When you’re low income, everything you do is wrong.

I’m almost finished reading Linda Tirado’s book Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America. I only discovered it a few days ago, so the fact that I’m almost done means it’s good. Unlike most people that explain poverty to the middle classes – for instance because they got a book contract to go undercover in low-wage jobs for a couple of months, *cough* Barbara Ehrenreich *cough* – Tirado’s been legitimately poor. (The only reason she’s not still poor is because she got paid to write this book after a freak incident where a post she’d written on the internet went viral and was picked up my major newspapers.) She gets into the psychological and physical effects of poverty in a way I’ve never seen before.

What the book really is, overall, is a reminder that poor people are actually human beings, and an elaboration of what that means. It shouldn’t be needed. We shouldn’t need a book to say, “Hey, guess what, we may not have a savings account but we still have pride and dignity and emotions and values, we have the right to have relationships and families and to pursue happiness in whatever little ways are available to us.” But we do need that book.

Because in many Americans’ minds, when you need any kind of government support (never mind how many jobs you’re working), you are suddenly reduced to a subhuman parasite on society and everything you do to survive and get through your day is an irresponsible waste of other people’s money. For instance:

You used food stamps to buy junky frozen food because it’s cheap and satisfying and you’re trying to stretch that money? You’re a horrible person. The rest of us will have to pay for your ER bills when you develop diabetes.

You used food stamps to buy organic strawberries because you’re concerned about pesticides? You’re a horrible person. How dare you waste taxpayer money on such luxuries as uncontaminated food.

You bought a toy for your child? You’re a horrible person. Don’t you know that your child should be wearing rags and begging joylessly for scraps of rotten food outside Trump’s hotel? Why are you even breeding anyway?

You have an iPhone? You’re a horrible person. I don’t care how you got it, or if it’s the only technological device you have (doubling as phone and computer), or what you use it for (staying awake during the slow parts of your 14 hour night shifts at a group home, for example); the fact that you own this one item is proof that you’re using taxpayer money to live in the lap of luxury. You probably live in a mansion and buy brand-name clothes directly from the designers and do heroin.

(But when rich people actually do all that stuff with their corporate tax breaks, it’s totally OK. For some reason, a multi-billionaire’s yacht is a better use of tax money than our heating bills or our kids’ lunches.)

When you’re low income, you’re made to feel your supposed lack of worth in a hundred ways, from your employer’s expectation that you’ll be available every minute of every day for your part-time job that doesn’t pay the bills and has zero benefits (in other words, your time is worth nothing), to the demand that you smile and be cheerful all the time in the face of verbal abuse from customers and supervisors (in other words, your emotions are worth nothing), to the lack of bathroom breaks at many low-wage jobs, or requirement to ask permission (in other words, your basic comfort and privacy is worth nothing), to the insistence that, while dealing with all of this day in and day out, you feel properly embarrassed for taking whatever help you need to feed your family.

At one of the group homes where I worked, the director decided to save money by making employees bring their own toilet paper. Well, some of the residents used toilet paper, too, so that meant we were supposed to use our part-time minimum wage money to provide toilet paper for ourselves and for the residents. Mind you, nobody bothered to tell us this ahead of time. I just showed up to work one day and discovered, when I needed to pee, that there was no toilet paper in the house. (Or paper towels.) I called my supervisor and was told I needed to provide my own. I pointed out that I was alone with three medically fragile residents in wheelchairs, so I couldn’t leave; someone would have to bring me toilet paper. My supervisor told me he would bring it himself after he was done with his meeting and all his other work. It would only be a few hours. No big deal when your bladder’s about to explode, right?

Fortunately, I was able to get my husband to bring me a roll of toilet paper on his way to work. If our schedules had been different, or if I’d waited another ten minutes, that wouldn’t have been an option.

Another time, at a different company, a supervisor reprimanded me for eating lunch on my shift. It was a 12 hour shift with no breaks, and I was pregnant.

When you work in these kinds of jobs, there are dozens of these little humiliations. Coming from a middle class background, I was shocked at how I and my coworkers were treated. My coworkers weren’t shocked, just pissed off.

Anyway, this is my personal spin-off rant on some of the subjects that Tirado addresses more coherently and with more depth. I particularly groaned over the incident where she had to pay back SNAP benefits because of a government error that she had repeatedly called the state about (this happened to me, too, with slightly different details). She discusses exhaustion, depression, the sense of never catching up. And she’s good at illustrating just exactly why it’s not possible (or even rational) to be responsible and plan ahead with money when you don’t have enough for the basics.

On the other hand, I will just note that I can’t really relate to what she says about having children. It’s not that I disagree with her in principle, but my experience parenting a child with multiple medical and developmental issues is very, very different from Tirado’s experience raising her typical children. But that’s because my parenting experience is very different from most people’s. She’s also much more accepting of capitalism than I am, although the mutual class resentment that’s on full display in her book seems to me like a pretty good argument for something else.

I’ll just end this with a passage from Tirado’s book that I found particularly poignant. No comment; it speaks for itself. A lot of free-market religious conservatives could stand to read it a few times and pray about it.

“Living in low-income neighborhoods, I’ve seen sexual health campaigns aimed at slut-shaming us into celibacy. They talk about things like self-esteem and value and all the usual abstinence arguments. They assume that our bodies are a gift that we should bestow selectively on others, rather than the one thing that can never be anything but our own. […]

These are the bodies that hold the brains we’re supposed to shut off all day at work, the same bodies that aren’t important enough to heal. These are the bodies that come with the genitalia that we should be so protective of? I really don’t understand the logic.

You can’t tell us that our brains and labor and emotions are worth next to nothing and then expect us to get all full of intrinsic worth when it comes to our genitals. Either we’re cheap or we’re not.

Make up your fucking mind.”

–Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America

Caregiving. Is. Work.

Congressional Republicans, by considering legislation that would eliminate SSI benefits for disabled children, have given me an opportunity to write again about one of my pet issues: the devaluing of caregiving.

If the politicians responsible for this particular budget-saving strategy had any ability to be honest, they would say, “We are unapologetic human scum who have no problem taking assistance from children with cerebral palsy and autoimmune diseases and cancer and giving that money to our billionaire friends so they can buy a second island.”

Of course, they don’t say that. Instead, they write:

“One rationale for this option is that providing SSI benefits to children may discourage their parents from working. Unlike Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a welfare program that aims to help families achieve self-sufficiency, SSI imposes no work requirements on parents and does not explicitly limit how long they may receive benefits as long as the child remains medically and financially eligible.”

Yeah. Because, you know, it’s not like taking care of a seriously disabled child is work. I mean, those parents might be doing a lot of stuff that would normally be done by nurses, and they might even be doing it 24/7 and be chronically sleep deprived and on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and there might be the life of another human being depending on what they do every fucking day and night, but that’s no excuse for not having a real job.

According to this page , which cites the SSI Annual Statistical Report from 2011 as its source, about 1/3 of single-parent households with a child on SSI have a working parent (i.e., the parent is working and raising the disabled child by themselves) and 2/3 of two-parent households have a working parent (i.e., one parent works and the other takes care of the child). And according to this SSA report from 2005,

“Most children receiving SSI lived in a family headed by a single mother, and less than one in three lived with both parents. A very high proportion, about half, were living in a household with at least one other individual reported to have had a disability.”

In other words, that 1/3 of two-parent families where neither parent works is actually 1) quite small, as most child SSI recipients live in single parent households, and 2) are mostly households in which one of the parents is also disabled and unable to work, leaving the other parent as the caregiver for the child and perhaps for the spouse as well.

Such lazy people. I mean, who spends all day every day taking care of their disabled child and spouse? What kind of excuse for existing is that? Get off the couch and get a real job!

My son, Monkey, who has multiple medical issues that affect things like eating and breathing and sleeping and who also has developmental delays, does not receive SSI benefits. We applied for him at one point and were denied; the requirements are quite stringent. The other parents I’ve met whose children received SSI were single mothers who worked full time or overtime. (But, you know, lazy.) Monkey does receive Medicaid, however, which has been extremely important for him and for our family. Which brings me to my next point.

The politicians again:

“Rather than provide a cash benefit to parents without ensuring that they spend the money on their disabled children, policymakers could choose to support those children in other ways. For example, states could receive grants to make an integrated suite of educational, medical, and social services available to disabled children and their families.”

The irony of this statement coming from the very same people who want to block grant Medicaid, reinstate lifetime limits, etc – taking medical care away from the disabled children they are talking about – and who support a nominee for Secretary of Education who has no idea what IDEA is, would be entertaining if it were not so sickening.

To these people, who preach from their offices about the value of work, who are so afraid they might discourage some low-income parent of a disabled child from working, I want to say something clearly: CAREGIVING IS WORK.

It is work when you’re taking care of a patient in a hospital.

It is work when you’re taking care of a patient in a nursing home.

It is work when you’re taking care of a disabled person in a group home.

It is work when you’re taking care of a disabled person in their own home.

It is work when you’re taking care of a disabled person in your home.

It is work when you’re taking care of an elderly person in their home.

It is work when you’re taking care of a child in their home.

It is work when you’re taking care of a child in your home.

It doesn’t matter whether the person being taken care of is related to you or not, whether you are being paid or not, or what kind of building you’re in. It’s the same work. Someone has to do it if our society is going to be anything worth living in, worth even calling a society. Wherever you are, whether you make money or not, if you are taking care of another human being who depends on you for that care, then you are working.


For more thoughts on the ways our society systematically devalues caregiving: Caregiving vs. Capitalism

Envy and the Affordable Care Act

An anecdote related by the Slovenian Marxist writer Slavoj Zizek tells of a witch who visits a peasant and offers him two alternatives: either she will give him one cow and his neighbor two, or she will take one cow from him and two from his neighbor. Without hesitation the peasant chooses the latter.

— From “Buddhist Christianity” by Ross Thompson

Like many people, I am grieving and terrified right now about the Senate Republicans midnight votes to gut the ACA and reject amendments that would retain some of its provisions (such as protection for those with pre-existing conditions). Given Monkey’s extensive medical history and conditions, this all hits very close and feels extremely personal. (And I will be at my local rally this Sunday, the 15th, to protest.)

I don’t understand how politicians can be so perfectly callous and indifferent to people’s lives; I presume they are so caught up in their world of corporate greed that they can’t remember the definition of the word “conscience.” But there is something else that bothers me, maybe even more, and that is the attitudes of many ordinary people who are not politicians.

These people do not like the ACA. They don’t like that their premiums and deductibles have gone up, and that’s totally understandable. I don’t like that their premiums and deductibles have gone up, either. But they don’t want a solution that would improve their own health costs and coverage while continuing to provide health care for the many people who have benefited from ACA’s provisions. (Such a solution might be, for instance, an integrated non-profit public system financed with higher taxes on capital gains and a progressive income tax that we would pay instead of premiums.) No, for this subset of the population, this solution is absolutely not OK. Only a complete repeal of the ACA with all its benefits and protections will satisfy them.

I am not putting words in anyone’s mouth: this is based on other people’s statements that I have heard in person (in a hospital, among other places) and read online.

Reading these comments, listening to the angry declamations, what I notice is that the lament about their own higher premiums/deductibles is inevitably accompanied by a lament that someone else isn’t paying anything, that someone else has expensive medical needs which have forced their own costs higher, that someone else is benefiting from this law which has made things worse for them. That’s the real sticking point. They hate that they are paying more for insurance than the single mom who works at Walmart and gets Medicaid. They hate that even though their own children are healthy, they are contributing to the pool of money that funds my two year old’s expensive surgeries, hospitalizations, and oxygen rentals. Why should my son affect their budget? Why should they pay a copay when the Walmart cashier doesn’t?

Their discontent is shaped by these comparisons. They don’t consider that maybe they are fortunate to have a job that pays higher than what Walmart pays or a partner with a job who’s not abusive or a child who doesn’t have a life-threatening illness. Those are other people’s needs, and yet these needs are touching their lives, making demands on them. Not demands that they can choose to attend or ignore in the form of voluntary charity, which would make them feel good and superior, but an inexorable claim enforced by the government.

The solution, then, cannot be a single payer system, because that means some form of income redistribution, and redistribution from the healthy to the sick according to need. Even if their own health care were better under such a system, it would be intolerable because of this redistribution, because others would be benefiting more. As in the parable above, they would rather have terrible health insurance as long as the single mom is uninsured, than have good health insurance that they pay into while the single mom is insured without paying.

Another parable that comes to mind here is Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard.

And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first last.” (Matthew 20:8-16)

If you read the full parable (not quoted here), you see that the men who worked less weren’t idling away the day in drunkenness (although if they had, I suspect the parable would be much the same). They were waiting around for someone to hire them. There was an element of chance in their being hired last, rather than of will or deserving – which actually characterizes much of our lives, from circumstances of birth and genetics onward. In any case, the owner has not taken anything from those who worked longest; he has paid them their full wages. They are not upset because they have been deprived, but because others who (in their eyes) worked less, received the same as they.

Isn’t this a sad state of mind? It’s precisely the opposite of compassion, which is an identification with the other, especially in the other’s need.

I try to keep religion out of this blog, but this is my prayer that across America, hearts and minds will be opened to the needs of others, touched with humility and gratitude, instead of this selfish pettiness. That each of us, if we have enough, can be happy to see others who have the same – or more – than we do. That we can aspire to solutions in which everyone has enough, instead of solutions in which women, children, the low-income, the disabled, and veterans are punished so that less vulnerable populations can feel better about themselves.

Feeding therapy: minimizing waste and cost at home

This blog’s been quiet for a couple weeks because my mood’s been too unstable to write or even read much. I’m waiting on an appointment with a new psychiatrist and some med changes.

Most of my spare energy lately has been going into reading about and obsessing over my son’s eating issues. I was pleased to see that one book that I checked out from the library, Helping Your Child with Extreme Picky Eating, mentions the issue of food insecurity: “If you struggle to get enough food, or are concerned about spending money on foods your child is not likely to eat, we will address this in later chapters.”(55)

But then they don’t. Unless you count this:

“If you are concerned that what you buy won’t get eaten […] buy one Asian pear or zucchini, or a snack pack of a new cracker rather than an entire box. Know that wasting food is part of the process – for a while. Redefine waste – if you don’t offer new or challenging foods, that’s a wasted opportunity!”

Spoken like someone who’s never experienced food insecurity. (And apparently low-income moms aren’t smart enough to figure out that they can save money by buying less food…)

I want to address this issue, because I’ve thought about it a lot ever since Monkey started refusing food, around 8 months of age. Then we started feeding therapy and were expected to play with food constantly with no expectation of eating it, with no acknowledgement of the financial effect on us. If you’re already paying for formula, Pediasure, Duocal or another expensive supplement to replace the foods your child isn’t eating, this makes it that much harder to buy food that won’t be eaten.

Food insecurity creates a lot of anxiety around food. Having a child with food aversions also creates a lot of anxiety around food. Put the two together and you have SO MUCH ANXIETY ABOUT FOOD. Which can make your child’s aversion to food worse as they pick up on your anxiety.

So, here are some ideas for saving food and money if you have a child with clinical feeding problems.

Ask your child’s feeding therapist to give you any leftover food that was used for your child during a session and would otherwise by thrown away. For instance, if she opened a small container of applesauce or used part of a tangerine, you might be able to take the rest home, refrigerate it, and use it during the week.

When possible, use food that you are eating to play with with your child, but give tiny amounts. So for instance, say you made chicken soup; give your child one or two small pieces of carrot from the soup, or a shred of chicken. (And then play therapy games with it.) If you boil an egg, give him a thin slice or cube and eat the rest yourself. Buy those bulk tangerine things and give him a slice or two every day while you eat the rest of the tangerine yourself. Etc.

If you make something specifically for your child, refrigerate it and use tiny amounts throughout the week. For example, last week I cut up one baby carrot into matchsticks, parboiled the sticks, and refrigerated them. I got a week of therapy stuff out of one baby carrot. (I ate the rest of the package, or chopped them up for soup.)

If you buy something for your child to try and it just completely doesn’t work out, and you don’t want to or can’t eat it, ask a mom friend if her child might like it – then you can swap the remainder for something of hers (like one of those snack packs she bought 50 of because her toddler loved it for a week but now the toddler hates it).

One therapy game involves having your child feed you, with a spoon or his fingers depending on comfort level. This has a lot of different benefits – he gets to feel in control, he gets to observe you eating close up, and he might even touch the food. It’s also a great technique for not wasting food, because the food being “played” with is being eaten – by you. Yum! (Note: do this when you’re slightly hungry. If you’re too hungry, you’ll get impatient with your child for feeding you too slowly. And if you’re not hungry at all, it feels kind of gross.) (Disclaimer: I’m not a therapist and I don’t know your child; if he’s in feeding therapy ask his therapist about this technique.)

My estimate is that, on average, I spend less than $0.50 per week on uneaten therapy food. So that’s not so bad.

Anyone else have tips to share?

On being the white person in the WIC office

Yesterday as I parked behind the WIC office, I saw a woman getting out of her car with 3 kids. Not unusual outside the WIC office, but one thing was unusual: she was white.

I’m usually the only white person in the WIC office. Other moms are Hispanic or black. So are the people that work there. Likewise, most of the people living in my income-capped apartment complex are racial minorities, and so were my coworkers when I worked in home health.

So when I saw this woman get out of her car, I thought, “Huh, is she really going to WIC?” She walked past the front entrance, but then backtracked and went in, so I figured it must be her first time going there. Sitting at the desk to get Monkey’s benefits renewed, I overheard (I wasn’t eavesdropping, she was standing right behind me while Monkey played with her kids) why she was there: she wanted to apply to be a peer breastfeeding counselor. I kind of laughed inwardly, not at her, but at the whole situation.

If you don’t see the problem, let me explain it. All of the moms and kids receiving WIC benefits (except for me – pretend I’m not there) are black and Hispanic. The only white mom there is not there to get any kind of help, she’s there to graciously offer her help with breastfeeding, something that she probably was able to keep up for a while due to either a) not working and being supported by her spouse, or b) having a white collar job that allows pumping breaks. She’s not a former WIC recipient who wants to give back; she’s never been on the receiving end of the benefit mill, but she wants to be on the giving end.

When I was a teenager in middle-class white suburbia, I wouldn’t have seen a problem with this. But now I do. I saw in that mom a previous version of myself, wanting to help people but totally clueless about class and race and my own privilege. Except she’s probably at least twenty years older than my teenaged self and still stuck there.

A lot of people are stuck there. I meet them every day. Like me, they are middle class, white, college-educated. But their current financial and living situations are different from mine. They live on the upscale side of town, I live on the side with the box stores and trailer parks. (And police. Lots of police.) They worry about their mortgage, I worry about our monthly heating bill. They can afford to complain about WIC’s paternalistic brand-policing and the fact that they won’t let you buy free-range eggs. (I don’t like it either, but my family needs to eat, so we eat the eggs that WIC pays for and we’re grateful for the help.) They may be aware of these differences in our situations, but they don’t feel the difference; I feel it. And that’s the point. It’s always the less privileged person that most feels the discrepancy, while the more privileged person insists that yes, the discrepancy is there, but it doesn’t really matter.

Breastfeeding counselors and others who work or volunteer at WIC (and other social service programs) should come from the communities they’re serving. Ideally, they’ve gotten help from these programs themselves. Breastfeeding is a sensitive issue. When a married white mom who’s worked in managerial positions gives breastfeeding advice to a Latina single mom who works at Walmart, hurtful things are likely to be said despite the best intentions, because the person giving the advice hasn’t been there and doesn’t get it. And she won’t realize that what she said was hurtful. She won’t even remember saying it. She might know a lot about breastfeeding, but she doesn’t know much about breastfeeding as a single mom who works at Walmart.

Higher Education =/= More Intelligence.

Good Intentions =/= Understanding a Situation.

Being low-income sucks, but I’m grateful for the perspective it’s given me. I also realize that my educational background gives me a better chance of eventually getting into a higher income bracket than my neighbors have, which means that I don’t truly grasp or experience the reality of poverty that they experience. I’m realizing that I’m still that clueless would-be helpful person when it comes to race issues. That’s an area where I need to shut up and listen.

Most of us could stand to do a lot less trying to save and a lot more shutting up and listening in areas where we are privileged.

Stressed about money? Don’t worry, money will fix it.

So apparently some researchers got together and determined that the reason poor people get divorced more isn’t that they value marriage less than middle class folks, but because being poor is stressful! From this press release:

“Although low-income and high-income respondents reported similar romantic standards and similar problems with relationship processes such as communication, low-income respondents were more likely than affluent couples to report that their romantic relationships were negatively affected by economic and social issues such as money problems, drinking and drug use.


“The federal government has spent $1 billion on initiatives to strengthen marriage among low-income populations,” said Dr Benjamin Karney. “Often these are based on the assumption that there must be something wrong with how people on low incomes view marriage or that they just are not very good at managing intimate relationships.”

And my favorite:

“The new research suggests that government initiatives to strengthen marriage among low-income populations should move beyond promoting the value of marriage and instead focus on the actual problems that low-income couples face.” [my emphasis]

Hmmm, I dunno. That sounds like communism to me!

Yes, being low income is stressful. And there’s nothing exciting or rewarding about the stress that comes with scraping by financially (as there may be with some high-stress careers). It’s just a daily, grinding worry. And many of the things that could alleviate that stress require the very stuff that’s causing it in the first place.

We live in a world where taunting neon dollar signs appear above just about everything, from toilet paper to dental care. Middle-income folks don’t see a lot of the dollar signs. They see some, of course, but only when the amount after the dollar sign gets to a certain size. So when they try to give advice to low-income people about things like marriage or psychological well-being, this is what happens:

What you say: “Go on a date night.”

What low-income person hears: “Money.”

What you say: “Go out to eat once in a while.”

What low-income person hears: “Money.”

What you say: “Take a vacation.”

What low-income person hears: “Money.”

What you say: “Go to counseling.”

What low-income person hears: “Money.”

What you say: “Find someone to take care of your child for a while and take some time for yourself before you burn out.”

What low-income person hears: “Money.”

What you say: “Take a homeopathic stress remedy.”

What low-income person hears: “Money.”

It’s not that we doubt the wisdom of this advice. It’s not that we don’t want to do those things. It’s just that our whole society is set up in a way where everything costs MONEY. And if you’re thinking (as people have said to me), “What, it’s only a $30 copay” or “You can find a babysitter for $10/an hour,” well, that right there is $50 for just one counseling session and that’s 1/4 of my food/gas/clothing/toiletries budget for the month. Do that twice a month, and it’s half the budget. When things are tight and tense, even a copay for counseling for a substance and/or marital problem can feel like an added stressor.

It’s not that we don’t value our marriages. It’s just that we value things like eating and having heat and water in our homes, too.

If you have a lot of family support – parents or siblings or aunts who can watch your child while you take a date night or a nap or see a marriage counselor – that makes a huge difference. There are low-income communities where that still happens, but for many of us, as our society becomes more fractured, and as jobs increasingly relocate families (I’ve lost several friends to job relocation in the past year alone), we find ourselves in a very stressful, very lonely situation. (Also, if your family is unreliable due to psychological, substance, or other issues, you might not want them taking care of your children.)

Now, suppose that somehow (credit card, relatives, personal loan, fairies, whatever) you come up with the money to pay for a therapist. At some point in your discussion with the therapist (who may otherwise be quite helpful but is addled by middle income dollar-blindness) you’re going to have a conversation where you tell them about how stressed out you are from working all the time and never being able to catch up on your bills and when you come home your toddler is all over you and you just never get a break and you never talk to your spouse anymore because you’re both stretched past your limits … and the therapist will say something like, “Why don’t you hire a babysitter and go on a vacation?”

You see? The solution to stress caused by lack of money is to do things that cost money! Nice how that works, isn’t it?