A friend of mine recently published an article in the Washington Post (This is what happened ...) about her experience using food stamps via the WIC program. Her decent into poverty was a swift one, and the image so vividly painted in the article is of her arriving to pick up WIC checks in a Mercedes. Her story has elicited a highly-charged response full of both criticism and praise but, at the core, it is a call for non-judgment. A reminder of how any one of us could have found ourselves in those shoes – and being poor does not come with an open invitation to criticize. You don’t know until you take the time to get to know.
The heart of her message is this:
“We didn’t deserve to be poor, any more than we deserved to be rich. Poverty is a circumstance, not a value judgment.”
What Cunha’s article did, for me, was to re-focus my thoughts on what I want to teach my children about poverty. I want them to understand that being poor is a place in time – a road someone walks – not a definition of a person. Some of us are afforded far more opportunities to exit that road than others based on our skin color, social status, access to education, and more. However, whether someone finds themselves in that position for few months or a lifetime, I want my children to understand that poor is a circumstance and not a personality trait.
I want to teach my children that we should help whenever we can. Not as some benevolent gift-givers from on high who descend up on the needy…but as neighbors, friends, brothers, and sisters. There is no “them” or “us” because we all could switch roles and easily find ourselves in a different position. Whatever it is that brings someone into poverty – whether it be birth, chance, health, economic downturn, or even poor choices and mistakes – none of are immune.
I, myself, have experience using WIC checks for years as a foster parent. Foster kids automatically qualify for food stamps, regardless of the foster parent’s income level, so yes, I often pulled up to my WIC appointments in my (newish) SUV and took the checks out of my (gifted) designer handbag at the check-out counter. I never experienced any of the judgment from people Cunha describes in her article. No stares from the other moms at the WIC office (we were all trying to wrangle our kids and check the task off our to-do list just the same) and no comments from shoppers behind me in line at the grocery. But what I did experience was a whole lot of judgment of myself. I had no reason in the world to feel bad about using WIC to support the children I had opened my home to, but I did. My experience of guilt, shame, and embarrassment reflected my internalized belief that poverty was something to be ashamed of.
That is where I need to begin when it comes to the message I’m passing down to my children. I need to be aware of the internalized feelings that have planted themselves in my psyche – you know, the ones that sound something like: “It is okay for other people to be poor and need assistance, but not for me.” As a gay woman, I bristle when I think about how close that statement is to: “It is okay for other people’s kids to be gay, but not for mine.” Recognition of our biases is the first step in eradicating them.
I know that it smacks of privilege simply to be able to teach my children about poverty, rather than having to live it, but acknowledgement and recognition are critical components of respect. And respect is where the message needs to begin, if I’m hoping to do my part in reversing a deeply entrenched cycle of judgement.