According to Forbes, more than half of all Americans are unhappy with their jobs. For most of my career, I have been one of them.
Oh, I loved my first job for the first 5-6 years. It was a mission, a calling, and I felt very confident and effective. I knew that what I did made a difference, and I am still in touch with many of my former students from that time. There are people who are reading this blog, because I taught them to read.
But around the 6th or 7th year, I began to love my job less. With a newborn baby at home, I resented the time commitment. Changes to the education field made the school environment much more cut-throat. Yet I stayed there, because it was “secure.” I said that I needed the income, so we wouldn’t starve.
I did leave, once I had secured a job offer across the country. That job ended up being even worse, with more time commitments and a much more negative environment. Yet I stayed, because we “needed the income.” I needed to feed my family.
Job loss and financial stress are common reasons that people commit suicide.
And yet, it is very rare for someone to starve to death in the US. There are supports and safety nets designed to prevent that.
Poverty is the real fear. People are torturing themselves, staying in miserable situations, because they are so terrified of being poor. And tragically, people have even killed themselves, because they could not bear the prospect of poverty.
I knew there was a possibility of financial loss when I went on leave from my job on March 1. However, I thought it was a very remote possibility. I had requested assault leave, which I had been told could not be revoked, only discontinued if it was determined that I did not qualify. And if that happened, I had a great deal of leave time saved up.
Carefully, carefully, I watched the calendar, until I thought I was safe. Then I received an email saying that all of my assault leave was being revoked, and that my sick days would be applied, starting on March 1. Additionally, since I had not taught a full school year, my leave time would be reduced. All in all, I went a month and a half with no pay.
The docked time ate up our savings cushion, which was supposed to carry us through the early fall, after my paychecks stopped and before I started earning money through substitute teaching. And I learned that getting started subbing was a much longer process than it had been 15 years ago.
The first thing I did was sign Iliana up for free lunches. She’s gotten reduced-price lunches in the past, and the process is very quick and simple. She was approved before the school year began, and this is saving us $80 per month.
After working on job applications, I filled out an application for benefits. This was very eye-opening, and I learned that a great deal of the ideas people have about “welfare” are simply incorrect. For example, to get cash assistance, a family of 3 has to earn under $200 a month, and their benefit will be somewhere around $200 a month. It’s hard to live like a queen–or even pay rent–on that.
We’ve gotten help from an agency, so Iliana began her school year with a new wardrobe of lightly-used name-brand clothing. I let her school counselor know about our situation, and Iliana will be picking out some more free clothing at Kohl’s next week.
Pride is the only reason for starving in the US, and we certainly are not. We are in a transitional period, with supports that have allowed me to leave a traumatic situation and take the time to find a path for my career that is in alignment with my long-term goals and dreams.
This is the worst-case scenario. This is what everyone is so terrified of. This–our life–is what keeps people stuck in miserable situations.
It’s not scary. It has taught me volumes about being a part of a community and taking care of each other. It has taught me more about understanding and not judging.
I have taught in low-income rural America. I have taught in the inner-city ghetto. I have been through Ruby Payne training. I thought I knew all about poverty.
And yet the first-hand experience has taught me so much that I did not expect.
Here are some lessons I have learned from our time below the poverty line:
1. Most people receive “welfare” and don’t realize it.
Long-term cash “welfare” no longer exists, due to the reforms in the 1990’s. Instead, we have a number of benefit programs aimed at helping the working poor and families in transition. If you are in a lower tax bracket, the odds are that you already receive help from some of these programs, or have in the past.
If you have received the earned income tax credit or the child tax credit, you have received welfare. Free and reduced school lunches, college financial aid, Head Start, rural housing loans, and subsidized housing also fall under the umbrella of “welfare.”
2. It is not possible to be a “welfare queen.”
Benefit programs are designed to help families through tight times, and they can help fill in the gaps. However, there is not a single program available that will allow someone to live like a queen.
I’ve already mentioned the limits of TANF, cash assistance. SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, has very tight restrictions. After a short period of time, recipients who are not unable to work (due to age or disability) are required to be employed. SNAP is not an all-or-nothing program, as it gradually decreases as income increases.
Because TANF is so minimal and SNAP is income-based, it is not possible to be living high off the hog and receive assistance. If you do happen to see someone pay with a SNAP card, then drive off in a Mercedes, you are probably seeing someone in situational poverty. When you are temporarily experiencing “hard times,” it makes no sense to sell everything you own and replace it with less expensive things. That hypothetical Mercedes driver will likely be in a hurry to get off of assistance and return to their former standard of living.
3. Agencies are wonderful resources.
If you have a friend who is experiencing hard times, resist the urge to buy their groceries, and instead, offer to go with them to seek help from an agency. Agencies can often provide more help than an individual can, and they come with pre-set boundaries.
4. Don’t judge what we do spend our money on.
I’ve applied for assistance, but yoga and Weight Watchers are the first items I pay for each month. Neither of these are luxuries for me. Controlling my weight and receiving support as I recover from emotional eating is crucial to maintaining my health in the long run, and yoga is very important for the maintenance of my mental health.
If you would be fine with a person on assistance buying diabetes medication, then you should be fine with a person paying less for Weight Watchers. If you would support a poor person paying for antidepressants, then you should also be supportive of a person paying less for yoga in order to prevent that prescription.
And also know that I don’t owe you that explanation. Neither does the person in front of you in the grocery line, buying ice cream with their SNAP card. Sometimes the occasional treat is necessary in order to maintain sanity.
5. Receiving is a vital to being a part of the community.
I know a lot of people who pride themselves on giving, but have difficulty receiving. Just think about this for a moment. If you are willing to help other people but are too prideful to ask for the same help, are you not judging the people you are helping? Are you not assuming that you are better than they are?
Receiving is a beautiful blessing, if you approach it with an attitude of gratitude, rather than shame. If you think that the people you help are deserving and worthy, then you are as well, when you receive help and support.
Receiving helps you to understand interdependence, and I think it has the potential to make us all more generous. When I am working again, I know that I will donate to the food bank regularly, and possibly even volunteer.
6. Generational poverty needs more support and understanding.
We are “upper crust” poor people. I have a “story,” and it is one that anyone–even a strongly anti-welfare person–would sympathize with. Rob and I grew up middle class, and while we have always been low-income since we’ve been married, our trip below the poverty line is going to be a short one.
However, we need to extend the same understanding to the single mother who grew up on assistance, got pregnant at age 16, and is struggling to make ends meet. People who ask for help are quick to try and establish themselves as being in situational poverty, if that is the case, because our society is more understanding of middle class families experiencing hard times.
But generational poverty is every bit as legitimate, and the people experiencing it will need much more support than that temporarily embarrassed middle class family. Nobody is career welfare anymore, and it will take a lot of support to help that single mother to break the cycle for her children.
7. “Hard times” do not necessarily mean “bad times.”
In her song, “Hands,” Jewel (who has lived in a car) sings, “Poverty stole away your golden shoes, but it didn’t steal your laughter.” There is an assumption that living on less means being unhappy. This is simply not the case.
If you are grateful for the help your receive, rather than shameful, you will feel joy. If you let go of any illusion of security and simply let life unfold, knowing you will be okay, you will feel joy.
A “welfare Christmas” is not necessarily a sad Christmas. We have a local thrift store that stocks unopened toys around the holidays, and we have surrounded the tree with those in the past. One birthday, Rob excitedly gave me a multitude of presents rescued from the dumpster.
You can find joy, regardless of your financial situation. Poverty is not a reason to be miserable, and the fear of it is not a reason to torture yourself.