Poverty, Aid and Not Begrudging People That Need Help

Yes, there are some people who abuse the system. Of course there are. There are also rich people who abuse the tax system. Before anyone goes pointing fingers, just remember, abuse is not limited to the poor.

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By Michaela Mitchell

Ever hear the phrase, “We were poor growing up, but I didn’t know it?”

It was a common refrain in my family. When my mother and aunt speak about those days, they wax poetically about tomato sandwiches and bread with every meal (meant to fill an empty stomach when there wasn’t enough food).

I was poor growing up, but the difference between my mother’s life and my own? Without a doubt, I knew we were poor.

School clothes from Kmart (because there wasn’t a Wal-Mart in those days) purchased on layaway, no-name shoes, begging for every toy in commercials and receiving homemade Bermuda shorts from my grandmother for Christmas (true story). And that was just how being poor affected a selfish little kid who couldn’t understand why her parents didn’t love her enough to buy her all the things her friends had.

I was also there when my mother paid bills. I heard, without fully understanding it, the strain in her voice when the car broke down and she had to call a relative to borrow money to buy a cheap car so she could get to work. I know the feeling of sitting in a car with smoke billowing out from under the hood and walking a mile in tall grass on the side of a busy highway to get to a pay phone. (Kids, this was before cell phones — if your car died or you got a flat tire, you were hoofin’ it to the nearest gas station and praying you had a dime to make the phone call.)

In the grocery store, we had discussions about whether we could buy mustard or ketchup that week, and sometimes mayonnaise or salad dressing — but never both. How far could we stretch a penny to buy enough groceries to feed a family of three for two weeks? I don’t know how she did it, but that cart was full every time.

Why didn’t she apply for help? One of two reasons: pride or lack of knowledge. I think it was the latter. If food stamps and other forms of aid were discussed in popular culture 25 or 30 years ago, I wasn’t aware of it. My mother worked 12 hours a day, 6 days a week — she didn’t have time to breathe, let alone find out how to get help. Because she didn’t know, I didn’t either.

Fast forward 20 years…

My oldest son was born a month early. His father and I were woefully unprepared. We left the hospital with nothing more than the few diapers and the sample can of formula the hospital provided. On the way home, still recovering from pushing life out of my body, we traipsed through the aisles of Wal-Mart, desperate for diapers and formula (and no, this isn’t a moment to debate whether I should have breastfed or not). We wiped out our entire bank account just to have enough to feed and diaper him for a week or so.

Can you say panic, boys and girls?

My mother-in-law is the one who told me about WIC — Women, Infants, and Children — an assistance program for low-income pregnant women and children up to age 5. I had no idea it existed, and I believed we’d never qualify. I wasn’t on welfare. I worked for a living, making over $10 an hour (and in the early 2000s, that was almost decent). Aid was for people who had no money at all.

Not only did I qualify but because we were in such dire need, they squeezed me in and got me on the program within a few days of my first phone call.

Now, 10 years later, I no longer qualify for aid, and I no longer need it. I’m broke, but I’m not in poverty. And although I wish people didn’t need assistance, I don’t begrudge anyone that needs help.

In fact, when someone says something about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, not taking a handout, and anyone receiving aid is abusing the system, smoke comes out of my ears. Every few months, I sat with other women, from all walks of life, teenage mothers, grandmothers raising grandchildren, working mothers just like me, hell, even single fathers — waiting for our WIC checks. There wasn’t one of us who wouldn’t have given anything to not need the help. But damn it, we were grateful for it, just the same.

Yes, there are some people who abuse the system. Of course there are. There are also rich people who abuse the tax system. Before anyone goes pointing fingers, just remember, abuse is not limited to the poor.

No one does anything all by themselves without help. Maybe your help didn’t come from the government. Maybe your help came in the form of someone who knows you and recommended you for a position. Maybe it came in the form of a family connection. Maybe you got lucky and met the right person at the exact right time. But none of us are an island unto ourselves, and we all move forward in this life with help.

So no, when we start talking about helping the neediest and poorest among us, I’m not in that camp of people ready to cut off benefits and deny access. Sure, I kept working and struggling until I finally reached a point where I didn’t need the aid (sometimes I needed it, but I didn’t qualify, unfortunately). I’m a productof that aid. Without it, we would have slipped further into poverty — a big, black hole that feels impossible to climb out of.

Not everyone on WIC or food stamps or housing assistance is gaming the system. Many people are working our butts off to make a better life for their families, and they need help. You can judge me and think I needed to make different life choices all you want…but that judgment and condemnation wouldn’t feed a hungry child.

When someone asks me if I really want my tax dollars paying to feed someone who doesn’t/can’t/won’t work, my answer is pretty simple. “Hell yeah.” Because no one deserves to be hungry — especially a child — and many of the people who need help are working, and it still isn’t enough.

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This story originally appeared on Ravishly.

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Comments

  1. I feel like these pieces always miss the point by failing to recognize the sacrifices made by those whose taxes pay for WIC and other programs.

    My fiancé and I agreed to delay getting married until after many of our friends, and we still have not yet had children (though we plan to soon), all as part of ensuring that we would be financially stable when the time came.

    But now, after grad school, we face extensive income taxes because that’s what it supposedly means to pay our “fair share.” But there’s no acknowledgement that we have our present incomes because we made sacrifices–waited to have children, went to law school instead of working after undergrad, etc.–it’s almost as if people assume that we just didn’t want children, or a home, or a wedding, or any of the other things we put off. As though we couldn’t have made other–easier–choices.

    When you get.a mortgage tax break, it’s subsidized by my tax dollars. When you pay for your child using WIC, that’s also subsidized by my tax dollars. But I don’t get to have children or a house I own; I just get to pay a tax bill. That’s what my sacrifice has earned: higher taxes so that people who are not me can have the things that I want. So you will please excuse me if I feel used, taken advantage of, and unfairly targeted.

    It’s very easy to say “oh you had help!” and just dismiss my experience. It’s much harder to recognize my reality.

  2. John Anderson says:

    It’s not just the wealthy, but companies and communities that benefit from “unearned” government assistance. Government might use eminent domain to seize private property to expand an airports flight capacity. or even sell it to a private developer to build a hotel. There might be subsides for drilling or special protections put in place like caps on damages when companies get sued. Of course government gives special protections for itself. I suppose the idea is to save the tax payer from the effects of a legal judgement. Even the concept of bankruptcy is essentially a government bail out.

    On the whole, I would rather see a family scam the government out of $200 so they can afford it enjoy as steak or fix the brakes on a car, etc. then give a wealthy person $1,000,000 so they can take a European vacation in the new summer home they bought. I actually heard a guy say that he’d rather pay for the rich guy’s summer home, but that was before life hit him like a hammer and he became a born again Christian. It seems that there are people who actually hate the poor.

    IMO the government needs to become more bold. Let’s tax overseas income and provide a tax break on income taxes paid overseas up to a maximum if 80% of the tax that they would have paid here on the income. Let’s shift the cost of children to the state. Reform child support laws so that the non-custodial parent only pays 40% of what they are paying. Raise the child tax credit to $6,000 a year / child and cap it a $18,000 so people aren’t having children to make money. Make the credit taxable so if they got the maximum amount they wouldn’t qualify for some government assistance programs. That should cit down on fraud.

    I’m not sure how those things would work. I haven’t completely thought them out, but like in that divorce column here where the author demands that some very specific loop holes get fixed, I don’t think targeting some loop holes to help certain parties to the detriment of others is the way to go. You need to fix the system to make it fair, then fix the loop holes. No one should have to game the system to enjoy a steak once or twice a month or to have their breaks fixed so they can work. I think you get the gist of it.

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