Wednesday, May 18, 2011

speaking of neighborhoods

This week, I took a dear friend grocery shopping. I did this because there was nothing at the food shelf and she had to feed her three young daughters. Three years ago, she was one of those extremely slim and  well-dressed school volunteering mothers living in a big house and driving one of those great, big cars that she had to literally climb into. (Inverse rule--the wealthier the mother, the thinner she is and the bigger is the car she drives, though to be fair, we live in a state with Weather and those big four-wheelers really plow through the heaped up snow.)

What followed was sobriety, one divorce and an ex-husband either hiding his earnings or not earning them or drinking them away. Suddenly, my friend was on welfare and collecting food stamps, (which meant being told that family values required her to put her kids in cheap childcare in order to get a minimum wage job (she has only worked in childcare) that wouldn't actually cover the costs for her to put her kids in cheap childcare) Meanwhile, she's haunting the food bank, which, remember, was empty this week, leaving her literally counting how many grapes or slices of apple or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches she gives to her children each day.

At the grocery store, we discovered why the food bank was empty. Short-staffed,  the bank had neglected to pick up the mounds of donations at the grocery. When I asked the grocery manager if my friend could take things from the heap, the manager said she was sorry, but no,  and referred my friend to two other foodbanks, one across town, the other across the river.

Unfortunately, my friend does not have enough gas for her great, big American four-wheeler to be able to drive to either place.

This dear friend does not know exactly what race she is--there might be some native-American or African-American in there, though she looks basically white. Her mother, a young single mom with a drug problem, abandoned her at a young age and died soon after. My friend was made a ward of the court at the age of 12. She was not adopted. She was then raised by loving foster parents who weren't college-educated--dad ran a barber shop. Though highly intelligent, thoughtful and well-read, my friend did not finish college, but she did her best. She worked, she got married, she bought a house with her husband and improved it, she had her three girls and read to them and taught them manners and drove them to school.

I have been honored to know her, admiring her grit and determination as she left relative wealth and safety to raise her girls in a non-abusive environment, as she has left the abusive man, gotten the girls therapy when they had trouble with the changes, learned how to say no to the exes and the abusive in-laws, how to be assertive in fighting for her rights, which phone calls to make, how to handle the judge and the court custody system, how to fight the loneliness that would want to accept anybody interested, all while always keeping her focus on what is best for her three girls.

Though she did not have parents to teach her how to have a healthy relationship, how to ask for help, how to navigate an often hostile world and does not now have the someone to run home to if she screws up or life lets her down, he has weathered with grace things that would have flattened many other people, including, in those three years, a battle to get the police to deal with the dealer in the other half of the duplex and not just put it down to the bad neighborhood where she lives, and a badly injured back from a slip down the rental's five icy steps when the landlord refused to weather strip them two years ago. (Remember, when we're talking icy here, we mean icy.)

Then, this year came a medical problem--some auto-immune disease involving pain and muscle weakness.  The state's medical insurance has been giving her (and many other people I know) the run-around. For six months. And we live in a state which, unlike most, actually has a program to provide medical care for even adults who can't afford insurance.

But on the day I took my friend grocery shopping, I read in our local paper that the newly elected house and senate have vowed to dismantle our state insurance program. Why? Well, they say it's necessary to balance. Not that they could raise taxes, even on people who make more than $250,000 a year. Because, get this--it would be bad for business. Never mind a mom with three little girls to raise.

Instead, the legislature wants to put in place a program that allows people to buy their own insurance policy with tax deductions. This, of course, assumes that a) the people in question will have enough income to support those deductions, which, say disabled or mentally ill people would be less likely to have; b) that these same people would be able to choose a policy they could afford, which means one with a higher deductible.

Family values, right? Family values to make a mom with a sick kid--say pneumonia, choose: Child to ER vs Child has Food. My friend's girls are all lovely and charming and sweet. I'm sure people would give them change were they to sit on the courthouse steps and beg, but are we as a society really ready to start issuing begging licenses? I hope not.

As you can tell, I'm angry. Wordlessly, furiously angry. But underneath that anger, that rage, that furiosity, I am plain scared. Who among us is immune? Perhaps those very few who are very, very wealthy, the kind of wealth that is no longer dependent on employment, or good health. My friend stood on the school grounds today and said, "What am I supposed to do? God helps those who help themselves, but I have called every number I could call. I have done everything I can think of. I was a ward of the state at the age of twelve. What, should they have euthanized me? I wish I could ask people, where would you be if you had not had your parents to provide income and housing and love and education and support? Would you be married, in a big house, with a nice college degree and a nice diploma if you had started where I started?"This is not a liberal argument, this is the reality of her life. We should be applauding her gumption and her faith. We should be doing everything we can as she struggles to guarantee that life will be better for her children. We should be supporting her as she raises them, not putting stumbling blocks in her way. How can people not realize that she is right?

We seem to have lost the understanding that we are all my friend, that we are all neighbors. The biblical injunction, too, is very clear: we are to protect the widow and the parentless child and the corners of the field belong to the poor and not to us. These laws don't say, "unless we have to balance the budget." They don't say, "unless it comes out of my taxes." We are obligated. It's not from kindness. The national political argument may be couched in "balanced budget," but its grounded in selfishness, an argument trumpeting the same "Give money to the rich and it will trickle down," message that has only lead to a huge shift toward the wealthy in the national income balance.

Even if you live in a gated community, even if you think you are safe from those "others," surely some part of you must understand that those "others,"--my friend's children--are your children, too. You could do without a second vacation or even a first one. We could give up that private school, or even the tennis and music lessons for our children. We could do without a couple of pairs of designer boots, but my friend literally cannot do without food for her children, or medical care. My toddler knows that when a mom of three can't use her hands enough to cook for her kids, we need to help her. My state legislature seems to have forgotten that lesson. What we are hearing from them is only, "Protect the rich," and "cut our taxes,"  "balance the budget," and blame.

I want to say to all my neighbors, even those who think safe from my friend's predicament, "We are neighbors. We are community. We are in this together.  Don't you understand that?"

Sara Selznick
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