The Forty-Seven Percent

Many years ago my three children and I were nearly homeless. Child support wasn’t coming and I was too sick to work. In addition, no jobs paid enough to pay child care for three children under five. We went from a two bedroom apartment to a temporary home in an old, unfinished, scarey basement. I searched for housing desperately, thinking at one time I had half a World War 11 hut where I couldn’t stand up straight except in the very center of the room and another time a tiny adobe house without heating. Both fell through and I cried from frustration and fear. Finally, we ended up on welfare and food stamps, and I was able to get an upstairs apartment in an old house. I began to work again, and with food stamps, our lives became more secure.

Years later I wrote a guest editorial for the Arizona Daily Star. It wasn’t published for some weeks, then I opened my paper on Easter Sunday and it was a lead editorial. In it I explained the circumstances under which my three children and I sunk into poverty and said that welfare assistance not only let us find a place to live, but seemed to save my sanity because I knew that at least my children would have shelter, food, and medical care. I was a much more effective mother when I was sure of those minimal conditions.

In the editorial I mentioned quickly that my children were adults now. One daughter is a family practice doctor who specializes in diabetes care, primarily for the under served; another daughter is a clerk of court in North Carolina; and my son is in IT management at the University of Sidney in Australia. They are all contributing to our social system, and my children and I have paid back in taxes the help we were given when they were small.

I also said it wasn’t necessary for children to end up being as productive as mine had been in order to make maintenance of a welfare-like system a moral and socially productive policy.

I got several supportive letters from people who read the essay. (This was before the wide spread use of the internet.) Then I also got what seemed like hate mail. They said, in effect, “You made your bed, you lie in it,” and that I was lazy, irresponsible, and generally had a view of myself as victim and entitled to other people’s money. The letters felt hot, like they were burning my hand. I wanted to say I am not lazy, that I have worked since I was ten, and that as a young woman I was as a responsible and a good mother as I could be.

All this resonates, of course, with Romney’s 47% speech. When he talked about people he wasn’t concerned with I pictured my children, the children of friends back then, and children I work with in a program for poor mothers. He just wrote them off.

I’ve been reading a book called, Why American Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy, by Martin Gilens. It was published in 1999, so, of course, he doesn’t have information from the Great Recession. But he has important things to say. He found that most Americans wanted to help the deserving poor, but what so angers people is the “perception that most people currently receiving welfare are undeserving. While no one factor can fully account for the public’s opposition to welfare, the most important single component is the widespread belief that most welfare recipients would rather sit home and collect benefits than work hard to support themselves.”

He also argues that “racial stereotypes play a central role in generating opposition to welfare in America. In particular, the centuries-old stereotype of blacks as lazy…” He says that politically motivated, cruel, and inaccurate stereotype has been reinforced by biased coverage of both black people and poor people in the popular press.” It certainly was reinforced when Reagan described the “welfare queen,” who received benefits from multiple identities. No such woman existed. The fact is that most people who receive what we call welfare do so only for a time and return to paid employment.

Hopefully, after the Recession, when so many people’s family members or friends have been out of work and partially dependent on food stamps, the characterization of them as moochers will be lessened. I hear real anger towards Romney in the 47% who know how hard they work.

The statistics are mentioned so often they almost fly away from us, but they are important. Nearly 22% of children living in the U.S. are in poverty. A higher percentage of American children are living in poverty today than in 1975. Median household incomes are falling. And “every day large numbers of American families get dumped out of the middle class and into poverty.” (12/12/11

Let’s hear it from the Forty-Seven Percent!

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