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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 1/29/12

Poverty and Perception

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With the 2012 Presidential campaign underway, there is a lot of talk coming from candidates on the economy. Recently Newt Gingrich made the claim that President Obama is a "food stamp president", because of the number of people who are enrolled in the program. In reality the USDA, which administers the program, is now referred to as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), and many people who are covered by this are amongst the working poor. So when candidates, like Newt Gingrich, make sweeping generalizations it often serves to demonize people who are in need of assistance. Someone once told me that peoples perceptions are often their reality, and I believe that blanket statements often appeal to individuals on a cultural level. For some individuals, it may take a certain level of hardship, to really see things from a different perspective. As such, I can say that my own experiences managed to give me a point of view that I might not otherwise have. My history, and perspective, is something I would like to share here.

Some years ago I was traveling through Central Illinois in connection with my job. At the time, I was employed by the cable company, and responsible for delivering commercials to our various satellite places to air.  On one occasion I stopped by one of the ad sales offices and the Account Executive (AE) was stressing out over being broke. As a single mother, I could certainly identify with not having enough money to pay the bills. Then, the AE revealed that her financial state was generated by spending a few thousand dollars on home improvements.  Needless to say, my own level of empathy pulled a vanishing act quickly.  This is because her concept of what it meant to be broke is a far cry from what I have experienced in my own life.

Depending on our background, our personal experiences, and what we are exposed to, the concept of what it means to be truly "broke' is a matter of perspective.  One of the things I don't talk about much is that I was, for a period of time, on the welfare rolls. Yep, I used to be on welfare. Now, when I was growing up in Central Illinois, I certainly did not imagine that I would end up being on the public dole.  I grew up being a raised by middle class college educated parents, and I certainly did not fit the stereotype of the "Welfare Queen" that Ronald Reagan trotted out to the public eye.  The general image of the Welfare Queen that was perpetuated at the time was that of a black woman, who drove a Cadillac, who had several children by different daddies, and knew how to scam the system at the cost of the honorable taxpayer who would eat dirt before accepting aid.  I won't delve too much into the socioeconomic history behind this myth, but a good description can be found here.

The myth of what has represented women on welfare is a far cry from the expectations I had growing up. After I graduated from high school, I attended college, and graduated with a bachelor's degree in Mass Communication in 1991. So far I seemed to be on the path of doing what was expected of me. At that point I saw a very simple path to follow. I had a vision of finding a good job, moving out into my own place, meeting the right guy, marrying the right guy, and then starting a family.  The funny thing about life is that things don't always go according to plan.  Through mutual friends I met a man, who came to this country from Turkey, fell into lust, and became pregnant within two months of getting my bachelor's degree.  When I learned that I was pregnant, the father decided that he did not wish to be part of the pregnancy. My parents were quite upset with me, but decided to be supportive of my decision to have and keep my baby. Even my doctor pointed out that, with my education, I already had some advantages.

As a single, educated, woman in my 20's I did not anticipate what some of the disadvantages of my situation would be. I found out very quickly that jobs were not easy to come by, and employers had no desire to hire a pregnant woman who would be taking maternity leave within a few months. Additionally, in 1992, there were no licensed day care providers who would take in children under the age of two in my area.  Now, when I read stories of women who are able to return to work within a few weeks of giving birth, I marvel over how much things have really changed over the past twenty years. However, my circumstances resulted in my having to live with my parents until my child turned two and it became necessary for me to seek aid in paying for medical care and other needs. While I was in college, my mother extended the medical insurance which covered me, so that took care of my prenatal care, and hospitalization. On June 19, 1992, at the age of 24, I gave birth to a 7lb 5oz baby girl who I named Karen. After her birth, I ended up going to the local "public aid' office to apply for assistance.

When I entered the building I saw many signs proclaiming in large letters "Welfare Reform is Here" and I had to wait in line in order to apply for assistance. The person who processed my application looked down her nose at me because I was applying for aid. It didn't matter to her that my being there was not something that had been in my original life plan. It didn't matter that I had no intention of being on assistance for the long term. I later ended up talking to a "caseworker' who told me that she did not expect me to do much of anything besides sit at home, smoke cigarettes, and wait for the next guy to come along and knock me up. I told her that I did not appreciate her attitude and found her disrespectful. The caseworker tossed my paperwork in the trash, and told me I had to resubmit everything because I missed one item.  To this day I believe that she threw away my paperwork, because I refused to sit meekly and be treated like a piece of garbage.  There are a few people who worked in the system who really seemed to care, but many of the caseworkers were not known for their people skills.

Two years later, I did put Karen in daycare, found a job doing temp work at the local university, and I eventually worked my way into living independently. Over the years, I have lost count of the number of times I have made the choice to pay utility bills based on what I did not want to have shut off. Do I pay the power bill or the water bill this month? My idea of making major home improvements involved taking out loans when my roof sprung a leak. I have installed cabinets, put drywall on a ceiling, fixed a leaky shower, and done a number of projects due to the fact that I could save money doing my own stuff. I know what it's like to see over half of my earned income go towards paying rent/mortgage and childcare.  When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003, I still worked full time, took care of my daughter, and paid the bills. I did not have the luxury to go on disability. I had to eat and survive. To this day, I can only credit my faith with giving me the necessary strength to get through that period in my life. Even then, I still ended up racking up bills, which eventually led to me filing bankruptcy in 2009.

So when I think about my former co-worker who complained about being broke after spending thousands of dollars on home improvements, I wonder what it's like to have that concept of being broke. Prosperity is as much a matter of perspective, as it is the balance in ones checking account. All things considered, I feel that I've done reasonably well on my own. I was able to buy a house when my daughter was five years old. After my cancer diagnosis, I went back to school and completed a master's degree in 2010. Currently, I'm still working on finding a job that will better meet my financial and career aspirations, but I have faith that things will happen in good time. I still haven't met Mr. Right, but have learned from the experiences that I have had. If I had followed my original plan, I'm not sure that I could have been an equal or a mature partner in a marriage.  Assuming that the right person does come alone, I believe I can really appreciate what he may be able to bring to a relationship. Before I had my daughter I may have been more inclined to selfishly expect a man to meet my needs without question. Having a child forced me to grow up. I've also learned that being alone is not the same as being lonely, and I can enjoy my own company which is truly a gift.

The life experiences I have had resulted in me being able to look at things a lot differently. I don't look at people on welfare as lazy slobs who have nothing better to do than be a drain on the system. The people who came up with the idea of "welfare reform' had it all wrong. It's not the people who needed to be reformed, but the system that is designed to perpetuate itself. When I started working I was told that I was making too much money doing temp work to qualify for Medicaid. As a result, I had to make a choice between working, and between having medical coverage. I chose to continue working until I found a job that had good insurance. However, if a woman is dealing with children who are ill and need medical care, then what choice does she really have? These are the things that many people who complain about welfare simply don't see or understand.

Currently, I'm without medical insurance, and I pray that I find a situation where I can get coverage again. I could go back to what is now called the "Department of Human Services" and see if I qualify for Medicaid, or even a link card.  The link card is a debit card that has replaced food stamps in Illinois.  After I lost my job in 2007 I was able to go back on Medicaid for a period of time, but found that the hoops one has to jump through is still as insane as ever. It's been an on-off dysfunctional relationship that I have no desire to participate in. Plus, with my daughter being 19, I'm not sure I would qualify at this point.  I'm also lucky to live in an area where I am close to my parents, and if I need a few groceries, I can ask them for help. I'm lucky that I do have family as a safety net, other people are not as fortunate. I've learned to really count my blessings.

Needless to say, when I read stories where poor people are being treated like villains, it angers me to the core of my being. The decision of Newt Gingrich to call President Obama a "food-stamp president" is a slap on the face of every working person who is struggling to make it in this economy. Prior to becoming a substitute teacher, I worked for an employment agency that did market research, and some of my co-workers relied on link cards and food pantries to eat. One woman went from owning a business, living in a new house, and driving a new SUV every six months to losing everything. Her American dream turned into a nightmare, and she considered herself to be lucky to end up in a halfway decent trailer park, getting food from the local pantry, and qualifying for a link card. It took her at least three years after her business went belly up before she found a job that gave her benefits. That is a basic reality that a lot of Americans are dealing with now.

I don't begrudge Newt Gingrich, or other politicians, their wealth. I do however believe that, like my former co-worker, they don't have a clear grasp on what it's really like to be barely getting by. This is the time of year when the working poor will fill up the offices of HR Block and other tax prep places to get a "rapid refund', in order to pay for rent, utilities, and other basic needs. I know that my own tax return is pretty much committed towards paying the bills.  I don't have any money set aside for retirement, because I had to cash in a 401K in order to pay tuition, and make my mortgage payments. I accept the fact that I may never be in a position where I can retire, however I do hope that I can give my daughter the chance to have a better life. This is one part of the American dream that my parents passed on to me, and I hope to pass on to her.  It took a while for my education with a bachelor's degree to pay off, and I believe that having a master's degree will benefit me in the long run. Perhaps I will consider returning to school and pursuing a doctorate down the road. Who knows what the future will bring.
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Martha "Marti" Wilkinson earned her MA in Communication Studies from Eastern Illinois University in May 2010. She also holds a BS (1991) in Mass Communication from Illinois State University.

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