By Jon Parton
I remember the last year of high school very well. I was homeless.
It’s easy to stereotype people, even when we know that it’s wrong. Poverty is real. The need is real.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 46 million people live in poverty in our country. All the rhetoric about pulling yourself up by the bootstraps is meaningless to those who actually live in poverty. Too often, people point at the choices the poor made in their lives.
My mother raised four kids by herself for most of her life. What sort of choices did she make to wind up being a single parent? She chose not to remain married to a man who sexually molested my older sister from the time she was five until the age of ten. My mother blamed herself for not knowing and tried to take her own life. During that tumultuous period, our family relied on the government’s foster care program.
Compassion is not a flaw. It’s not a human defect. It’s not a weakness. If anything, it is humanity’s saving grace. The ability to look past your own wants and needs in order to help others is a virtue. It’s easy to forget the real problem of poverty in our country. Talking heads would have you believe welfare recipients are all lazy people who take advantage of the system.
Growing up, our family required welfare and social services for help. After our parents divorced, my mother found herself back in the working world after years of being a stay-at-home mom. With no college degree and four kids, she found work in a physically demanding labor job. Even though the job required her to work outdoors during the summer heat, she did so for the sake of her children.
Even then, it wasn’t enough. Without the benefit of welfare and the food stamps program, our family would not have made it. Approximately 3.9 million Americans age 65 and older currently live in poverty. Are all of them weed-smoking freeloaders? How about half? Are 2 million senior citizens not bothering to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps,” or are they all products of bad choices?
As my siblings and I grew older, we gained a unique appreciation for education and all it could do for us. My older sister was the first in my family to get a college degree. She became a teacher. My brother obtained a CDL, leading him toward a financially secure life. My younger sister is a stay-at-home mom, married to a member of the law enforcement community. None of them are on welfare. None of them do drugs. All of them are homeowners.
The face of poverty is not a stereotypically single mother who keeps having kids in order to continue to collect government benefits. Businesses close. Stocks fall. Poverty is a real effect of these things. They’re not just headlines of a newspaper, they’re events that can make or break families and individuals.
I’m glad that my nieces and nephews will never know what it’s like living in a car in a parking lot. I’m glad that they’ll never have to ask a friend if they can use their shower. During the time of her life when she should enjoy being with her grandchildren, our mother is fighting stage IV cancer, brought about from her years of working outside. Now she needs the help of Social Security and Medicare to make sure she can receive badly needed radiation treatments.
When I think of the all the dumb things our leaders spend money on (Yoder anyone?), I have no problem helping those who actually need it. Lifting Americans out of poverty should be our goal, and not by attaching a stigma of laziness and deceit to the effort. The only way to do that is by supporting these programs and doing everything we can to make education a priority.
Contact Jon Parton, managing editor, at firstname.lastname@example.org.