This is a post from my wife Annelies.
I have been struggling to come up with a way to explain why I remain staunchly liberal in the face of almost all my coworkers and many of my friends. I come from a supposed blue state and have been living in the south for over 20 years. I have long since become used to the idea of being the ‘token’ tree-hugger, tolerated and, in many cases – respected, for my willingness to hear their point of view and to not be offended when they say something I find utterly alien to what I think. I am a vegetarian surrounded by hunters, a liberal hemmed in by conservatives, a completely secular person in the midst of the devout. Despite all this, I am able to find a common vocabulary with all these people whose lives appear to be totally opposite to my own.
I don’t argue with them because they have all these ‘facts’ to back up their pronouncements. I have some of my own, but I am not a good debater. I know that. So I sit and quietly listen while they fiercely proclaim liberals are stupid ‘libtards’ in it for their agenda, seizing on the latest tragedy as a means to achieve their goals of gun control, universal health care, gay rights, taking ‘God’ out of our country – depending on the issue of the day – refusing to see the ‘facts’ for what they are. Obama is the root of all evil and should be tried for treason, he oversteps his power – he is “NOT MY PRESIDENT”. All this time, I sit in their midst, while they heap on the layers and layers of judgmental self-righteousness – pronouncing that people like me are idiots, knowing that I am one of them. I like to think they forget that I am really not like them – that in judging all ‘libtards’ they are judging me (I was actually told once I was the exception – but I will get to that).
The fact of the matter is, and perhaps this is one of the reasons they respect me, is that I can see their point of view. As in all groups of people, there are always a few that give the rest of the group a bad name. And to judge all members by the actions of a few is human nature. I know that there are people who abuse the welfare system – that my coworkers and I have worked hard to gain what we have and we deserve to keep it. I have worked VERY hard to get where I am – I have been very fortunate in that I am bright and a good learner and come from a supportive family. It never occurred to me to not take the path I took – going to college, learning a skill and ultimately landing in a lucrative career that puts me firmly in the upper middle class, and I certainly feel that I am entitled to enjoy the fruits of my labor. I EARNED it.
Despite all this – I still support the socialist principles behind welfare. I am willing to give the earnings I have worked so hard for to the government to use to help those less fortunate than I am. My coworkers know this and tell me that they deserve to keep what they have earned – that people need to take responsibility for their actions instead of getting a handout that bails them out of the mess they got themselves into. My coworkers try to convince me their point of view is correct with stories about those abuse the system – sell/trade the food they get on food stamps to for cigarettes and beer and sit around all day being unproductive moochers. They give me concrete examples that they see in their neighborhood stores and within their own families. I GET their frustration. I completely and totally agree in personal accountability. So why do I hold to my views?
I finally came up with a way to explain my apparent inability to change my mind despite all the anecdotal evidence to the contrary and the very real lack of fairness (“You get to keep what’s yours”) inherent in a more socialist state. It’s by telling a story –
Imagine if you will a mother of 2 older kids, separated with a divorce pending (not terribly acrimonious, they just grew apart). Her ex doesn’t make a lot of money, but he gives what he can to help. She has a house and she’s making a living wage as a receptionist, not a lot, but it pays the bills. Before the kids were born, she had a degree in finance and knowing she’s capable of more she decides to go back to college part time to get a degree in engineering. She starts to hang out friends one night a week to relax a little – getting her life back on track and providing for her kids.
On one of these nights out, an unknown congenital weakness in a blood vessel in her brain gives way and she collapses in the bathroom of a local bar. This probably saves her life, had she been home that would have happened while her kids were asleep and they would wake to find her dead. Instead, her friends get her to a hospital where a neurosurgeon operates to stop the bleeding and again a week later to repair some of the damage. Not all of course – too much damage occurs up front. She’s sent home to her kids after a month of rehab, barely able to walk or talk without assistance. Luckily there’s insurance, so the worst of the medical expenses are covered. Unluckily – not enough to get full time help at home. A nurse helps during the day, but as soon as her teenage daughter comes home from school, the nurse is gone.
There is no income. The little bit of money coming from her ex is enough to pay the mortgage and keep the lights on with help from her extended family. She is unable to work – can’t even speak clearly. She’s in constant agonizing pain from nerve damage resulting from the hemorrhage and at high risk of seizures as it heals as much as it can. There isn’t enough money for food. So the family ends up on WIC, food stamps, and other social services. It’s enough. A child can live on powdered milk, generic cereals, and processed cheese that comes from the food distribution center for WIC families and the kids get lunch assistance from the schools. It takes just over a year for the doctors to convince the government that she is permanently disabled and unable to work. For those 12 months – they somehow manage to get by.
When my mother – yes, this is my story – finally got disability, we finally started getting the care we needed. We were never wealthy. I had 14 cavities filled in my senior year of high school. I hadn’t been to a dentist since I was 4. The money my grandmother had put aside for braces had long since been spent on the house we were living in. I was wearing cheap clothes until they wore out; I was never fashionable and looked with envy at the other kids in my school with their perfect wardrobes, and straight teeth. To this day – I still can’t get rid of perfectly good clothes because I may need them again. The events of my junior year only exacerbated the issue. I, for all intents and purposes, failed my junior year of high school. The challenges of my home life were too great and all I did was escape into books and drawing. However, thanks to very good test grades and the belief that if I knew enough to master the tests maybe I don’t need to do the work, I managed to get through. The school was understanding…
However, this did impair my ability to get into the ‘college of my choice’. I didn’t care enough to apply, and I had no money to pay for it anyway. But my SAT scores were excellent, so it sort of worked out. I ended up going to the local community college and ultimately through the State University system. Due to Mom’s disability, I qualified for Pell grants, College Work Study and other financial aid. Dad continued to pay child support, directly to me, and that was used to cover the expenses the grants didn’t cover. I ultimately ended up with a degree in Mathematics Education, which has pivoted into a career in IT.
Although there were times as I first attempted graduate school that I was scraping loose change out of the couch cushions to feed myself, I make good money now. My annual income is greater than any of my immediate family ever made – even adjusted for inflation. My dad is still amazed at how much I earn. My husband is also in IT. We are comfortable and have money towards retirement and our kids’ education. I still don’t spend money on frivolous things – I wear my jeans until there are holes in them. I prefer to eat in instead of out – but it’s still very nice to not worry about paying for groceries when I go shopping. I can afford to get my 15 year old son a car to drive (not a new one). Both my sons will be able to have a lot of the advantages I dreamed about when I was his age. But after 10 years of ‘successful’ living, it still feels weird. I don’t take anything for granted. I am cheap. When I think about big purchases – for example, I am considering graduate school again – I am always afraid that something will happen and I will be hungry again, and I will put it off. I drove my mom’s 12 year old car for 2 years rather than commit to a new car and the payment that comes with it. It takes a while to convince me we can afford the ‘big things’.
I have EARNED my success. I came from a family that lived on powdered milk (I think that’s why I hate milk now) given to us by social programs and now live in a modest size house in an upper middle class neighborhood so my kids can get a good education. This is all possible because of WIC, Food stamps, and college grants that helped someone with potential get her feet under her. Many people in my parents and grandparents generation contributed to the welfare system through their taxes and they gave me a hand up. I took it. I have them to thank for my being here, as well as the support and encouragement of my family.
So when I think about where I come from and where I am, I have no choice but to pay it forward. I have to help someone else succeed. When I hear the stories about the ‘moochers’ – my boss said I was the exception to the rule here – all I can think of is somewhere out there, there’s another family like mine; Where circumstances beyond their control have brought them to their knees and they are just struggling to get through the day. It’s in our power to help them as you all helped me. And I would rather feed 10 ‘moochers’ to help this one family than to see their suffering continue. It is the right thing to do. Until you have been there, you don’t know what it’s like. This is why, despite being cheap and all about personal responsibility, and having worked hard to get to where I am, I still believe that social programs are necessary.