. My money worries stemmed from making the "choice" to stay with my ex at the time.

But that choice was complicated. It was mired in all this other stuff - namely, fear of single motherhood, more than anything else - that I believed it was the best case scenario.

And then we made the choice to have another child. And I went from drinking brand name sodas to store-brand labels (among other changes, of course). I would mentally add the dollar amounts of every grocery item that I put in my cart before allowing myself to be thoroughly humiliated at check-out for not having enough cash. Even then, it didn't always work out.

I think our time in Pittsburgh was probably the worst of it. I was a stay-at-home mom with no car, no money, and I literally stayed home. All the time. A free internet connection from NetZero (or something like that) was my only contact to the outside world. That, and long-distance calls. I know I sound dramatic, but it's really how it was.

I tried going back to school then. I remember counting the change to make sure I had enough to take the bus there and back. I remember seeing someone with a Starbucks coffee, and longing for it. I wasn't really into Starbucks then, but just the thought of being able to walk in one and hand over two dollars...I nearly cried for not having that.

I remember going off one day in our English class on Walt Whitman and how he glorified motherhood. How Whitman didn't seem to appreciate the hard work that came with that beautiful moment of a mother holding her infant. How could he understand the crying, and the croup, and the desperate need of a vaporizer, and spending nights in a steaming shower to try and ease the sound? How could he understand not having enough money for a decent winter coat, so I'd keep two girls inside all day while we all were going silently mad? I ended up having to drop out of school because we couldn't afford the child care.

I wrote a paper on the concept of "zero." It's probably the most depressing thing I've ever written. It was about all the things I didn't or never would have. The one that still hurts a little is that I had zero baby showers.

It was during that time that I was listening to Sidney Poitier talk about poverty (in reference to A Raisin in the Sun), and talk about how it's always right there. That when you're poor, it never leaves your mind. There are always painful reminders of what you don't have, what you can't do. And that's exactly how I felt when I didn't have two dollars to buy a cup of coffee. I didn't have two dollars for anything.

I found us a way out of Pittsburgh, and then the marriage broke up, and I ended up living with my parents, with an overdrawn checking account, no car, and applying for food stamps.

And it was while I was clawing my way back to a semblance of a life that I really started to understand how few choices were available to those without the means, without support systems.

Even with my lack of degree, I was able to get myself a job. However, I realized pretty quickly that the salary of a secretary was simply not enough to support two children. Maybe outside of L.A., but outside of L.A., I didn't have the support (both emotionally and, to a degree, financially) of my parents. I knew my acting days were over, and that the only chance I had to give us a better life was for me to get my college degree. It wasn't even a choice anymore.

If it weren't for my parents, I never would've been able to finish my degree. If it weren't for student loans, I never would've been able to afford to finish my degree. If it weren't for my job, I never would've been able to afford the gas to get to school. If it weren't for my degree, I know I never would've been promoted to a point where keeping a roof over our heads isn't nearly as hard and insecure as it was 6 months ago. It's all connected.

Yes, I made mistakes in life, but there has to be a point where those mistakes are surmountable. My feeling was, if I work every day, if I make sure my children are well cared for, getting the education they need, if I do my part, then that should be enough. But sometimes, it just isn't.

I like thinking of myself as an independent, self-sufficient woman. And for the most part, I am. But I know in my heart there's no way I would've made it without the support my parents gave me along the way. And I know I'm lucky to have that support. And I've accepted it gratefully, with little shame, because I knew I was living up to my end of the bargain, too.

I don't understand how people corrupt the welfare system, I really don't. When I applied for food stamps, I had to jump through a number of hoops. I needed tons of documentation. I wouldn't even begin to get how people take advantage of the system. And I don't consider myself entirely stupid, either. I'm sure some people do, but having been through it, I don't see how that many people get away with it.

I know that even the poorest of people in America have it better than the poverty in Mexico, for instance. However, there's a community of poverty there that, while it sounds sick and depraved, I somewhat envy. Here, there's so much money being thrown around everywhere that it's difficult not to start to wonder where our share is, you know? Here, there's such a stigma attached to being on food stamps or (in L.A.) not having a car that it's difficult not to feel inferior, less than.

When I interned for The Bridge Program, I was truly humbled by how well I had it, in comparison. The first night, there was a celebration of sorts because one of the homeless shelters was finally free of their bed bugs. There was one extraordinary woman there, a victim of domestic abuse, who soon moved into her own Section 8 housing, is now in the process of getting her degree, and hopes to become a lawyer. When I met her, she was living in a shelter, and the programs there, along with The Bridge Program, enabled her to get the support she needed so that she can keep her daughter in school and, one day, maybe even have her choice of neighborhoods.

This will sound trite in comparison, but I was seething the other night, as I watched the latest episode of Brothers & Sisters. Sally Field was going off on Rachel Griffiths' character, a single working mother of two, for not being compassionate enough to another family member. As Griffiths' character tried to explain how truly miserable she is at her job, Field asked why she didn't quit. Griffiths explained that she's a single mother that can't afford to be out of job. And Field responded, "then it's your choice to work there." It was all I could do not to wake my sleeping daughters by screaming at the tv, "Choice?!? What choice?!? She HAS to work, she HAS to support her kids, she doesn't have the LUXURY of a choice right now!!"

People forget that sometimes, life circumstances narrow the choices considerably. I think there's a distinct difference between choice and excuse, and that the words get intertwined in ways they shouldn't be. Yes, a choice can lead to a circumstance that you later regret. But if you're willing to put your tail between your legs, if you're willing to say, "okay, I want to correct that now," there ought to be ways that someone can do so. You shouldn't just be stuck with, "well, you made your choice, now live with it." Particularly when children, who made no such choice, are involved.

And apparently, most governments agree with me right now. Too many people that didn't make the choice were getting hurt by the failure of the banks to let it just stand. While I think that every CEO should be fired, and some other top management too probably, it's not right to let everyone's money go down the drain like that. There are still many of us that didn't take loans we couldn't afford, that didn't approve those bad loans, that are watching our 401(k)s and other investments potentially disappear if nothing was done. As evidenced by these last couple of weeks, sometimes, we have to step in or all of us get hurt.

There are many levels of poverty, some of which I can't even begin to comprehend. I'm sure there will be many posts this Blog Action Day that spell things out more clearly (and more succinctly) than I have here. But I wanted to participate because I do believe that it's a serious issue that is constantly with us - in one form or another. And I think we all should at least take a step back and ask, just how many choices do they have? How many choices do I have? And be grateful, and yes, take ownership, of our choices, or lack thereof, along the way.


Anonymous said...

saw this post via the front page of blog action day. it's great that you're participating.

FreedomFirst said...

Wow, this was pretty intense. Thankyou for posting it.

Did you know that Walt Whitman was gay? I really don't care, except that it offends me he would try to pretend he could relate to motherhood. Most of the gay people I've met are either empathic or pretentious. He sounds pretentious. They're the ones I can't stand.

As far as the whole bail-out issue, it bothers me because it is, IMO, directly the fault of the government that things got this bad to start with. They should not have allowed these banks to practice predatory lending. They should not have required equal opportunity loans (meaning the proportion of loans approved for minorities must equal their proportion in the population), which set the stage for bankruptcy decades ago. And I guess this wasn't directly the government's fault, but there is something radically wrong with CEOs being paid in the millions while foreclosing on thousands of homeowners. They should be the first ones feeling the pinch; after all, it was their management that led to it!!!

To elaborate briefly on the equal opportunity thing, I know that it was supposed to solve a real problem that needed addressing. But only an idiot could have not looked ahead to the inevitable consequences. You do not do a poor person any favors by loaning them money they cannot afford to pay back. Education is one thing; I am all in favor of loans that will aid a person in making a better future for themselves, so they CAN someday own a home or a good car, or any of the other things we all feel we need. But giving home loans to gullible or desperate people just so you can foreclose on them a few years later, is sick. I don't think the people who got the loans should be the ones who have to "live with it;" but I think there should be serious mega-punishment on the banks who created this mess through their greed. And I think Bush and most of the legislators for the past 20 years should be losing THEIR pensions, and have to sing for their supper like everyone else.

We can wish, right?

On a side note, I think there are people in this country who are as poor as the poorest in third world countries. They're the ones who fell through the cracks. The final cracks - the ones in the basement floor.

My MIL told me once that years ago, when she was a teenager, she and her friends got lost in Chester, PA (a suburb of Philly - you will probably know where I'm talking about since you lived in Pittsburgh). That was before it was this bad, too. They wound up driving around under one of the bridges in an abandoned warehouse district. She said all these little naked kids came out to look at them like they'd never seen a car before, with bloated bellies and sunken eyes like the pictures on charity websites. Their parents were living in the warehouses making crack and meth and just basically living on it. She said they were huddling around burning trash barrels for warmth. And she decided then that if she was ever going to give money to charity, she wanted it to go to those little starving kids under the bridge, and not to some organization sending it overseas.

Granted, that was 30 years ago, and that area is now the site of the disputed re-vamping of the Chester waterfront. Most of those little kids are probably dead, in prison, or trying real hard to forget their childhood. But I'm sure you could still find others like them, if you look hard enough.

Anonymous said...

Wow April, you just get better and better.

I don't understand how people can abuse the system either. When I applied for AHCCCS (healthcare), I had to show them EVERYTHING and technically, I didn't qualify. However, the case worker could see that I TRULY needed it and decided to overlook some things (legally). I doubt the same caseworker would have done the same for someone she could tell was actually abusing the system.

When my time with AHCCCS was up and I had a decent paying job, that was the end of the free handout for me, which is how it should be.

When I see people use the excuse that there is too much abuse in the systems to continue it, I just think they've lost the ability to empathize; because there are many more people out there like you and me who just need it to get a leg up before the next stage of our lives.

Suzie said...

Great cause to blog for go you!

Kori said...

For the second or third time today I am saying "I must have missed the memo," about this day-but it is probably a good thing because it hits too close to home for me. Great post.

Florinda said...

Terrific post, and I really like the way you kept emphasizing that the concept of "choice" means different things depending on your personal circumstances. In my experience, people who have never really been in situations where their choices WERE limited that way don't really get it. (This is an ongoing debate between my husband and me - bless his heart, he hasn't been there and doesn't really get it; I've been closer to it, so I think I get it a little better.)

You had mentioned in a comment on my blog not long ago that you disliked Walt Whitman - now I know why :-).

Shiona said...

Yes I agree with Florinda about the whole choice issue. I hate it when people make some comment trying to make it look like they understand but they don't. (e.g. the people who said they let people know to leave with Katrina but didn't understand that many didn't have the means or money to do so.)They do the same thing for poverty as far as circumstances and choices.

Obviously nobody plans to be on financial assistance when they decide to have a family. They think that things will work out or that the person they are with is a decent person. I too get angry and do not understand how people can take advantage of the system. I think that what actually happens is that they get into the system by submitting all of the documentation and then when they get a job or whatever they just keep receiving aid even though they know they shouldn't.

The other thing I see is on the opposite end. When I was a manager at the pizza place I cannot tell you how many times a crew member would need the assistance but if they make more than a certain amount things get cut off. We had to make sure they worked no more than x amount of hours so that their pay stub would reflect the amount to show the welfare office.

Anyway the point of my novel was to say that I agree with what you said on choices. Great post.

Anonymous said...

Great post...I really appreciate your openness and willingness to share your life experiences with us...that makes everything you say that much more poignant! Thank you!