A chart showing average monthly welfare benefits (AFDC then TANF) per recipient in constant 2006 dollars. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
My return to academia is now 8 days old. I don’t know if I am getting smarter or simply more frustrated with my choice to return to school, but I am staying the course nonetheless. I don’t know that I will complete my degree, or even that I will use it if I do complete it, but anything that expands my knowledge base and awareness isn’t wasted. As a writer of at least mediocre caliber, I consider everything I encounter in life to be potential material for A-MAZ-ING (or not) future blog posts. Prepare to be ASTOUNDED!
The world needs more human services workers, that’s certain. Or, better said, the world needs more humanity. This week, we got a glimpse of what can happen when people forget basic human decency and decide to catergorize people’s worth based on their size. The CEO of Abercrombie and Fitch stated that his stores would not carry anything larger than women’s size 10, essentially because he only wanted the thin, beautiful, “cool” kids to shop there. I quote Ellen Degeneres when I say, “Oh please, Fitch.”
I remember well my turbulent adolescent years, and I was a fat chick. I had a slew of other problems, which we may discuss at a later date, but perhaps one problem that stayed with me as the other problems went away was the fact that I was fat. I would never be able to fit into the cute clothes my thinner peers wore, and for that reason I never felt like I was quite as good as them. It is difficult enough to be a kid growing up in a society that puts so much value on image, but when the CEO of a major corporation that caters to teen fashion says that you are so fat that he doesn’t even want you shopping at their stores, it puts a fine point on how shallow we have collectively become. I couldn’t be more pleased with the backlash Abercrombie & Fitch has had, and I hope people will make them eat their words in the weeks and months to come. They can grow fat on their own pompous, paramasturbatory sense of greatness, meanwhile their bank account can become sleeker as informed and compassionate consumers make better choices regarding where they buy their clothes.
I think this incident is an excellent opportunity to teach society at large, especially the teen crowd that the store supposedly caters to, a thing or two about loving and accepting people based on the simple fact that we are all human, we are all made from the same stuff, we are all a lot more alike than we are different, physical appearances are fleeting, but the heart of who you are … your character, your decency, your humanity, your compassion, your passions, and all the other aspects that make up who you really are … will last. Whether your true self is made of something beautiful or something hideously ugly, that will be the thing people remember most about you as time goes on. I am sure the CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch is a well dressed, well spoken, well manicured man who makes a lot of money and lives a flash life, but a lot of people right now think he’s pretty much an ass because of the sentiments he expressed regarding having plus size teens as customers. See what I mean about the things that really matter? I rest my case.
I am still fat, though I am much thinner than I used to be. I am closer to an average size than I’ve been in a long time, and certainly much closer to an average size than I ever was in high school. At 37 years old, I am only just beginning to accept that I will never be one of those ultra-thin, willowy women that looks as if she could grace the cover of a fashion magazine and look like she really belongs there. I have curves. I am have breasts. I have hips that don’t lie, in that, they speak loud and clear that I have carried a baby to full term and my birthin’ hips will never recovery from that. I have “bingo arms,” which, truth be told, I would have surgery to fix if I could because it bothers me and I can’t stand looking at it. It’s the same with my thighs. Gaining and losing weight over the years has left me with skin that isn’t quite as elastic as it should be, and I jiggle when I wiggle. That being said, I am learning to accept my body as it is. I don’t have a belly button. I have a scar that spans from hip to hip after a surgery last year. My body is marked up from years of self-injury, to such a degree that my 4 year old son asks me where I got my “stripes” from, and I’m not sure what to say. My body will never be airbrushed-perfect. And, I won’t deny, I find some comfort in knowing that many of the women who grace the covers of magazines are not airbrushed-perfect, either. When I see “Here’s What They Look Like In Real Life” photo spread, I do feel just a smidgen of mean-girl-ness when I see cellulite and belly rolls on women who are made up to look like the personification of perfection when they are doing a photo shoot, which is then photoshopped, to make them look photo-flippin’-tastic.
Before this week, I had some hopes that we were evolving past the ideas that are so destructive, the ideas that tell us we have to fit into a certain notion of what is beautiful and glamourous before we are deemed acceptable. The more I see, though, the more I wonder how true that is.
This week in school, we are learning about the genesis of America’s ideas regarding poverty and social welfare. I wish I could tell you that the things I read surprised me, but they didn’t. Not in the least. I live these things every day.
Once upon a time, before the United States of America was even a twinkle in our forefathers’ eyes, our ancestors lived in the far away land of England. During the Middle Ages, the care for the poor was addressed through what was called a feudal system. In this system, well-to-do families would parcel of their land and have it farmed by the poor, called serfs. In this way, the poor were taken care of, which worked out well for everyone except the poor, who were considered the legal property of the landowners and could, therefore, be sold or given away as the landowner, or “lords,” saw fit.
As time went on, natural disasters, economic downturn, and the Industrial Revolution called for a sweeping reform in how England dealt with those living in poverty. As the poor left the countryside and moved to the cities for the industrial jobs so widely available, it created a major problem with how the care for the poor was managed. Whereas the feudal system consisted of helping people within your own small community, whose circumstances you were familiar with and you, therefore, knew that their poverty was the result of difficult circumstances, the idea of helping people who moved into your community without having their own resources for support was far less palatable.
Reforms took place, and eventually the Elizabethan Poor Laws went into effect in 1601, which provided nicely for the care of the poor, as well as provided a foundation for our contemporary social welfare policies. Long live the Queen (until she didn’t live anymore, God rest her soul)!
The dark underbelly of social welfare policies is not, in my opinion, the policies themselves, but the attitudes that people have regarding the poor. While the earliest Americans brought with them the ideas set forth by Elizabethan Poor Laws, Protestant Reformation would help shape a whole new way of looking at the poor. Rather than seeing the poor as people deserving of compassion and help, the poor would come to be considered morally corrupt, lazy, and undeserving of help for fear that it would make the poor yet lazier and more corrupt.
While these ideas took hold long ago, these notions are still prevelant today. The idea created and perpetuated in the 1980s about the “welfare queen” still runs rampant throughout our culture. The notion that women have babies in order to collect the welfare benefits, all the while driving a Cadillac, is something that far too many people still believe. Those in poverty are looked at as choosing that for themselves, with the idea being that if they would just work harder, they could overcome their poverty and live a better life. Preferably, a life that doesn’t drain the public coffers.
It is worth noting that all of us, regardless of our financial situation, “drain the public coffers” to some extent. Any time you use a public service, you are spending taxpayer dollars. Whenever you drive on a road that is maintained by the road commission, you are spending taxpayer dollars. The police and the fire department are also funded with taxpayer dollars. Businesses large and small use myriad services that are funded with taxpayer dollars. The sidewalk you walk on so you don’t have to travel by foot on a busy road was built and is maintained with taxpayer dollars. So, let’s just stop right now with this idea that it is only the poor who are living a life that is dependent on money from the government. We all, in more ways than perhaps we realize, benefit from government funded projects in our communities. If you would rather not be party to that, you are welcome to move to the desert or perhaps a remote mountain peak, so long as you don’t use any roads, rely on the power grid, or any other system that is maintained through taxpayer dollars to get there and maintain your life there.
As a nation, we have moved from the ideas of showing compassion and care for the poor, and are closer to embracing Social Darwinism. Even in these immensely difficult economic times, I have heard more than a few people say that those who are doing well are successful because they are, in a word, better than those who are struggling to get by. Those who are struggling are of less value to the economic fabric of our national and global economy, and offering help to them by way of what is now often referred to as “entitlements” will only serve to prolong their inevitable failure. The pre-visitation Ebenezer Scrooge would be rather proud of that notion, I think, and the reality of the notion is just as hideous and ugly as the characterization of Scrooge himself.
I think what is most alarming about the growing fondness for Social Darwinism is that there are those who would use their religion, primarily Christianity if you’re talking to an American, as a means of justifying this attitude. It is as if they believe they have been given the divine right to judge who is worthy of help and who is not based on stereotypes and assumptions that do not hold weight when the burden of proof is put on them, but which continue to flourish nontheless. There are entire sects of political parties who believe it is their right and purpose to be God’s mouthpiece in the government, and one of first orders of business is to make sure that the poor do not continue on their “free ride.”
I have had conversations with people who refer to those on government benefits as “moochers,” “freeloaders,” and “lazy,” but when I remind them that I am none of those things, yet I use government benefits, they quickly add the addendum, “Oh, I didn’t mean YOU! I meant other people!”. How it is that they know what these “other people” are doing is beyond me.
Let me tell you something about living in poverty, though. It is hardly a free ride, even with the government benefits. I am a single mother with a four year old son. I pay for his preschool out of the little bit we get from Social Security every month, as I do not qualify for help with that since I don’t work outside of my home. We get food benefits every month in the form of WIC, which most families with young children qualify for, as well as a whopping $16 a month on our Bridge card.I pay the rent out of our Social Security money, as well as the car insurance, the purchase of the groceries that WIC and $16 can’t buy, household items, clothing and shoes when needed, and any other expenses that may come up. I am not complaining. I am grateful for what we get. However, it is hardly the lush life that people seem to think it is, and my situation is not unique.
I didn’t ask for the things that happened in my life that led me to this place, and I am ever so gradually working on improving life for myself and my son. It is worth noting, though, that a good number of people living in poverty are in sitatutions they never thought they would be in. I didn’t ask for cancer. I didn’t ask for the health problems I’ve had since having cancer. I didn’t ask to become an addict, even though the initial choice to use the drugs was definitely mine. I didn’t think to myself, “If all goes well, then by the time I am 37 years old, I’ll be a single mother renting the apartment in my parents’ basement, because THAT is living!”. Life handed me a crapload of stuff to deal with in a relatively short amount of time, and it stripped away everything I thought was certain in my life, leaving me to pick up the pieces.
Living in poverty creates obstacles. I have been on disability benefits since I had cancer in 2007. There is a lot of shame that comes with that. I had always been a hardworker prior to becoming sick. I would like to go back to work now. However, having been out of work for so long, no one is likely to hire me when there are people with more recent work experience than me who are clamoring for what few jobs are available. Additionally, the stigma of being on government assistance runs thick, even in areas that are economically depressed like the entire state of Michigan is right now. For the person living in poverty, unemployed for a length of time, and using government benefits, it is an extraordinarily difficult set of obstacles to overcome.
These obstacles are in no way made easier by the current swell of anger toward our government and anyone who has ever been supportive of the Obama administration and its efforts towards creating a more level playing field for all Americans, which brings me to my final topic: Pscandal. The “P” is silent.
Over the last couple of weeks, we have seen contraversy unfold rapidly, with a lot of people looking to our President and to those holding office in his administration with demands for answers. And what answer to we keep getting from everyone who is asked? “I don’t know.” “I wasn’t aware.” “I didn’t do anything wrong.” “Nobody told me.”
How does this final topic tie in with the first two? It’s all about human decency and treating each othe with dignity. Do not insult my intelligence as a person and an American citizen by pretending that nobody in Washington D.C. had any idea that the IRS was targeting conservative groups, or that the Department of Justice was siezing documents from the press, or that there may be some suspicious activity in Benghazi that deems, at the very least, looking into before denying the request for greater security. If we are to respect our government, the government needs to, at minimum, respect the intelligence of those it serves.
This isn’t a new thing. We’ve had spin put on anything of national interest ever since the earliest days of our government, and it has worked well to promote the agendas of whomever holds office at the time (See “welfare queen,” an idea that began with Ronald Reagan in his effort to turn people against the welfare policies of the day and embrace reforms he wanted). However, what makes this so different is, I believe, the advent of that ever-reliable, never-wrong medium known as “the Internet,” which is peppered with twitters and tweets and status updates that guarantee nearly anything can go viral within a matter of minutes, thus make it much more difficult to feign ignorance when it’s convenient.
Today’s post has been about boiling down the issues to basic human decency. We don’t tell people they are not worthy of shopping in our stores simply because we personally think they could stand to lose a few pounds. We don’t tell people we don’t see them as worthy of being helped simply because it is our personal fear that helping them might make them dependent and lazy. And, we don’t lie to people when the excrement hits the air conditioning simply because telling the truth might cost us something. If we are to be respected, we must be respectful. If we are to live in a world that prizes humanity and decency as something to be protected, then we must treat others with humanity and decency. If we want our beliefs to be regarded as worthy of consideration, we must be considerate of what others believe.
It is becoming far too acceptable in the American zeitgeist to promote one way of thinking as being superior to others, which, by implication, means those who believe themselves superior find others, well … inferior. Whether it’s plus sizes, poverty, or pscandal, if we are to have better outcomes, we have to have a better starting point. All of these things that we believe are so important in this world are ever so fleeting, and if we don’t invest in the things that truly matter, the stuff that makes us all more alike than we are different, the fabric that can hold a society together when things become the most difficult, then we don’t stand a chance. Societies greater than ours have fallen, and we’re not immune. It’s time to get to the things that really matter, and I plan to do that while wearing clothes purchased at Dollar General, with money I got from Social Security, so I can look smart while taking classes paid for with loans from the federal government, and never lying to you about it no matter how much it might cost me.