My son is a marine and was recently deployed to Iraq. During a phone call with him, I asked what he wanted me to send. Gatorade mix was number one on the list. (He said it’s like gold over there.) Number two was my old copies of The Sun.
When my son had been home on leave, he’d read several issues, and he had missed reading it since. Needless to say, I shipped them off, along with a sizable supply of Gatorade. I am happy that he’s keeping his mind sharp over there.
I read Pat MacEnulty’s interview with Sharon Hays twice [“Will Work for Food,” August 2004]. My husband and I are living in poverty. He works part time for $7.50 an hour at three different stores owned by the same person. His employer keeps the checks separate so he can avoid paying unemployment taxes and medical insurance. We get food stamps, but the state recently cut our food allowance in half. When I asked why, the caseworker said, “Your husband could work more, so we added those extra hours into your income.” At the end of the month, when we are eating only cereal, I will reread the interview with Sharon Hays and know that we are not alone.
Pat MacEnulty’s interview with Sharon Hays brought me back to my college years, when I volunteered at a family shelter as part of my course work. There were many single women with children at the shelter. Michigan’s governor made plans for these women to be educated, receive job training, and be employed within two years of applying for government assistance, but it was an impossible goal. One mother, age twenty, had a first-grader, a kindergartener, a three-year-old, and an eighteen-month-old. She was expected to get these children to daycare and school and attend classes herself at the local high school, all without a vehicle. Even if someone had given her one, how could she have afforded to maintain it, insure it, and put gas in it? They were at the shelter because they had no place to live and no money.
Having raised three children of my own with limited funds (I was a “nontraditional” college student), I gave these mothers advice on how to beat the system. “Become a child-care provider,” I said. “Take children at times that no one else will, like in the evenings. And learn to bake bread. Bake six loaves a day. Sell five and eat the sixth. And when your children are all in school, then go back for your degree. Keep your family together!”
I hesitate to write this letter. It is often painful for me to revisit my thirty-three years as a social worker and administrator with family social services. Few people wish to confront the fate of the poor and the system we have set up to keep them out of sight. We do not want to be reminded of our responsibility to help those who are struggling — poor women with children especially. It always amazed me that, among the social workers, secretaries, and supervisors I worked with, those who had most recently risen from poverty themselves had the least sympathy for our clients.
My fellow social workers and I were hopeful when the welfare-reform act was passed in 1996. As it was written, a social worker would be assigned to help forty families through the immense challenges of job training, transportation, child support, and work habits. Forty families per worker seemed difficult, but possible. Yet when the program was finally implemented, the number of families per worker became five hundred. Families were given no support by the system, yet were required to conform to its confusing regulations. When they disappeared through the cracks, the powers that be declared victory.
This story is not new. It is a reflection of our society’s lack of effort to help our fellow citizens. The problem will be corrected only when we decide to back up what we say with solid commitments of resources and heart.
I found Sharon Hays’s assessment of welfare reform to be unbelievably misguided. I am a forty-year-old black woman who has been self-sufficient since the age of thirteen. I do not have any children, and I have never been on welfare. I have benefited from living in public housing, and after my mother’s death I received Social Security benefits until I turned eighteen. I understand the hardships of being poor in America.
Hays, though well meaning, comes across to me as one of those benevolent white people who feel that the economically deprived simply cannot do any better. That attitude is extremely detrimental to the women she is trying to help. If poor people are treated as if they are incapable, their behavior will reflect that.
Hays also ignores the fact that most of these women decided to become mothers, even though they did not have sufficient resources to care for a child. At the very least they chose to sleep with a man who was not marriage material or whom they did not want to marry, and they are responsible for their decisions. Personal responsibility is a burden we all must bear, not just those of us who have the means. Women need to stop having children when they are unable to provide for them, period. It is not a “right” to have children; it is a gift and a privilege. We should ready ourselves for it and be able to rise to the occasion when it happens, no matter the circumstances.
Hays complains that welfare reform requires mothers to work, sometimes in return for no more than their benefits. What is the problem with this? I get paid every week, and guess what: I have to work for it. Hays seems to think that it’s unreasonable to expect a single mother to participate in her own emancipation from poverty. I do understand the logistical challenges of child care, transportation, work schedules, and so on, but that only underscores the fact that women should be ready for those things before they become mothers.
I lived in low-income housing with my older sister and brother when I was fourteen. But I do not live in the projects anymore; nor do my brother and sister. We used that public assistance as a stepping stone to get to where we are today. Welfare is intended as a stopgap for those in need until they can get on their feet again. It should never be a lifestyle, as it has become for dozens of women I have known.
When I received my trial copy of The Sun [July 2004] at my office, I took a perfunctory look, stuffed it in my briefcase, and went home.
After dinner, I pulled out the magazine with a bunch of other mail. Whatever possessed me to sign up for this when I have so many other magazines to read? I thought, and I tossed it onto the pile on my desk.
Three days later, in the middle of the night, the cover photo of the choral singer from another time (people just don’t look like that anymore) caught my eye. I picked the magazine up, looked for the photo credit, and found out the picture was from the forties, the decade of my birth. No wonder it felt so distant and so familiar at the same time.
Is this some sort of nostalgia trip? I wondered. No ads. What keeps this thing going? What’s their angle? I turned the page and saw Howard Zinn, whom I remembered from the sixties. By now I was thinking, Is this something political? What’s next?
I read on. When I got to Readers Write on “Stepfamilies,” I was put off at first. These shards of narrative seemed inconclusive or self-indulgent. They made me uncomfortable. Then I realized: I was embarrassed. They were too revealing. My God, I thought, have I been in LA so long that real feeling is hard to face? The messiness of life? The pain that peels away protective irony? I needed this more than I knew.
Many of my best friends are people I made harsh judgments about when I first met them — like a woman you don’t find attractive at first glance but you end up falling in love with; or worse, the ones who are so beautiful that you tell yourself they’re too beautiful. Yet you fall in love with them anyway. And all of them, finally, teach you what love is.
I haven’t even finished the April 2004 issue of The Sun, and already I feel more alive, more human, more compassionate.
Rabbi Michael Lerner [“Resurrecting the Revolutionary Heart of Judaism,” interview by Arnie Cooper] provides a well-balanced perspective on the Arab-Israeli conflict. He helped me to let go of the lingering, under-the-surface anti-Semitism that I’ve clung to for years.
Just to show you another way that The Sun works to improve our conscience and consciousness: After commiserating and guffawing with Sy Safransky through his Notebook, I thought I’d have a cup of coffee and polish off my three remaining generic chocolate-chip cookies: one each for me, Sy, and his woman friend who thinks he called her a big fat pig.
But then I realized that I hadn’t shared any of my three-week-old cookies with my fellow inmates. (I’m in prison.) So I went downstairs to the day room and gave my last three chocolate-chip cookies to some friends. I felt much better for having shared them than I would have eating them. My friends’ eyes lit up, and a Christian in the group reminded me, “You know, you reap what you sow.” I had a vision of being drowned in chocolate-chip cookies from above.