Friday, March 17, 2017

I Am A Product of America's Social Programs

I was raised by a single, working mother. My brothers and I received no child support growing up because it was too easy in the early 1970s for a father to move to another state and avoid his responsibilities to his children. I am grateful that this nation, the state, and county we lived in were there to help us when we needed it the most.

To those who seek to cut social programs and say there is no proof they work...
I am proof they work.
So too are my brothers.
Oh, and so is my amazing mother.

After my father had decided he didn't like the idea of having to sell some of his own things to pay for the support of his children, as he was directed by a divorce court, he moved to another state with his new wife and vanished from our lives. I know cheating spouses still get divorced and try to evade their support responsibilities today, but the technologies that make that evasion difficult didn't exist in the 1970s.

For many years, my family lived in an apartment complex that was subsidized by the government; making it affordable for my hard working single mother. During that time, my brothers and I received free or reduced lunches at our public school. I remember having to carry a little purple card to show in the cafeteria line. I was so embarrassed as a young child to pull it out at and show it to the cafeteria cashier because it let everyone know that you were poor. Sometimes kids are cruel, and being seen with the purple card often brought their ridicule and the feeling of shame. But I was hungry and had to eat, so yes, I showed the card.

One year was particularly hard on my mom's finances, and we received food stamps for a period of six months. My mom would drive to the other side of town hoping no one we knew would see us redeeming those coupons. No one should feel embarrassed for accepting assistance if they truly need it, but for similar reasons that I as a child felt the ridicule of the other children when I used the purple card in the school lunch line, she too felt the looks given by others when she used the food stamps. My mom worked hard to return to a financial state that did not require the food assistance but accepted it to help feed her children for those six months. I am still thankful today, more than 30 years later, for that assistance.

That same year we couldn't afford a live Christmas Tree, so my mom borrowed a fake one. Going forward, a sign of our prosperity was being able to afford a live tree at Christmas. To this day, that feeling runs through me as I walk the tree farm with my own children and we pick our tree each December.

In addition to the subsidized housing and food stamp assistance, my brothers and I participated in the Big Brother/Big Sister programs to help fill some of the 60+ hours of time each week my mom had to work. We also went to daycare services that were made available by county government programs that assisted families like mine. I knew my mom had to work as many extra hours as she could to provide for us, and having the attention of the caring adults in those programs was very important to me.

For years, my mother drove a Ford Pinto; even after it was reported at the time to be a dangerous vehicle because of highly publicized explosions from rear-end collisions. My family didn't have the means to obtain and drive a safer vehicle, however. We couldn't have survived without my mom's job, and without that car, my mom couldn't keep her job. I still remember today all the times I would sit in the back of that car and watch the road move by beneath my feet through a rusted hole in the floorboard.

I remember my mom writing checks to the grocery store on a Friday knowing it wouldn't hit the bank until Monday. "Floating" a personal check until her paycheck was deposited in the bank on Monday was the only way she could feed us for the weekend. Can't do that with today's technology!

A memorable day for me was one where we had just come home from the movie theater to see Superman II. It was a rare and special treat for us to see a movie. It made us feel happy. It made us feel together. For a few hours, it made us forget about our problems. My brothers and I were so pumped from having watched the movie and for these other reasons we didn't realize at the time, but all of those good feelings were deflated when my mom opened up an eviction notice that was waiting for us at the apartment when we arrived home. The owners of the apartment complex we lived in decided they wanted to make more money, so they evicted all of the single mothers that lived in the complex and raised rents. I was ten and had just lost my home.

Difficult times continued for us, but with the help of others, my mom was able to continue her job to achieve one of her goals. You can imagine how excited we all were when my mom was able to purchase a home a few years later. No one could kick us out. We were safe.

To make this happen, my mother worked every weekend. Because I was youngest, I often went to work with her on those days. She needed the overtime pay to help move us forward, so she was always ready to volunteer to work more hours. It was the difference between having, or not having. I remember toiling in law offices all day putting paper clips on my fingers pretending to type. I knew my mother worked hard for us. It likely explains why I always tried so hard to keep the house clean and tidy for her.

As teens, my brothers mowed yards and did any work they could to make money. I babysat starting at age eleven. Babysitting money paid for my first car when I was older.

I am grateful. I had a great childhood. I always felt loved. Always had food in my belly. I got a good education. In so many ways, I can thank the American people for helping make that possible.

My brothers and I, as adults, have led stable careers and families. None of us have had to use the supports that helped us survive as children. Today, my mom is a successful paralegal who can best some of the greatest lawyers.

Even though I don't rely on social supports today, it doesn't mean I don't understand their importance in people's lives and how integral they are to aiding in a person's ability to rise up out of poverty. I firmly believe that our society benefited from having helped my family. Our productivity pays it forward to the next generation who may face the same situation or suffer a life change that can temporarily cripple their finances.

My husband and I live in one of the wealthiest areas of the country. Our income puts us somewhere in the top 3% of national household incomes. Fortunately, my children have never known money insecurity. They know that others do, however, and we communicate with them often about the need to support those who need assistance.

For so many reasons in addition to my own personal experiences, I firmly believe that giving a helping hand can often provide great returns. Investing in the security of others is a bargain investment when you truly think about it.