Dear Ten Year Old Child Who Shook My Fence in Frustration,
This summer, you were on the small hill next to our front yard, looking at our car, our house, our garden. There was some contrast: your great aunt is renting a house next to ours. We own our house free and clear. Your great aunt works in a department store; her position is easily filled by another and somewhat precarious. My husband has worked for the same company for 36 years and they wonder how they would get along without his skills. Our car, although 15 years old, is well maintained. Your great aunt drives a 21 year old car that may die at any time. And as I well know, renters cannot really establish a garden.
Not all of these things are different because you are black and I am white. Some, but not all. You shook our fence, angrily, in frustration, tears in your eyes. In case any of that was about the contrast between our homes, I want to cry with you ,too, and offer you whatever help I can.
As I understand it, racial prejudice is real and much harsher than the prejudice I ran into working as a woman in a primarily male field. My daughter-in-law is a woman of color, and she says that if you’re a woman, they can treat you like a child. But if you’re black, they can treat you like a thing, like a problem that needs to be solved. I get that. (I see you as a person, by the way – a person that God made and loves, same as me. Everything I write here I write as a Christian and a mother who wants all of God’s children to thrive and succeed. )
There are things you can do to make your life better, and lots of people who want to help you be the person you want to be. But there are forces in your way. I get that, too. You’re poor. What you may not realize is that I’ve been poor: gut wrenching, one-step-from-homeless poor. Wash your clothes in the bathtub because you cannot afford the quarters for the washing machine poor. Denial of water service and no money for oil to heat the house poor. Choosing between rent and necessary medicine poor. Food bank poor. $2 for two kids to buy all my Christmas gifts poor. Living on oatmeal, saving up for six months to buy a 99¢ container of chili powder poor. Even our shoes and underwear came from thrift stores after my ex left me and my sons.
I wish I could talk to you, and tell you that, yes, government programs can be a nice stepping stone, but such programs won’t give you your dignity, ever. What worked for me might work for you, so I am going to try and share.
Where I seem to disagree with the common wisdom is that I do not think that a handout is more than a stopgap measure. I’m 58, and during my lifetime I’ve seen poverty get worse for most people trapped in that cycle. I’ve also seen some exceptions, where people broke out of poverty. They all had these things in common.
Employment and Education. First of all—and I wish someone had told me this when I was a youngster—they understood that a business can only afford to hire you if you make them more money than you cost them. You have to add value. How can you add value? Well, first of all, prove you can finish tasks. A high school diploma does that; it tells potential employers that you finished something important. If you’re in a bad inner city school get a GED, since it sends the same message.
As to where you can add value, what are you good at, what do you love? Employers love people who are enthusiastic about their work, where it’s not just a paycheck to them. Don’t spend money on college if a trade school is where your heart is. In fact, unless you see a job with a shortage, don’t consider college at all. My husband has technical certifications & licenses instead. Those are cheaper and require you to keep up in your field, which means more job security.
I went to college, but I found a career no one else wanted to do that required it, in a field that had a shortage of workers. Then I tailored my studies toward that career . . . while raising three kids as a single mom and working a full and part time job. It’s a good thing I loved what I chose to do with my life because it gave me the energy to handle all that.
Government Programs are Not Your Only Recourse. Yes, I had subsidized after-school childcare, but no food stamps or help with the rent or any of that. I’m not saying I would have turned down more help if they offered it, but all I can tell you is what happened to me. Most of the help I got was from private agencies: F.E.G.G.S. helped, that;s a Jewish charity that works with single moms (I am not Jewish); Catholic Charities helped (I am not Catholic, either), and I had a church that had a food pantry and other mothers who shared hand-me-downs. A thrift store helped me with clothes and toys for the kids, too. And these private agencies did not make me jump through hoops via some bored, impersonal government bureaucrat who treated me like dirt. They treated me like a person. The government agencies I applied to would have stripped me of my dignity; had I qualified, the support was not enough to live on and I would have had to lie about other sources of income, money from doing childcare or cleaning houses off the books. I would have had to lie every month. Where is the dignity in that?
Be a Father and Husband. Your great aunt is supporting her mother, her daughter, her daughter’s baby, and her teen grandson. I had to support three children. Part of why she is poor and I was poor is that the menfolk are not being fathers. I don’t know what your great aunt’s story is, but too often the menfolk walk away and let “the government” provide for their wives and kids. The government is a lousy provider.
I’m not saying there are not times you have to walk away from a bad marriage, but stay if you at all can. Those who I’ve seen rise out of poverty treated marriage as a commitment of their will, and they did not expect the first feelings of love to flutter in their hearts for all eternity. They grew up rather than chasing feelings. Don’t buy the Disney lie that the right person will “make you happy,” and don’t marry a gal that believes you can make her happy, either. No one else can make you happy but you. If you want to avoid poverty, find a frugal woman and stay married to her. Your kids will need you. And you’ll discover you need them, too. The hell with all the songs and movies and stuff that either tell you to go out and party pr have sex with no consequences. You want out of poverty? Be a man.
Avoid Debt. Not all white people have money. Most of those on welfare, in fact, are single white mothers (see “be a man,” above. It applies to white folks, too.) I’ve been unemployed for four years now. The only reason we are at all comfortable is that we live within our means. I mean, if we have to eat beans and cannot afford meat, we do not put the meat on credit. Signing up for any kind of credit is walking into slavery: the credit card company or the bank ends up owning you.
So what if you bring your lunch or dinner from home when others eat at Mickey D’s? So what if your clothes are not the latest thing? So what if they “ go out” and you stay home? (and don’t even get me started on the wastes of money that are drugs and booze and cigs.) So what if your place is small and your car is old but serviceable? So what if most of your furniture comes from relatives ,thrift stores or garage sales? Learn to care more about what your bank account looks like that what your friends, family, and neighbors think. Financial security is freedom.
Learn how to make and fix things. I used to change my own spark plugs, back when cars needed that much more often, and change my own oil. I sew and mend things, I repair an awful lot of stuff with just a glue gun, and I learned how to make my own things like bookshelves. Paint makes old walls and furniture look new. My husband learned to fix his own computers and other devices – off the internet—and if you do not have internet there is always the internet at the library to look up how to do things. You can do more than you think you can, and it’s deeply satisfying to save money.
One of the biggest places to save money making things is to learn cook at home. Many easy things to cook take as much time as a trip to a fast food restaurant, and are usually much cheaper than in a restaurant. And you can control how much salt and fat go into homemade meals. Think about it: which of the following deals makes more sense? 1. Buy twelve egg sandwiches with coffee at a restaurant for $2 each? (total, $24) or 2. Make 12 egg sandwiches with coffee at home for $8, total. That $2 breakfast special doesn’t look so special when you realize how much cheaper it is at home, does it? Or how about this: 1. A fast food special bucket of chicken with two sides (let’s call them mashed potatoes with gravy and cole slaw or green beans) and a 2L drink is $20, and although they say it feeds eight you’ll be lucky to feed six. 2. The same amount of chicken, with double the sides, is $8 made at home.
Be content with what you have. Can you name all of the ten commandments? One of them a lot of people forget is “Thou shalt not covet.” Covet is an old-fashioned word for want, as in wanting what others have. It is perfectly okay to want to earn your own way, but being envious and dissatisfied is a sure ticket to unhappiness. And, yeah, I know you are fighting an uphill battle regarding race sometimes. Coveting what others have is not going to help you win that battle, and it has NEVER helped anyone I know climb out of poverty, white or black. That’s what’s wrong with liberation theology: some churches preach that income inequality is the greatest evil, but they are forgetting something. It involves a quote a lot of people get wrong that really bugs me, because it is so important to get it right. Money is not the root of all evil, the love of money is. And you do not have to have money to covet it. Many poor people love money (or looking like they have money) more than the richest people in the world. It can make them do incredibly wrong things. People are more important than things. You’re more important.
So anyhow, kid, I offered your cousin, the teen your great aunt is raising, a part time summer job, and we let him use our internet for school until they could afford their own. We helped your great aunt when she had a problem with the water company, and we fixed her daughters computer. You’ve never been inside our house, but we furnished the place with hand-me-downs, garage sale and thrift store items, hand-sewn things, and love. If you ever need help with a school report, I’m pretty good at English, and if you need help with math or science, my husband is great at those. These are things I have some control over. Don’t shake our fence in frustration and tears about the inequalities. Lets break down the fences, the walls. We are all God’s kids.
We love your cousin and your great aunt, and you. We want to get to know you. It’s not just who you know in the white-dominated world, don’t let your friends tell you that. It’s who you are. You look like a pretty cool kid and there are lots of people, black and white, who want you to succeed. I’m one of them.
Your neighbor, the gardening lady.