in collaboration with Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity
Adjust society's attitude -- majorly
From: Jessica S., Fergus Falls, MN
People who work 37 hours a week for $7.50 per hour are not lazy. They are not standing 37 hours per week, smiling in the face of petty complaints about coupons, working every other weekend as mandated, and paying half of their income for child care so that they can "game the system." They are not cashing in $40 per month of WIC vouchers with a smile of satisfaction.
Until I went back to school full time this fall, I was a third generation service worker. My grandmother was a secretary and often had two or three jobs to raise her three children on her own. My mother worked at the Piggly Wiggly. My father has an eighth grade education, joined the Army, went to Vietnam, and now collects disability checks for his PTSD.
For the most part, I have been a cashier. I wasn't lazy, but I was stupid. I was a really good student despite attending 10 different schools in three different states. However, no teacher ever pulled me aside to explain how student loans work. Because no one in my family has ever gone to college, no one knew that loans could be deferred. As my friends at Wayzata High School geared up for the University of Minnesota or private schools out East, I dropped out. I returned the next fall and earned my high school diploma, but I wasn't very motivated. At the time I had two jobs. College seemed out of reach because I did not know about Pell Grants or work study programs. I finally considered going to school when my husband lost his job in 2003. The organization he worked for disappeared over six months.
This brings me to another point: People living below the poverty line have not been in a position to save three to six months of their income. If someone earning $12,000 per year saved 10 percent of her income (10 times the average American savings rate), it would take her five years to save six months of wages. America does not do the math. These workers are the people we call "lazy."
At our poorest, my husband worked 12-hour overnight shifts at a factory. After four hours of sleep, he went on call with the ambulance for five hours, then went to school to tutor until 10 minutes before he had to return to the factory. Now he works 14-hour shifts for Schwan's, five days per week.
At our poorest, I started a cleaning business while I was seven months pregnant, and ran an after school art program that coincided with my husband's tutoring program. I brought my kids with me, and wore the baby in a backpack carrier or sling.
We are not lazy. We have worked so hard all of these years. We have needed and qualified for WIC, the food shelf, MinnesotaCare (before Pawlenty kicked our "lazy butts" off), and food stamps. We have taken the glares, and have forgone the premade birthday cake in favor of a mix because of the cashiers who hmmpf at our food stamp card. We have quit listening to Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. We have also received more charity from churches, family, and acquaintances than I can tally. We would not have made it otherwise.
My big idea to reduce poverty is to suggest that some people need a major attitude adjustment. For far too long, too many Americans have refused to do the math. As a result, for far too long, I have worked long, physically painful hours for a pittance, and a discriminated pittance at that. So as a mom, I'm dropping my attitude of gratitude, and I am demanding that America's executives and federal and state politicians go back to math class. I am demanding that they show me the money!
As an underpaid, hard working mom, I am demanding health care, 401K, pension, and a living wage. I refuse to be grateful to the top 10 percent of income earners for continuing to cut the average salaries of the workers in this country! I refuse to be ashamed for having to receive welfare money because employers cut salaries $2000 on average per year.
Since its inception, welfare policy has been riddled with racism, discrimination and inequality. So, I believe that until someone puts the facts out there, and America stops labeling the working poor as "lazy, immoral ingrates," poverty will not cease. Instead of holding the uber rich responsible for their careless tax cuts and stacking the deck on income and employment policies, we blame immigration, immorality and the hardest workers in America. It is time for the get-rich-quick, lazy, irresponsible, immoral ingrates to have a major attitude adjustment and to look me in my face and say, "Thank you. Thank you for working so hard, here is a little respect." Quit with the discriminating, "reformed," degrading programs. Poverty will not end until there is respect for the person in it.