Today is Blog Action Day 2008: Poverty. Bloggers are asked to address poverty in their posts to raise awareness and to start discussions that might ultimately lead to solutions, however small, to this global problem. Warning: this post is long. Very long.
I spend a lot of time and energy thinking about, praying about, and talking about alleviating poverty. I give to organizations that try to alleviate poverty. I take youth on mission trips so they can see and experience and maybe even help a little. I meet people who need assistance and hear their stories and sometimes I'm able to help them.
I don't spend a lot of time telling my own story, as it seems oddly self-indulgent and often seems irrelevant. I'm not sure that it is, though, and in fact it may be typical of a certain type of poverty. So I'll tell it now and then perhaps y'all will know why I'm passionate about things like universal health care and social safety nets and quality education and equality. Because all of those are components of poverty, both here in the USA and around the world.
My mom went to college in 1976 and wanted to major in Marine Biology. She also played olympic-level field hockey. The way she told it, at some point during her first year or two of college, she was told that "women aren't marine biologists"...and that she should go into nursing. Which she did at some point (I don't think it was then--I think that was later, but I'm not sure). But she never finished her bachelor's degree, in part because she was so discouraged by sexism.
I was born in 1980. I don't pretend to know or understand the economic state of the country at that time, I just know it wasn't great. I don't pretend to know or understand the financial situation of my family in 1980 either. I do know that we weren't well-off--the years I remember (so, after age 3 or 4 probably) we lived in a single-wide trailer in a trailer park in a medium-sized town in Oregon. I don't remember much about those years, honestly, except stuff about school. I remember envying a girl in my 1st grade class because she had a beautiful big red coat and I knew I couldn't ever have something like that, but that's about all I remember money-wise.
When I was 8, with a 2 year old brother, my parents divorced. My brother, mom, and I went to live with friends and then ultimately with my grandparents. Our trailer was moved onto my grandparents' property 10 miles away from the nearest town, down in the Willamette Valley. My grandparents raised sheep and we had our own garden. We went to the grocery store occasionally but I don't remember it being often. We did much of our shopping at the grocery outlet which was cheaper, and name-brand stuff didn't happen. When I went through a white-bread phase (because the kids at school had it) my mom and grandmother tried to explain that it cost more and wasn't as good for me, but I insisted. It turned out I didn't like it and I would be willing to bet there's still a half loaf of white bread in my grandmother's freezer. Meanwhile, my mom was feeding my brother and I first, and eating less (or not at all) if there wasn't food left over.
We used food stamps, I remember. It wasn't a lot, but it helped some. My mom worked as a road construction flagger for a while, standing for hours in the sun and rain holding the stop/slow sign. I don't know what else she did, but sometimes she worked nights too. I don't think the pay was good at all, and I know she clipped coupons religiously and waited for sales and made stuff rather than buying it. My grandmother made many of our clothes. I think there were welfare checks during these couple of years, but I don't know for sure. When it was time to choose instruments in 4th grade so we could play in the band, I cycled through the list I wanted to play until I came to the clarinet--which is what I was going to play because the daughter of a friend of my grandparents had played the clarinet and was willing to sell us hers for a mere $60--much cheaper than renting or buying anything else. So that was my option...and I played that clarinet through my senior year of high school (at school/football/basketball/pep band anyway). I was a CampFire girl and my mom was our leader. For summer camp, she worked as the camp nurse so I could attend, and that meant I got to go to all three week-long sessions (which I thought was the coolest thing ever--I was one of THOSE know-it-all kids who'd been there before....sigh). For daycamp, she ran the camp so my brother and I could attend. I didn't realize it at the time, but I'm sure that's how she paid for it (or got our registration fees comped). (This involvement didn't end with CampFire--when we were older she coached little league and was the youth orchestra librarian and goodness only knows what else.)
My mom married again and we moved to Seattle. Things seemed good but of course we had the oldest car *ever* and I was now a teenager who thought about these things since we lived in the big city! This was when I started to figure out that we weren't middle class. My mom went back to school and finished her degree in research psychology--a degree I don't think she ever used (except on me! and on reading studies and telling us all what to do...).
Dad lost his job in 1993-ish (I think that company may have gone under, I'm not sure) and we moved across the mountains--a devastating thing for a teenage girl who was SO SURE she was going to the best music high school next year...umm, not. Mom worked in the school kitchens so she could be home when we were home--something that was very important to her, but probably limited her career choices significantly.
I went away to college and made some poor money choices (what college student doesn't?) that my parents graciously dug me out of again and again. Meanwhile I was racking up the student loans just to pay my tuition/rent/food. Thanks to my parents, who were still by no means well off, I didn't end up with student loans to cover my youthful fiscal irresponsibility (the Starbucks they built next to the El stop was just brutal). And I got a scholarship for grad school that meant I got PAID to go to seminary (nice).
Then I figured out that we had to have health insurance--something I'd never had before and didn't know anything about but quickly figured out was more expensive than I (or my family) could afford. I got a bare-bones student policy and thankfully never needed it. My mom wasn't so lucky--she got cancer and had no insurance. If she'd had insurance, maybe she would have gotten check ups, or gone to the doctor at the first sign something wasn't right, but instead she waited until she couldn't handle the pain anymore and by then it was stage 4 metastasized breast cancer. The applications for medicaid or other state-run healthcare money were extensive. The red tape was ridiculous. My mother spent the majority of her last year of life on the phone trying to get people to agree to pay for radiation treatments and doctor visits. It is my (not terribly informed, since I wasn't there in person, I only heard about it on the phone) opinion that her status as uninsured had a negative impact on the quality and frequency of care she received. However, when she died we discovered that at the last minute she'd managed to get a grant or insurance of some kind that would cover the nearly $70,000 in medical bills we thought would come due. Instead we had a small surplus with which to pay down some other loans, which was a nice surprise...but we'd rather have mom than the money.
I had the privilege of being supported by family and friends and mentors and colleagues while following my call--even as it changed--across three continents. Now I have a good "job" with amazing health insurance. I also have $30,000 in student loans, I have 3 more years until my car is paid off, I owe $146,000 on my house (meanwhile another, identical, unit in my complex is on the market for less than that), and I currently have about $20,000 in other debt (mainly from moving across and between continents, furnishing a house for the first time (remember when people did that when they got married and they used wedding presents for all that stuff? not anymore...), paying taxes that were higher than I prepared for, etc....). In some ways I live paycheck to paycheck. But I'm working on that, and that's not the point of the story. I'll make it and the debt will be paid off eventually, and I'm hardly atypical for my generation. And I'm no longer living in the situation I grew up in.
You may be wondering what the point is. For now, it's this: don't generalize about "the welfare system" or "the uninsured" or "the unemployed" or "those kids" or "irresponsible people" because it's unfair. There are plenty of people who work hard and can't make ends meet. There are plenty of people who lack insurance because they are supporting their children's educations in a variety of ways (extracurricular activities, college, etc). There are lots of people who don't abuse the welfare system or food stamps. There is real poverty in this country--poverty I haven't lived in and can't begin to understand, as well as the kind of poverty I have experienced (where some in the family simply do without so others can have what they need). Children are often unaware of these things until they're looking back when they're older. And children deserve to live in environments like mine--where they don't know they're different, don't know they're poor, don't know they're underprivileged. Too many end up discouraged and the cycle continues, and that's not okay. So I am passionate about equality, education, universal healthcare, and the social safety net we call welfare (as in "promote the general welfare" from the preamble to the constitution?). Because those are things that allow the cycle to be broken.
The same thing applies to people in developing countries, where the situation is MUCH more desperate than most of us can imagine. Equality and education and access to healthcare can improve the situation so much, it's hard to comprehend why we wouldn't support those things. When women get an education, they are less likely to have huge families and more likely to send their children to school. And then those children can break the cycle too.
That's what I hope: for a new cycle to begin. One that assumes all people are valuable and deserve health care and education and equal rights and opportunity. One that believes children should grow up without knowing they're "disadvantaged" or "at risk" because those become self-fulfilling prophecies. One that looks at people rather than stereotypes. One that cares about people rather than money. One that is hopeful rather than cynical. That's the cycle I try to live in. You?