When Insanity is Normal

I’ve started a new case for my volunteer work.  So I don’t repeat myself too much, you can read a previous post about what I do and what my observations have been as of about 2 years ago.  But this new case has made me realize something else.  I can’t name names but let me give you a taste of what’s going in the case.

A 24 year old woman had her kids removed from her because upon the birth of her last child, she and the newborn tested positive for cocaine.  Her partner also tested positive for cocaine.  The partner is the father of the youngest two, the oldest, who is 5 has a different biological father, who until recently hasn’t been involved because the mother actively tried to keep him out of her life when he remarried.  The father of the youngest two was reported as having sexually molested a 3 year old girl.  He claims he didn’t do it, but the child’s story was detailed enough that he is on record as a known perpetrator.  This father is 32, the mother 24, which is a bit of an age gap, given that their first child happened when she was only 22 and he was 30.  He has 3 other children of which he has lost parental rights to all 3.   There was evidence that often the oldest who is 5 was locked in a room with her 1 year old brother and was at times the primary caretaker of him.  Since her children have been removed from she and the father have continually tested positive for cocaine.  If they are unable to keep clean they will lose parental rights to their children.  Currently they both live in their car, and have no home.

The children upon being removed were originally placed with the maternal grandmother.  The story of her life involves her baby brother dying of SIDS when she was 5.  She has cleary had undiagnosed mental illnesses throughout most of her life from PTSD, to bi-polar, to clinical depression.  To give you a sense of the situation she has been recommended to receive mental health treatment from 9-2 pm…Monday through Friday.  Upon the death of her brother she began being extremely violent towards animals, and pushed her sister onto the driveway as her mother was backing out who then ended up running over her sister (luckily this only result in slight injury).  She has 4 children through 3 different fathers ranging from the age of 26, to the youngest being 12.  Her youngest daughter was actually a twin, but she was with an abusive partner while pregnant, killing one of the twins.  She believed that the birth of a daughter would soften this guy (who was also a cocaine user) but not surprisingly this did not happen.  Her oldest son has 3 children, her oldest daughter (the mother in my case) 3 children, her 18 year old daughter is pregnant.  Recently, the partner she has been with now for 10 years was accused of sexually molesting her 18 year old daughter since she was a young girl.  This turned out to be true, and this maternal grandmother apparently knew about it and didn’t do anything.  The maternal grandmother’s sister also hit her niece badly causing child services to remove the niece for a time from her sister’s home.  It would be too lengthy to give more details but this maternal grandmother has exposed her kids to some broken people, has moved back and forth from different states, has at times not had her own home, and has clearly suffered through some nightmarish experiences.

I know that most of my readers will read those last two paragraphs and be like “WTF!?”  Some of you might feel anger, some sadness, probably both.  Overall, if you’re like me you will recognize this as an insane situation in which can hardly connect to.  This is chaos, and my intuition is helpless as I observe all this because it is so foreign to me.  I cannot fathom how this is real, human life.  But what I’ve come to realize is that this is normal for them.  This is just how life is.  This is how life is for much of their family and friends as well.  You might say, how can a mother let her daughter be molested and not do anything about it?  The only answer I can come up with is that through generations of poverty that the tolerance for deeply troubling behaviors and people is high given that this all seems like par for the course.  And poverty is at the heart of this at the heart of this tale.  Now that’s not to say that there wasn’t a period of prosperity in the maternal grandmother’s life, but the people she imported into her life, because she grew up with no parent recognizing her mental illness, because the behaviors of her own parents seemed normal, has kept a level of dysfunction in the family that would break most of us if we had to tolerate it for more than a day.  I remember my first visit to the maternal grandmother’s home.  Two of her other grandchildren were there along with her son and daughter in law.  The place was a mess with laundry everywhere.  It was a small two bedroom trailer, in which the 3 grandchildren she was fostering, her 12 year old, and her and her partner lived.  I felt claustrophobic and wanted to leave and try to pretend that people didn’t have to live like that.  And that’s not to say that people don’t have it worse.  All I’m saying is that for so many families, all this is absolutely normal.  This shouldn’t be normal.  In talking to the maternal grandmother I actually found her to be fairly prescient, places importance on school and education, and seems to at least have good intentions for those in her care.  What’s not clear is that she necessarily always understand what good care actually means.  If anybody expects people to just reason their way out of the situation, theysimply don’t know what they’re talking about.

Thankfully at the last hearing a couple days ago.  The oldest daughter got moved to her biological father and his wife. Both seem like really good people.  The two youngest children have been placed with a foster family who seem really nice and nurturing.  They understand that re-unification with the parents can happen, but are also willing to be a permanent home should the parents not be able lose their addiction.  There is some stability there and there are all sorts of hardworking people trying to do what’s best for the children.  Children are innocent and born into these situations.  It’s easy to condemn the adults, but when you learn more about them you just realize that they were just like these children and born into impossible situations.  I do this work for the children, but my heart breaks for the adults as well.  Most of the time they just get judged by the rest of society and forgotten.  When the mother had her visitation reduced at the last court hearing and found out she wasn’t going to get any special time with her children at Christmas she was in tears.  Despite the fact that she isn’t capable of being the parent her children need, the pain in her voice, in her face, and the intensity of her sobs made it clear that what little love she had in her life was slipping away.  I am not saying this is an excuse for giving her her kids back, and I’m glad Pennsylvania always tries to give parents a path to get their kids back, but I can imagine the pain I would feel if the same was happening to me.  It still broke my heart.

I appreciate all the people who dedicate their lives to helping children and families in these situations, but it’s really just all not enough.  We have to do better.  We have to make these kinds of things priorities for our politicians and raise awareness of what poverty is really like.

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For those of you interested in volunteering for the organization I work for it is called CASA.  You can check out the national website, but you’d have to see if they exist in your county if you wanted to volunteer.  But if you just want to donate to them some time that also helps.  There may be other service providers that help children in your area as well that could use your support.

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Discussion: Innocence and Knowledge

Unexpectedly, I am finding one of the hardest parts as a parent is to decide when should I tell the truth about the realities of the world.  I see the innocence and joy in life my son has, and it breaks my heart to tell him anything that speaks to the suffering that takes in this world.  There is a part of me that wants to preserve that innocence for as long as possible, and yet there is also part of me that wants to prepare him so he has the courage to face it.  I think overall I lean towards the former, because who am I to destroy such unadulterated joy in life?  Pain will find us all, and when it happens I’ll be there.  There is no rush.

But last night I started thinking, why can’t we all be more childlike and experience that joy?  What really causes us to “lose our innocence”.  I don’t think it’s death in of itself.  I don’t think sadness in of itself is what prevents us from experiencing a lot more bliss.

In trying to answer this question about loss of innocence, I started to think what a strange story the Garden of Eden is in Genesis.  The fact that eating from the tree of knowledge is what is referred to as the “fall of man”, the end of paradise (and innocence).  I don’t think knowledge as a whole is a problem.  For the most part knowledge makes me less fearful, less confused, and more likely to course correct in my life.  Life of course can’t be 100% bliss, but I imagined a world in which the only sadness we would experience would be when someone  we love died of natural causes, or natural disasters.  We might experience pain through breakups or moving away from home.  It is a dynamic world and there is an impermanence to all things.  I think such a world would be a more blissful experience, much more child-like.  What really causes us to lose our innocence is finding out the horrible things we do to each other.  That is a weight to bear that changes you forever; for which there is no going back.  If any biblical story in Genesis is going to represent the fall of man it should be when Cain kills his brother in anger (albeit anger due to God’s dissatisfaction with a vegan meal).  Anyway, I don’t really intend to get into a discussion about the Bible, only that as a parent the story struck as very odd even if I believed it was true.

For as long as I’ve been aware of the larger world that we live in, the only things that really break my spirit are is the harm that humans cause each other.  I’ve never sobbed and felt the world was a horrible place because someone died in a flood or of a heart attack.  I am curious as to what other people think about innocence and the loss thereof.  Could we be living in greater bliss than we are?  What does it mean to you “Loss of innocence”?  If you are a parent have you cried tears of happiness at the purity of your child’s joy, and have you also wept when you’ve watched them realized the horrors people commit against each other?  Any thoughts you might have on this topic are welcome.

Mango

IMG_20160401_191926 (1)I’ve loved mangoes ever since I can remember.  For me they are by far the tastiest fruit out there.  Love probably isn’t the right word, but it’s the best I can do.  I remember when I was young boy, my dad would cut up fruit for us to eat on Sunday mornings, and it was a real treat when mangoes would be in season.  He would spend a lot of time cutting, and end up eating little.  Very often I would eat an entire big mango in a sitting, and as the last piece was given to me I would express some faux-guilt about eating it all and my dad would look at me and say “don’t worry son, I’ve eaten so many mangoes in my life that you could never catch up to me anyway” and happily give me the last piece.  He did grow up in India and I am sure he did have a lot of mangoes.  Maybe to him it was like an apple.  But I don’t know, if I had mangoes as readily available as apples I don’t think I would crave them any less.  As I got into my teens, still every bit a mango fiend, and thought about someday sharing mangoes with my child I questioned my ability to be so generous.  I mean sure I’d share, but give all of it to him?  That’s not possible.

So here I am a parent and mangoes are in season and my son just loves them.  And I am happy to say I know exactly how my dad must have felt.  It makes me so happy to see that joy of being able to taste sweet, juicy, and wonderful fruit.  I cut away, and feed him as many slices as he wants.  I feel grateful that I am able to give him his heart’s desire in the form of fruit (knowing that such fruit would be a luxury for many families) and I even think to myself how many mangoes I’ve had in my life, and maybe it’s not as many as my dad, but I’m happy to let my son try and catch up.  His joy is so much better than a mango.

IMG_20160513_093359It’s easy to get caught up in giving our kid the things we didn’t have when we were children, but thus far it seems a far more spiritually fulfilling experience to share with my son the things I did have that brought me joy, because I know what it feels like, and I can connect with him in a way that I couldn’t by simply giving him something I didn’t have.  And if we feel positive about the people we are now, maybe those things you missed out on aren’t quite as important in the end.

Life, the Universe, and Everything

“And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, a girl sitting on her own in a small café in Rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything.”

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

It is today my 42nd birthday and I decided this would be a good year to reflect.  Why 42, why not 40 like any other normal person with a penchant for round numbers?  According Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series a supercomputer was asked to come up with the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything and 42 was that answer.  So I am at the age which is the answer, but of course if you read the series you know that while the answer was determined a more powerful supercomputer had to be created to determine the question (which turned out to be the planet Earth).  So 42 seems like a great age to think about answers and questions.

This is also the year that I often joked would be when I started my own cult.  This was supposed to be easy as I was going to have a good portion of Twitter followers, find myself a good compound with fertile soil and enjoy the good life.  Extra wives would have been optional.  It’s weird how as I get older there seems to be more of a drive to keep life simple and surround yourself by like minded people.  Anyway, Twitter really doesn’t suit me, for as you can see, I don’t say many things in 140 words or less so my followers are few, and I think life is better that way, and also I’m not a very proficient gardener, so I’m probably better off living close to the farmer’s market.  So here I am, nobody famous and nobody to follow, and a mini essay of reflection is probably more suited to greater personalities, but hey, it’s the age of information and I have a blog, so why not write? 🙂

Life

I think what makes being a teenager so difficult is that this is the time in your life when you start to self-actualize a lot more and really think about the future.  It’s a terrible thing really, because you are also still young enough where you really don’t know shit.  I remember thinking a lot about the type of person I wanted to be.  My dad was (and still is) an alcoholic and as a teenager I knew that I didn’t want to be like my dad.  Kids respond to those who are consistently there for them, and my mom was that person.  Of course I’ve come to realize many positives about my dad as well, but as a kid I knew that whatever way my dad was, wasn’t working.  My mom was loving, supporting, nurturing, and always there.  At the time I never really looked at my mom and dad’s personalities as related gender, but more as what are the behaviors that lead to increased happiness and that bring increased happiness to others.  I am sure it did in many ways shape why I’ve always felt more free to be myself more in front of women than men, and why I look beyond arbitrary categorizations of people and simply try to stick to values that bring happiness.

I also remember thinking that I was not the person I wanted to be.  I felt like I was this amazing person who was trapped inside myself. Inside a shell that I needed to break out of.  I know now that there is a certain element of being a child of an alcoholic that makes us more fearful of self-expression because of how we internalize our parents’ addiction, but I think teenagers can simply be apprehensive about inserting themselves in the world no matter how much they want to.  I know I am a person who leans toward safety over risk, and that was one of the things I wanted to get better at as I got older which was to be bold.  It’s still the quality I struggle with the most, but I’m proud to say that the vision I had for myself at around the age of 16 isn’t far off the mark.  The compliment that I have received several times and means the most to me is when people tell me that they can tell immediately the type of person that I am because I am so open and.  It is the part I like about myself the most especially because I think life is too short to pretend with people.   I am proud that I have reached a point in life where I am comfortable in my own skin, and it is something that has always seemed like a necessary way to be, but I in no way want to imply that I have go there solely on my own.

Another thing I worried about when I was young was that I wasn’t original.  I felt like everything I was, was copied from somebody else.  I didn’t have any original ideas, I wasn’t creative.  As I was thinking about what to write in this post yesterday I was wondering if I should say that the meaning of life is “theft”.  We are born as absolutely blanks and while genetics may texture our canvas to a certain respect we are painted on by the many people we come to know in life, our culture and society also paints broad brushes over us too.  Of course theft isn’t really the right word.  People and society paint things upon us and we have little say in that.  And in most other cases it is people who in my life who have given, and I have taken, and I would like to believe that with time I have been better about showing my gratitude.  It would not be until a certain Star Trek: The Next Generation Episode that I felt better about my lack of originality.  Here Captain Picard comments on the emotionless android Data’s violin playing.

PICARD: The good doctor was kind enough to provide me with a recording of your concert. Your performance shows feeling.
DATA: As I have recently reminded others, sir, I have no feeling.
PICARD: It’s hard to believe. Your playing is quite beautiful.
DATA: Strictly speaking, sir, it is not my playing. It is a precise imitation of the techniques of Jascha Heifetz and Trenka Bronken.
PICARD: Is there nothing of Data in what I’m hearing? You see, you chose the violinists. Heifetz and Bronken have radically different styles, different techniques, yet you combined them successfully.
DATA: I suppose I have learned to be creative, sir, when necessary.
PICARD: Mister Data, I look forward to your next concert.

So yes, I now feel original, thanks to lines written by somebody else.  Star Trek has actually taught me quite a bit now that I think about it. 🙂 Life is also full of irony and paradoxes enough to make you scratch your head for a lifetime.  In the end though, isn’t this what we really are…a product of others, both biologically and environmentally with a unique level of proportions such that we are originals? What I really mean to say about all this is that I feel really grateful to all those who have given and for what I have taken.  I have taken the best of you to the very heart of me and a result carry you everywhere.  Some I’ve not seen or talked to in some time, some it may have only been a brief time in which we knew each other, or perhaps were not even very close friends, but I saw what was good in you, I smiled at it, and celebrated it and let it course through my arteries.  I am thankful for all the love, the friendship, the inspiration, the memories, the lessons taught, and yes even the criticism and in some cases hurt.  I am unique and original because of all of you and there is no other way I’d rather be.

The Universe

Growing older also means growing more aware as you continue to experience and learn in life.  As someone who is strongly committed to learning as awareness grows so does the burden of that knowledge.  It is only in the most recent years that I have truly understood the expression ignorance is bliss.  However, it is also important to remember that your own bliss is of little value to anybody else but yourself, and we are a social species.  As I’ve learned I continued to have more awe for this amazing universe we live in, uncovering the darkness that shrouds knowledge also means discovering the horrors, the malice, the pain, and the suffering.  It is all the worse when you are one of the lucky ones to have things far better than so many.  It makes you question the very right to feel happy.  And when it comes down to it, it makes me feel bad just complain about how heavy the thoughts are sometimes, because I am so fortunate to just have to think about it and not actually experience the hardships so many bear.  I am fortunate that I can put those thoughts to the side at times. However, I also know there is no denying it either.  And I know that just feeling sad and depressed all the time would be debilitating so there is nothing for it but to do something about it. I am not helpless under this weight although sometimes it can feel that way.  So I try, and I let myself feel happiness for all the beauty that exists as well.  There is much to fight against in this world, but I feel if we forget what we’re fighting for, it’s easy to get lost in the darkness.

The cosmic glow of the Carina Nebula as seen in a stunning 3D reconstruction in Hidden Universe, released in IMAX® theatres and giant-screen cinemas around the globe and produced by the Australian production company December Media in association with Film Victoria, Swinburne University of Technology, MacGillivray Freeman Films and ESO. The Carina Nebula contains two of the most massive and luminous stars in our galaxy, the Milky Way. The original image was taken by ESO's Very Large Telescope.

I believe that it is this mixture of awe-inspiring beauty and soul-draining horror that drives us.  I think we can’t help but feel small in the face of it.  Some try to conquer it by building belief systems that explain it all, some try to chip away at the answer slowly through careful investigation, and some just turn to vices to distract themselves and to numb themselves.  However, from what I’ve seen, the true winners in this world are always the ones who accept how small they are in the face of it all.  It’s bigger than any one individual and it’s the one thing we all have in common.  It is enough to make you just sit there and think “Why can’t we just all get along? It really does seem so simple to just be nice to each other.  Nobody has to get nailed to anything.

As I look forward the things on the horizon are amazing.  Just as there are things in my young life I never thought possible but exist now, I know there are many unknown wonders that await me for the rest of my life.  I like being this age and knowing all the things that I know.  Wisdom comes to you without even knowing it, and I like it. I admit that I am not a big fan of leaving this existence.  I see us getting closer to things like unlocking the mysteries of aging, replacing organs, interfacing the computer to the brain and I wonder if in the not too distant future we might have a choice to live far longer than we do to do.  I am jealous quite frankly.  As someone who embraces change and has seen how changes occur over time spans far greater than our human lives I would like to experience it.  I want to choose when I want to leave this existence and have a shot at deepening that well of wisdom beyond this short time on Earth.  When I think of all the change that has occurred over 1000 years, 10,000 years and so on…I wonder what it would be like to see it…what perspective that would give you…how you would look at the universe differently.  I suppose such a chance will not happen, but I keep the dream alive only because it is at times helpful to remember that we are not only small in terms of the vastness of space, but also the vastness of time.  I can’t be expected to figure it all out, and that’s okay.

And Everything

Mommy_DhyanThere isn’t much more to say here.  Of course there is more to life I suppose, but it’s amazing how important some people become so that even the other things seem to tendril out from it.   I know that there are no guarantees in life, but that’s why living in the moment is so important. I am lucky that I have a life where I can take care of them just as much as they take care of me. The fact that our love can put some things at the center of our life, at the center of our universe, is amazing  What more could I want?  I do have everything.

Broken

I know a while back I posted a blog about public defenders and how it inspired me to be more proactive in my community and vowed to do some volunteer work that I had been putting off until the “right moment” in my life and just do it.  So in case you didn’t know I successfully completed the training and wanted to talk a little bit about my experience so far.  I guess there will be two separate parts here, one in regards to the system itself and one specifically about my case (which I can’t get too specific about).

What exactly am I doing?  Well I am a Court Appointed Special Advocate (or CASA).  This is a program that exists in many counties across the nation, and in certain cases of child neglect or abuse the judge assigns a CASA to the case.  My role is to interview the child, parents, foster care, child development specialists, doctors, teachers, etc and then try to compile a report for court hearings that happen every 3 months so that I can make specific recommendations for the child (or children I represent) in court.  I try to make recommendations in the best interest of the child.  This sometimes can be towards reunification with the parents (or parent) or sometimes away from the parents.  The key is to make those recommendations based on as much evidence as follows.

After my first training session one of the volunteers who I had sat next to, when we walked out of the session looked at each other and were thinking the same thing and he said to me before I could say to him “I can’t believe they have volunteers doing this.”  So if it seems unbelievable to you, this is one of the first things I learned:  We really don’t love children as much as we say we do.  The full-time workers of the program say that it’s even hard to get donations for abused and neglected children.  I came in with some pre-conceived notions about Child Protection Services or Child Youth Services taking away children from good parents and getting involved in the private lives of families unceremoniously most of those notions have melted away.  Children services have to act when a report is made, but for the most part I see them dealing with such reports that are unsubstantiated fairly.  That’s not to say that there isn’t mistakes made.  I also learned that it’s a civil service job, and there are no specialized qualifications to do it.  It doesn’t pay particularly well, workers are often overloaded with cases, and many just use it as a stepping stone to a better job, so there is high turnover, meaning that few of the workers are very experienced.  So mistakes are made, and there is some incompetence, but is this their fault or the fault of a system that isn’t treated as important as it should be?  Just like with public defenders, attorneys that are supposed to represent the children in court are also overloaded.  In our county there are 3 lawyers trying to represent 400 children.  It is not possible to do your job well under such circumstances. I’ve learned that despite bad things you hear sometimes about foster families most people who do foster care are phenomenal people and make a big emotional investment into children they may care for, for up to a year and half and will not get to keep them.  I can’t imagine going through that myself.  Many foster families do end up adopting the children for that very reason. I’ve learned that federal child protection laws didn’t happen until the 70’s and that the very first child abuse case was tried under animal protection laws.  The obsession over the rights of the unborn continue in this country while those that are born are overlooked.  I am convinced that if we put our compassion into making sure that every citizen was treated humanely, abortions would drop at an alarming rate.

The case I was assigned is a sad one, although perhaps by far not the worst.  And I guess it goes without saying that any case of child abuse or neglect will be a sad one.  I can’t describe the case in a high enough detail so that it could be recognized so I will simply give vague details which I am sure are not uncommon.  We have one child just over a year old, we have a father with a criminal past addicted to heroin.  We have a mother addicted to heroin who went into early labor while on heroin and had a newborn baby going through withdrawal symptoms for opiates.  A baby who would later die at the age of 8 months due to an accidental death.  We have parents who are not married.  We have parents who do not have their own home, their own phone number.  We have a mother who does not even have a job, and a father who is just trying to make ends meet.  Neither of them have enough money to support themselves let alone children.  There are many who may already be judging these parents, and I do not disagree that there is a reason that their children were taken away from them.  This is not a mistake.  This is not government overreach.  This is making sure a child has a safe environment to grow up in.  Addiction has taken them, and they cannot seem to get out of it.  They have made less and less visits over time with their remaining child, and at the last court hearing didn’t even show up.

abuse-stop-child-abuse-28564872-765-540-2But one of your jobs as a CASA is to gather information about the parents and part of that is a little bit of snooping on their Facebook profile.  When I saw pictures of the mother it was clear she was just a child.  Barely out of high school. She had pictures of her with her children.  There were smiles, and genuine happiness.  Pictures like any family might have and they were beautiful.  In notes taken by Child Youth Services workers there were noted about how the mother sincerely said how much she loved her son.  As a child of an addict myself it reminded me of my situation in a lot of ways, although heroin is a much harsher drug than alcohol, that there are two separate truths to the life of the addict.  As I look at the pictures I see the same love that I have in my pictures with my child.  I know they are filled with it at least at certain moments as much as I am.  But a portion of their life, thoughts, and physical actions are also governed by heroin.  Perhaps a bigger portion now.  And as I look at a picture of someone who is a child herself, and who has a mother who is also a heroin addict I have to admit that I cried and wondered what chance did she have but to follow down the same dark path.  Where does it end?  How do we break the chain?  Even as I have compassion for the innocent child to protect them from a life of having heroin addicted parents, who will have compassion for these parents?  Is there any hope for them?  Will they have their lives turned around?  Just 10 years ago the mother herself might have been a case for the courts if anybody had bothered to report the destructive actions of her mother.  There is an ocean of pain out there, and it feels like trying to tear down a mountain with a small rock hammer.  The only answer it seems is more hammers.  I have no idea how to convince people to pick one up.

There are 6 months left before the case comes to a close, likely too little time for the parents to get their act together enough to keep their remaining child.  There are already other family members willing to adopt and give the child a stable and happy home.  The child is just a few months older than my son.  Sweet with a beautiful laugh and I am glad that his odds for a better life have gone up, but I am certain his struggles are not over.  At some point he will wonder who his parents are.  He will have to wrestle with the idea of why he was abandoned by his parents and whether or not there was just something inherently wrong with him.  I hope that he is young enough now to not let thoughts override who he will grow up to be under his new adoptive parents. I hope he will forgive and know that he is his own man someday and is not destined to continue the cycle.  I hope he will know good love.

The War on the Poor

We have a lot of people living in poverty in this country and through various conversations on Facebook and on blogs you see a lot of arguments against providing a social safety net, raising the minimum wage, and helping them in general that I thought I would compile a list of my least favorite and most fallacious arguments I hear.

  1. I know some people that actually think the government owes them, doesn’t look for a job, and these people are just lazy freeloaders.  Throwing money at them just supports a dependency culture.

Some variant of this argument is often used so let’s dissect it.  Whenever you hear someone say “I know some people…” or “I know this person who…” this argument can already be dismissed based on being anecdotal and not necessarily a representation of how things are.  We all have our own experiences that shape our views, nobody is saying your own experience didn’t happen, only that you may not be understand your experience properly in the context of the bigger picture.  There is no question that some people cheat the system.  But this happens across the board at every level of society, and I would argue that the rich cheat the system by a far higher percentage rate than the poor, the only difference is that the rich can change the laws so what they are doing is legal.  They can afford better lawyers.  More importantly is that we do tend to focus on the negative, and this is what we tend to see.  There are so many poor in our country that even if 2% of the 50 million living in poverty in the U.S. were cheating the welfare system that still 1 million people and FOX news could run 100 stories a day focusing on a different cheater of the system and still not be done in a year, but that doesn’t really give you the reality of the situation.  What if there are a lot of people on welfare who are trying to get a job, or who actually work a job but it doesn’t pay well enough to make ends meet?  What if most people are actually embarrassed that they are on welfare and are trying to get out of it and don’t get very vocal about it.  Do the rest of our time really take the time to talk to all the poor and find out which ones are on welfare and are honestly trying to get out of their situation?  Nope.  And especially if the freeloaders anger us, not surprisingly we are going to take You-Pay-Taxes-So-the-Rich-Dont-Have-tospecial notes on those people and they are going to stick in our memory and support our views about wasted taxpayer money.  I have also yet to find anybody post some actual data on how many of these welfare freeloaders are.  They are always anecdotal.

I would agree that throwing money at the poor is not always the solution that we also need to do better to help people out of it so that they can support themselves, but the conversation always seems to be welfare, or not welfare.  There is a 3rd option and that is to improve welfare.  To say it doesn’t have value is an insult to many people who have depended on it when times were lean.  Not all people on welfare are on welfare for the rest of their lives.

And concerning the subject of wasting taxpayer money if we want to play the “I’m not supporting things I don’t like game” with my taxes, then I would also not like any of my taxpayers to go to foreign wars that I disagree with.  You pull your money out of the freeloader driven welfare system, and I will pull my money out of military spending, and I guarantee I will be much richer at the end of the day.

  1. I have never had to work a minimum wage job in my life. If you can’t live on minimum wage, go find a better job.  Ask for a raise.

Once again we have a point that rests on anecdotal experience.  I find these statements also come from white people.  I’m not saying their racist, but perhaps the people who hired you are, and preferential chose you.  That’s a light argument though, so let’s get a little deeper.

Let’s just look at it by the numbers.  In a capitalist society I think conservative and liberal alike we can say that businesses want to make money.  They will definitely maximize their profits by selling some product for the highest possible price that gives them a large base of customers, and they will try to cut costs on expenses.  People that work for them are part of those expenses.  So we would expect that just like there are always a very small amount of really rich people in the country, there are also going to be a lot of low paying jobs and then less and less jobs that are higher paying.  The more special skills you have, and this could simply being really strong and doing hard manual labor, trade skills, or this could be, being highly educated, you are of course are going to garner a higher wage.  The types of jobs available to the high school graduate are small.  You have a job at $7.25/hr and you want a better one, and of course a lot of people do.  You have to compete, and if that higher paying one doesn’t require a specific skill set then you have even more competition, quite simply not everyone can get it.  So just to say “Find another job” isn’t realistic.  Finally, how easy is it to find that new job when you are working 5 days a week and actually can’t search for jobs which are quite often only open during the times that you work?  How do you take time off from your job, unpaid, to go look for jobs?  How do you think your boss will react when you need to take an afternoon off to go to a job interview?  And if they don’t get the job, they’ve lost money just by taking those hours off.  Money they desperately need.

The immobility of the poor demonstrated by disasters like Katrina
The immobility of the poor demonstrated by disasters like Katrina

More importantly many poor people have other issues to deal with than just finding that better job.  What if that job is another city?  Can they afford to move if they already have no money?  What if by moving they lose the support of family who can help reduce their costs by taking care of their kid(s) while at work?  Even a job in another part of the city may involve a long commute on public transportation which increases the time that they have to leave kids at daycare or a babysitter that increasing their expenses.  Finally, should we really expect other people to move away from friends and family for a better job, a decision many of us are not willing to make either?  Why is it so unreasonable for them to expect the minimum wage to be increased and keep pace with inflation, since it has not?

Well wanting the minimum wage raised, is actually asking for a raise.  Going back to the start of this argument, in a capitalist society why would a company raise the wage of a minimum wage worker if they didn’t have to, if they job had such a low skill they could just replace them with the next applicant?  What if by asking for a raise, the boss actually decided to terminate them or give them worse hours?  When you are barely surviving rocking the boat isn’t always the safest play either.

And raising the minimum wage will help greatly with reducing suffering.  While it’s probably best to raise the minimum wage incrementally, in general the idea that prices on everything would double is wholly untrue, since wages are only a portion of expenses for a business.  While $15/hour might be excessive, no study finds that when the minimum wage is raised to keep pace with inflation that this harms the economy. This article by the Department of Labor does a great job of discussing it and remember that when people actually have money to spend, this is good in a consumer driven economy.  All those people in poverty aren’t buying as much stuff as you think.

  1. People on welfare are buying steak, have smart phones, getting manicures, smoking, buying drugs, etc.

Nothing cheers me up more than a person of privilege who has been fortunate to have the luxuries of this world, whether through marrying someone with a great job, or being born into a middle-class or higher family, complaining about other people wanting those things too.

Let’s ignore the fact that people need a phone, and that smart phones are practically free, and that maybe spending more money on quality nutritious food is maybe a better idea than crappy food which is cheaper and leads to all sorts of health problems.  But let’s look at the psychology of poverty .  When you live paycheck to paycheck barely making ends meet, and have grown up in poverty, your ability to long term plan fades, and yes you tend to not save money depriving yourself of creature comforts, because your life is one in which appears to have no long terms solutions.  So why live for tomorrow, when you can live for today?

Income-InequalityIn my training for my volunteer work we had to try and make a budget based on what a family makes on two minimum wage jobs and it is a daunting task.  And of course there are many families that do try to save, but saving is hard to do when you’re poor.  If you don’t have access to public transport, you have to depend on  car.  And people live in poverty have to buy old cars that nobody else really wants, but they can get a good deal on them.  However, such cars need repairs frequently, and repairs cost.  Now you could say why don’t they get a better car that is more reliable.  Quite simply it costs more and they wouldn’t qualify for the loan.  This leads to, what I call, the “stay-in-poverty-feedback loop”.  What little money poor people often save goes to these types of expenses because they literal can’t afford better quality stuff.  Car repairs are just one example, but people in poverty often have to get home repairs more often, replace things like water heaters, furnaces, or air-conditioners more often, because poorer housing means people are getting used, cheaper, and/or older stuff in their home.  So even if they are able to put away a little money each month it often gets eaten in one fell swoop by these unexpected repairs.  And there are plenty of other big costs, like health care, which they often put off, even if they have insurance to save money on co-pays, but then this compound into a worse cost later, but remember how poverty doesn’t lend itself to long-term planning.  And if you have kids, there are even more emergencies that can come up.

On the topic of buying drugs, well I don’t see a lot of people asking that all employees receiving public money take such drug tests, only poor people.  Some how if poor people are doing drugs, that is more egregious than any other income bracket.  As it turns out though, the amount of drug abuse among those on welfare is staggering low. So low that the cost of testing everybody costs more taxpayer money than letting that small percentage of people have their drugs.  Not to mention that just cutting off their life support doesn’t actually work as a deterrent to doing drugs, just makes them resort to more desperate measures to obtain drugs likely causes more problems.  And throwing these horrible drug users in jail, just gives them a criminal record, making it harder for them to get a good job and get out of poverty.

 4. Why are they having babies if they can’t afford to raise them?

Well there are all sorts of reasons that people have children, and if we ignore the fact that there are many areas of the country that don’t have adequate sex education, women don’t have easy access to birth control, or that a woman might simply get pregnant because a man lied to her, or the birth control failed.  But let’s say that there are these terrible women out there who are having children as some sort of scam to get more free money.  I am sure such women exist.  Nevermind the fact that such women were likely raised by a similar mother, probably has little education and special skills and is certainly not mentally well to be making that decision, should we cut her off from that money?  Is this the way she will become a wonderful mother? Or will she literally be unable to cope, unable to keep up with all her new responsibilities?  More importantly it’s of little good to question whether she should have had children, she does have children.  These children are innocent, they’ve done nothing wrong, and so cutting off the mother also harms the children.  Where is the humanity in this?  If you’re pro-life then this must also be part of your consideration if you care about children.

  5.  Poor people need to be more personally responsible.

I’ve blogged about personal responsibility before, I don’t want to repeat all I’ve said there, but I think we can agree that one’s responsibility for themselves depends on the environment in which they were raised, such as level of education, family, friends, culture, etc.  And as I also stated in that post, when we look around we don’t see a lot of people being personally responsible.  Politicians rarely are.  Rich kids like Ethan Couch certainly don’t show a lot of personal responsibility and so even if you believe that personal responsibility comes down to the absolute free will to choose to be that way, it’s clear that a lack of personal responsibility is not a trait that only applies to the poor.  Should we say that rich people are allowed to lack personal responsibility, but poor people or not?  More importantly why aren’t we asking the question of personal responsibility to those that are extremely wealthy?  Is it personally responsible to have more wealth than you can spend in your lifetime.  Is it personally responsible to have more wealth than is required to meet your basic needs have plenty of luxuries and send your kids off to the best of colleges?  Is it personally responsible for corporations to ship jobs overseas just to make more money, while their fellow citizens now struggle to make ends meet?  Is it personally responsible to make that 5 billion in a year than the 2 billion you might make if you paid your employees a fair wage?  Is it personally responsible to not pay your fair share in taxes by hiding your wealth in off-shore accounts and other tax shelters?  For those who hold personal responsibility as the most important of virtues, can we not apply this attitude consistently across all economic classes?  Why are only the poor held to these standards of personal responsibility?

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I know this is already a little TLDR, so I’ll be brief here.  In a line from the movie the Usual Suspects Kevin Spacey’s character says “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled is that he convinced the world he doesn’t exist.”  Well maybe there is an even greater trick.  Is it possible that those who are driven by greed in the acquisition of wealth and power have instead convinced you that the poor are the demons in our society?  That even though a majority of them work longer hours, take less vacation, receive poorer education, less nutritional options, worse health care, and less social mobility, somehow a good proportion of the wealthy have led you to believe they are the bane of your quality of life?  And so effective is this message that many of the poor are complicit in that oppression and vote into office the same people who have demonized them in society.  If trends continue as they do, with the exception of a small percentage of the population we all sink together so let’s stop making the poor our enemy.

Who’s Better, Who’s Best

And so it begins. The dark side of parenting comes out and I was taken aback at my reaction.  A friend of mine shared with me a beautiful audio recording of her daughter reciting the alphabet.  It was the cutest thing ever and I enjoyed.  Her daughter is 3 months older and then I started to think to myself, my son is hardly saying any words.  I mean kids change fast, but he only has 3 months before he should be saying his ABC’s as well.  What if he doesn’t?  Am I bad parent? Is my kid not going to be very smart?

And it’s happened other times as well. When he shows interest in a particular thing, my mind starts to race.  He likes playing drums, he’s not even 2, what if he’s going to be this amazing drummer?  How awesome would that be?  Hey there is this kid on YouTube the same age as my son playing the drums and he is much better than my son.  Crap my son isn’t special!

Dhyan_hatSo I confess my mind has gone to such places, but before you start to lecture me I just want you to know that my anxiety passed as quickly as it came, but it makes you think why one would have such a reaction? Of course it’s a common stereotype, that parent living out their dreams through their child.  Or perhaps just as common, are the parents using their kid as a pawn to compete with other parents to show each other up to determine who is the better parent, because they have the better kid?  So I had to seriously contemplate whether I was this type of parent.  Where were these feelings of anxiety and competitiveness coming from?  Why is it important to me that my son be extraordinary in some way?

So dismissing the idea that I might be a crazy person I thought about this sort of biological reaction I had when my son was born,  for him to grow and get stronger. While it is important to enjoy the moment, I think it’s natural for a parent to want to see this growth in their child.  Self-reliance is ultimately our goal, even if at the same time it sucks so bad when they don’t need us anymore.  There are a lot of people in this world and so it seems also reasonable that we would have this drive for our children to be extraordinary at some particular thing or to have a natural talent that drives them in a particular direction.   It can be the easy ticket to self-reliance.  Rich or poor when they have some inherent gift to fall back on, it’s a feeling of security as a parent.  You may have heard the stereotype before that all Indian parents want their kids to become doctors.  A well deserved stereotype actually.  My uncle was one of those parents who wanted their children to become doctors.  The reason he gave for this was that doctors are never unemployed, they are always needed and thus his children are always assured in an income.  Being originally from India where there was no social safety net, where poverty was and still is fairly high, I can understand such a philosophy.  They were however well off and my cousins very well educated, they would be successful in anything they chose.  But as I see the places my own mind goes I understand the obsessive Indian parent constantly pushing their children towards medical school.  I of course never would force my own child into anything in particular, because in the end I can’t ignore the fact that my child is an autonomous being who needs to be free to make decisions for his self.

In the end, the right answer just seems to be to just remember to love, to encourage, and to teach them to learn well, wherever their interests lie. Teach them the value of determination, teach them the value of caring about what you are doing and taking pride in your own work.  Whether my son is extraordinary or not, he will always be extraordinary to me and that’s a gift in of itself.  I think it’s the hardest thing to know as a parent.  How do you make your child self-reliant?  There are so many avenues to that destination it’s easy to get lost.  Perhaps the best I can do is to trust in myself and my own self-reliance to do well in the moment and stop trying to worry and predict the future.