Newt Gingrich, who is apparently (really?) a serious candidate for president, seems to kind of hate poor children. Or, if you think janitorial work is tons of fun, he loves them. I’m sure we all remember last summer, when Fox news broke the startling story that poor people have refrigerators.
Lamenting that people are not so hard up for cash that they can afford to keep their eggs at a temperature that won’t kill them, or that kids are spending time learning to read rather than mop, seems pretty harsh. I don’t usually hear that about the families I work with.
But I have been subjected to views along these lines. I’m sure you’ve all heard them as well. Everyone seems to have a neighbor who drives a Lexus to recertify for their foodstamps, or a deadbeat, unemployed cousin who has the ultra-premium cable package, complete with Showtime. Of course there are all those people in soup kitchens making calls on their iPhones, and every kid in a failing school is wearing the latest Jordans.
I mean, those people are living better than I am! And I work!
Of course, this isn’t true of many people we work with. I have a lot of families with video game addict children, but those expensive games are always purchased second hand at Game Stop. They’re looking fashionable, but that shirt was five bucks at a no-name warehouse on Fordham Road. The nice phone is most often a gift from grandma. People have told me that I’m not seeing the bigger picture–what about how much the phone plan costs a month? Um, you’re stupid. Everyone participant I work with has a pay-as-you-go deal, and very often they don’t have minutes at all.
We also hear a lot about how the people we work with just don’t know how to budget. They act like cable is a necessity. (It’s not, but I can see how you might feel that way if you have six kids.) They buy too much pre-made food. (Again, when you’ve got a bunch of hungry kids in a one bedroom apartment, and you’ve been working all day? I get it.) They don’t prioritize. (Unlike me. I needed that novelty size Pez dispenser.)
As a society, we’re too hard on the poor. We expect things of them that we ourselves can’t do. We learn to defend against these viewpoints in
Comedy Central social work school. But those who say low-income people need to budget and prioritize better? They’re not always wrong.
I don’t like to say it. It goes against my liberal social work sensibility. But I have worked with some people who frustrate me in this regard. They spend more money on junk than on concrete things that their children need. I had a mother ask me for band-aids to take home for her child, explaining that she didn’t have enough money because they had just bought a Nintendo Wii. Another worker was very upset to find out that her family that was facing eviction was still paying for three cable boxes. A friend was at a loss when a mother she helped to find a new apartment was late on her rent, because she spent her pay check on a dinette set instead.
I don’t like to tell these stories. Like I said, poor people get enough shit. There are enough people who think we waste money on public assistance programs by enabling people too stupid to budget properly. As long as the children’s needs are met, how adults choose to spend their money is none of my business.
Many people were scandalized when I mentioned that my first encounter with an iPad occurred when one of the two year olds I work showed me her family’s during a home visit. (I have never felt older than when that child rolled her eyes at my inability to operate it.) People couldn’t believe that this family could have afforded an iPad. I defended them strongly. Dad works fourteen hour days, mom is home with the kids, they live extremely reasonably, but they are geeks and love technology. It’s something they enjoy as a family. They can decide what to do with their money, so shut up with your faux concern/jealousy that you don’t have one.
Until the children’s needs (school supplies, clothing, and so on) aren’t met. Or they come to me asking for help paying their back rent. Then it is my business, whether I like it or not.
I understand some of it. I delay gratification and hold off on buying things I don’t really need, because I know that I’ll be able to save up for a
down payment on a house new car new pair of Chucks. When you’re making minimum wage or living on public assistance, and greatly struggling to pay rent, the idea of saving up for a larger goal is not really on the table. It doesn’t seem realistic. So spending the six dollars in your pocket on sending the kids down to the corner store to get french fries for dinner (which simultaneously gets them out of your hair for twenty minutes) seems to make sense.
I don’t think that this means the people who engage in this particularly frustrating behavior are bad parents. In my experience, a lot of them became parents very young, and are very overwhelmed in their day to day lives. I can understand that they would spend money on unnecessary, but fun, stuff.
As a broad social policy, acting like poor people don’t have it that bad, or would be fine if they just laid off the Dom Perignon to go with their steak dinners, is pointless. It’s not true, and it doesn’t work. It isn’t right, and it won’t change anything.
But one to one? We can’t feel wrong in recognizing this. And I know people do. We’re constantly defending our clients to people who think they’re bad parents, bad people, they’re free-loaders, public assistance is the reason we can’t have nice things, America!
The thing is, it’s never all or nothing. You can’t paint an entire group of people with one judgmental brush, solely based on their income. And we can’t be too protective of the populations we work with, or married to a certain point of view, that we deny that people are doing something wrong.
So in this safe space of like-minded individuals, I will say–I have a great deal of respect for all of the families I work with. They regularly blow me away with their resourcefulness and resiliency.
But I kind of wanted to drop kick the woman who chose Nintendo Wii over band-aids.