I’ve tried to avoid writing all week about the Mitt Romney secret tapes where he essentially stated that nearly half of this country are freeloader victims looking for nothing but a handout. I’ve been engrossed in reading the stories of others, how they represent the 47%, how they have had to rely on assistance at some point or another in their lives, and how it has helped them reach a better place.
I guess this is as good a time as ever for one more story.
There are no tales of being on assistance when I was growing up. We didn’t have much, but my mom worked extremely hard for every penny and we got by. There were some very slim moments, but she was always fully employed and her employer provided very good health insurance for us.
I went to college with the assistance of federal loans and grants, in addition to scholarships I had earned for an excellent academic record and an allowance each year of money that my family had saved for my college education. I needed all of it, and even then I still worked all the way through college to afford a few of the beyond basic items, like a night at the movies or dinner out with friends. Without the federal grants and loans, which covered more than half of the costs of my in-state public school education (go Miami!), I would never have been able to fully afford my college degree.
After college I worked continuously until Mira was born. (That’s nine years from when I graduated college, for reference.) At that point, Aaron had a good job and benefits, and I was making a decent part-time freelance income as a blogger, so I quit my day job to focus on Mira, and on attending nursing school.
And then the summer of 2008 hit, and Aaron was laid off.
Of course, he applied for unemployment. Each of us had worked for most of 13 years at that point, paying our taxes with each paycheck. We couldn’t feel too bad about using the unemployment insurance we had paid into for so many years.
It wasn’t a lot of money, though, and our emergency savings soon ran as dry as the job prospects. We didn’t want to apply for more help, but we had no choice. Our children needed health insurance. We needed food, but also needed money to keep our house and not fall behind on bill payments. We were sinking fast.
And so we applied for food stamps, WIC and Medicaid. There may be several stories out there about people abusing the system and getting benefits they don’t quality for. From our experience, I’d call most of them myths. Never before have we had to produce so much documentation for our situation and jump through so many hoops.
In some ways, we felt glad that the system was set up to make sure it wasn’t grossly abused. On the other hand, it was tremendously difficult to get approved. We were held up several times for missing paperwork, or not enough documentation, or because we were required to visit the office in person, with the children, and wait in a crowded waiting room, to even have a chance at being considered. How much harder would it have been if we were poorer to begin with, without a car or without all of our income documentation?
Aaron’s unemployment and my small part-time blogging income disqualified the entire family for Medicaid, but we still made little enough for only the kids to be covered. The food stamps and WIC covered a large part of our monthly grocery bill, freeing up what little money we had to pay for our mortgage. We made about $1200 a month with Aaron’s unemployment and my freelance income. Our mortgage was $1100 a month.
If it wasn’t for that help, we would have lost everything: our house, our cars, our dignity, our hope. It would have been hard to get a new job with no permanent address or transportation to make it to the interview. Instead, we found ourselves in the safety net provided by our government, dangerously close to the pit beneath us, and looking for a way to climb up and out.
No one wants to stay in that position. Before that, we had been living a semi-secure middle-class life (I’d call it lower middle-class, honestly), and we only wanted to return to that life. And it’s no surprise that for two years, our income was low enough that we paid nothing in income taxes. We were the 47% – we made too little to pay taxes, and we needed government support services to keep our family fed, healthy, and keep the house we were so proud to buy back in 2004.
Did we feel “entitled” to all of this? We didn’t want to be in the position to accept help, but we took it. And I can’t speak for Aaron, but yes, I did feel that I deserved help from my government, just as our taxes in years before were used to help others get back on their feet. I believe that a just and humane government looks out for all of its people, so that no one goes without basic necessities of food, shelter, and health care.
Of course, many of you know the next chapter of this story. The job market did improve, slowly, in 2009 and 2010, and Aaron and I both found jobs again. The first minute we could, we called the agencies and told them we no longer needed assistance. It felt great to do so. We had a hefty income tax bill last year, and we’ll have a smaller bill this year with our employment status changes. I guess that means we’re no longer in the 47% at the moment, but we’re also the exact same people who once were a part of it. Do we deserve to be treated differently because of our income now?
We – like many – didn’t want to be on assistance. It was barely enough to get by and we certainly didn’t live well during those times. The prejudices of strangers also made the emotional stress of a job loss even more difficult.
I will forever remember how I felt standing in the checkout line at Kroger, Cordy by my side and Mira (just a toddler) sitting in the cart, as I grouped the items on the belt to match up with my WIC checks. I was still carrying a little extra weight around the middle at the time, and I remember one older lady in line behind me talking to her friend – loudly enough that I could hear – saying how shameful it was that I was on assistance and had the nerve to have another child while on assistance, too.
Beyond being pissed off that she thought I was pregnant, I was so angry and embarrassed by her judgment of me, when she knew nothing about me or my family’s situation. Because my husband’s government job had been eliminated, and we needed help to cover the basics until he could find another job, we were suddenly a target for shaming, an acceptable demographic to judge and look down on.
I once held my own prejudices about people living off the system, too “lazy” to make an effort to better themselves. Our experience, as well as the experience of so many people that I met when I worked as a nurse, has changed much of my opinion.
The problem isn’t the system, the problem is being off the system. It’s hard to consider taking a job that will pay just enough to remove that safety net from under you, but will still pay so little that you end up being even closer to losing it all. It’s hard to apply for jobs and be told you’re not being considered because you have a college degree and therefore are overqualified, no matter how much you assure them you’re committed, you’ll work hard, and you need the job to support your family.
None of us are an island. We are part of a society, and one purpose of that society should be to ensure a basic standard for all people in that society and work together towards a greater good. (In fact, the definition of society is “a highly structured system of human organization for large-scale community living that normally furnishes protection, continuity, security, and a national identity for its members.”) We depend on each other, and we help each other. I don’t believe this means that some can’t have more than others, but there needs to be a system in place to provide a minimum standard of living. A line in the sand that declares that this society will work together to ensure no child goes without food, or a safe place to sleep, or lose all they have just because of a layoff or a health crisis.
Just as in a marriage, it’s never an even 50-50 split. Sometimes you’re contributing, sometimes you’re the one needing the contributions. If you have never needed any help from anyone at all, well, I don’t believe you. Everyone needs help from someone else at some point.
If you’ve never needed government assistance, then be thankful instead of bitter that others have needed that assistance that you – and millions of others – help pay for, and pray that karma never finds a way to humble you. Because if karma finds you on that little tropical island for one that you defend so fiercely, you may find yourself eating your words when you can’t afford food.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons