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Where I Come From

No Man’s Land

Several weeks ago, I was asked to talk to total strangers about a topic that, on a scale of social taboos, probably comes in just under sex and religion—two perennial scorching lines in the sand—and just above politics. Fortunately, it was for a good cause. As they pursue their chosen profession, the graduate students in the University of Maryland School of Social Work are likely to see some of the worst conditions the developed world has to offer—drug addiction, sexual abuse, domestic violence, assault—so it only makes sense that they spend at least a semester learning how to talk to people about money. As someone whose family was, at times, uncomfortably close to the poverty line, I agreed to speak to participants in SOWK 699, Financial Stability for Individuals and Communities, about my family’s experience climbing a few grease-splattered rungs of America’s income ladder. Money is a very touchy topic in this country, so if they had asked me to stand naked behind a Plexiglass lectern while reading aloud from my journal, the impact on all of us might have been about the same.

One childhood story in particular stands out to me. My mom raised four kids, often by herself, on a telephone company operator’s salary, so she made the most of every dollar she had. The woman is an amazing cook, but about twice a month, often on a Sunday, she emancipated herself from the kitchen and took us to a restaurant with a generous buffet. We normally ate without incident, the biggest surprise being how many plates of shrimp I could put away at Sizzler, but this time there was a small dispute. Whichever restaurant I was about to bankrupt had a discount for kids under 10, and when the waitress asked how old I was, my mom told her I was 9.

It had taken forever for me to reach double digits, an age that fully enumerated the cartoon-animated complexities of my inner life, and it was this hard-earned truth that made me shout, “No! I’m 10-and-a-half!”

My mom looked at me, lowered her head, then looked back at the waitress. “He’s 9,” she repeated. It was the only time I heard my mother lie. In the end, we couldn’t have saved more than $7.

That was on a day when we could afford to go out to eat. At school, we made jokes about kids who used food stamps or other government vouchers, as if we never saw our moms sort through what they could and couldn’t buy with their WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) Program vouchers. We were posers, every one of us, contradicted by the lunch tickets in our pockets. But we were by no means alone.

In the richest country in the world, “poor” is a grammatical oddity, one used almost exclusively in the second- and third-person (i.e., “you’re poor,” “they’re poor”) or the past tense. If Poverty were a country, it would be full of prisons, consultants, social workers, nonprofit organizations, even amazing entertainers, but few would be willing to claim it as their official residence. It is an elaborate state of denial.

This stigma turns some honest people into liars and makes some who are eligible for a bit of help too ashamed to claim it. According to a 2004 review by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a group to which many of the wealthiest countries in the world belong, the rate at which Americans have utilized the social benefits to which they are qualified is remarkably low. For example, no more than two out of three of the elderly and disabled people for whom Supplemental Security Income was designed receive the assistance it can provide for bare necessities: food, clothing, and shelter. The same is true for food stamps. Separate research shows that, during at least one year, one in five children eligible for Medicaid was not enrolled. Unemployment insurance may come with less of a stigma, since it is designed for people who have lost their job through no fault of their own. Still, before 2008 and the onset of the deepest recession in decades, between one-sixth and one-fourth of people who qualified routinely didn’t bother applying. Shame isn’t the only factor at work here, but in the case of many welfare benefits, researchers have suspected for years that it’s a big one. I understand arguments about not encouraging the poor to stay that way by giving them something for nothing, but when these arguments make it hard for the young, sick, frail, and just plain unlucky to get help, we’ve probably gone too far.

In the meantime, billions of dollars a year are just left on the table. Much of it will stay there as long as people face a trade-off between assistance and dignity, between pride and the naked, hungry truth. It’s a tough choice, one that, less than an hour after the benediction, can make it hard for a good Christian woman to say grace and look her son in the eye.

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