Wednesday, 9 November 2016

2016 End of Year Diary, Part 1

It's been a long time since I've written on here. It's not for a lack of opinions, of course, or even for a lack of time, necessarily. Perhaps a lack of sufficient cohesion of thought to create something in this format that felt worth sharing. But that time is over. I haven't felt such focus in my life in a long time. This has been a challenging year for my two countries, the US and the UK. And now that we're through the big political events of the year, I really want to share a reflection on the year through the prism of one small family's experience.

 The thing I feel an urgency to discuss in Part 1 is not misogyny or racism or xenophobia or any of the seemingly million little bigotries that have gotten the big headlines. I most want to talk about social services. Not my usual lightning rod, but particularly in the last few days, I've seen some comments on the social media of friends and family that make it clear that there is more than just the usual grumbling about freeloaders and illegal immigrants. There is a catastrophically toxic resentment that, in a tax-paying political system, some of the money you earn helps people who need help. I mean a real, deep-down anger that some people need help. It's not anger that some people scam the welfare system or anger that some people get help while others go without (the old bugbear - illegals get TONS of welfare, but veterans get nothing - being a regular on this circuit) or even the anger that some people live comfortably (how dare they?) while also collecting welfare. It's anger that people need help. This anger leads almost inevitably to a division in people's minds of the deserving and the undeserving poor. But here's the thing: everyone deserves help when they need it, and everyone needs help sometimes.

 Here's the story of my family. Firstly, we are poor. That is information that I don't normally share, but I really feel like it's important for everyone to understand what poverty means in reality. Are we as poor as some people? No. Are we eating enough? Yes. Do we have a car and a place to live? Yes. But we are still poor. Sometimes, we are desperately poor.

 Some of the reasons we are poor are down to choices we've made: We have made specific choices about education and work that have probably cut into our ability to make as much money as others in the first place [I did a Master's degree that I didn't go on to use, Husband didn't finish his degree and switched careers immediately after I had a baby, I have chosen to work in creative industries where there isn't much money, etc.]. We have spent lots of money visiting family. We like buying books.

 Some of the reasons we are poor are down to dumb luck: I have terrible health problems that, as well as costing us money, have cut into my ability to work consistently or to progress in a career path. We had a baby who was born very prematurely and needed a different type of care at the beginning than a healthy baby. Both husband and I have lost good jobs. We rented a house next to a family with a domestic violence problem and had to move. We started our careers and family life together at the beginning of an historically horrendous financial crisis that the world has yet to recover from.

 So what does poverty for us mean. It means that we have had periods of homelessness where we have had to live with our parents because we couldn't afford to live on our own. It means we have lived in homes of our own that are drafty, moldy and smelly. It means we have decided for long stretches to only heat one room in the house and to spend all our time in there. It means that our weekly menu is carefully planned down to the last scrap to ensure we eat healthfully within a tiny budget. It means we almost never go out to eat or for a drink or to see a film or anything else that costs money to do. It means that we have never ever had a television hookup. It means we make almost all the Christmas gifts we give. It means we only buy new clothes when we absolutely have to. It means that we still make the same amount of dinner as we always have, but as our child grows bigger, we just eat less and let her have more. This is our everyday existence. It is not necessarily the same experience as others who are poor. It is ours. And it sounds a bit grim. And sometimes it is.

 But would you have known this about us if we didn't tell you? Some of it, perhaps. But the truth is, we get on cheerfully enough - we work as and when and how we can. We get the car fixed and pay the rent and buy the short dated food and don't complain about it (much). We own some nice things, bought during times of "plenty". We aren't what you see on television, people with nothing, including the wherewithal to change their circumstances, people with drug and alcohol problems, people trapped in an abuse cycle or whatever else you think being poor means. 

Here's more you should know: there have been times that we have relied on government money to see us through. We have applied for and received Job Seeker's Allowance, Social Security disability, money to pay our rent (housing benefit and council tax reduction) and buy food (WIC). We have relied on socialised medical care A LOT. Not just the NHS. When I had my kidney transplant in the US, I was covered by a combination of Medicare and Masshealth, and so was my donor and so was everyone who was tested to be my donor. This was because, in part, neither Husband nor I had a job that offered private health care. I, in fact, didn't have a job at all. We have had to use each of these social services at one time or another in order to just carry on with a sense of normalcy. Not luxury. Not indulgence. Not giddiness. Normalcy.

 And like virtually everyone else collecting welfare, we didn't enjoy it. It didn't feel nice, and it didn't feel like we were getting one over on anyone, and it didn't feel easy and full of loopholes to exploit, and it didn't feel like it was money for doing nothing. Every bit of it has been a dreadful ordeal, fraught with condescension, prejudice, anger, frustration, despair, tears and shame. There were times (several) that we opted NOT to bother because it was just too horrible to face it yet again. We aren't glad that we've relied on taxpayers (including ourselves, by the way!), and we aren't glad that we're poor. We just are.

 Here's the big thing that has kept us separate from the poverty porn you see on television. It's not that we're super smart with our money (though we aren't too shabby - we love a spreadsheet or 12). It's that we have some significant privilege backing us up. We both come from families with stable foundations. We grew up in modest comfort without wanting for pretty much anything. We had both our parents around and working. We've had good educations and a network of friends and family to point us to opportunities. We have had a place to go live when we couldn't afford our own place. We have had relatives who feed us whenever we visit and send us home with food and other presents. We have friends and family who treat our daughter so very well, who are generous with their time and love. This is where we are rich, and this is why our poverty is bearable and why we are able to carry on and find happiness in life in spite of the challenges we have faced and still face. We have needed help sometimes, and our friends and family have helped us. And so have perfect strangers. And in turn we try to help our friends and family and perfect strangers however we can. And we are happy to do so.

 When I see people on facebook cheering the idea of taking away public services for people in need, when I see them getting angry at people for taking assistance, I feel extremely sad. These services have flaws. And they should be constantly reviewed and tweaked and improved and toyed with to meet the requirements of those in need. They should forever be under discussion. But when these friends and family angrily complain that people don't deserve this assistance, I want to tell them that they are talking about me. They are saying I don't deserve to provide a home for my family or to feed my family nutritious food. I don't deserve to have my transplanted kidney or the lifetime of drugs required to keep it going. I didn't deserve a spot in the NICU for my baby, and she doesn't deserve a spot at a safe and decent school. We as a family don't deserve the chance of normalcy. But we do. We all do. And sometimes we, all of us in the world, need help to achieve just that most basic threshold: normalcy.