Thursday, March 9, 2017

Compassion or Enabling

Recently, I had someone tell me that requiring drug testing for welfare recipients was a human rights violation. The conversation that followed caused me to begin to ponder about the welfare system and its effect on the recipients.

I began to remember all the talk about "the War on Poverty" which was supposed to end all poverty in the U. S. The idea was that if people were poor all their financial needs (medical, food, housing) should be given to them with few or no strings until they could provide for themselves. The result was welfare checks which split families, removing the father from the household; food stamps which could be used (at first) to purchase anything a grocery store sold; and Medicaid which provided free health care. Interestingly, the number of successful "graduates" from the program is minimal.

Perhaps one of the most vocal "graduates" is Starr Parker who got off the system, got an education and now is a columnist. Her columns make more sense than any of the programs' ideas. She is very much opposed to the idea of lifelong recipients. She recognized the difference between compassion for the poor and the enabling of bad habits and poor life choices. Prior to reading her column, I had had only two encounters with the effects of our welfare system.

The first was the family of a student I taught years ago. He was one of six children in a single parent family. The mother had worked at night in a local restaurant until the father abandoned the family. Because two of the children were teenagers, she had quit her job to be at home to supervise her children. She was embarrassed that she was the only person in her family ever to have to accept welfare.

Her children were scrubbed within an inch of their lives, well mannered, always on time to school and always had their homework. She and her family participated for six years in a program our church provided for "striving poor." She made a garden every year, canning and drying food for the winter. Though they lived in a house with no running water and (when we first met) had no electricity; her children had grateful hearts. Her greatest fear was that her children would be "sucked into living like this." She need not have feared.

Years later, I encountered one of her daughters who updated me on the family. All six children and the mother were fully employed, buying their own homes (not one of the government programs which later sucked low income people into homes they could not afford), and active in food and clothing programs in their own churches. All had pursued post secondary training to equip them for the work world.

The second encounter with the effects of the welfare system was through a student I taught in a teacher education program. He already had a BS in social studies but had decided he wanted to teach. So, he had abandoned a very successful career as a professional bass fisherman to enter a post bac teacher preparation program. He was attending class at night and supporting himself with multiple part time jobs including being a substitute teacher. He was one of, if not the, most talented "natural" teacher I've ever known.

One evening he came to class visibly upset. When I opened up the class with my usual question: Does anyone have anything we need to deal with before we begin?

"I sure do!" he exclaimed. "You lied to us! You told us how wonderful teaching was but you didn't tell us how awful it can be!"

It turned out he had subbed in a math class that day. To make the lesson more interesting, he had combined the math skills into a real life application: the planning of a Super Bowl party. He had brought in the grocery sales sections from local stores. The premise he proposed was that each small group should use the papers to plan a party within a $25.00 budget. How many people could they invite? What could they afford to serve? How much would they need?

One young woman was totally disengaged with her group. When he tried to engage her, she informed him that she didn't need to know all this math stuff. He tried to coax her.

"When you're out of school and working, you will need this math to be sure your employer pays you correctly. You don't want people taking advantage of you."

"I don't have to worry about that stuff! I don't plan to go to work and, if somebody cheats me, I'll just tell the social worker and they'll go after them." He said her expression was smug and arrogant.

"If you don't work, how do you think you will eat?" he asked.

"Easy! First off, when I get me a baby, I get a check and housing and food stamps. I'll just stay home and watch my soaps. Then, anytime somebody messes with me, I just tell the social worker and they have all kind of ways of fixing it." He said she "positively sneered at me."

He told us, "I lost it. By that time, the whole class was paying close attention. I told her, 'Look around this room and point to the young man you think is dumb enough to give you a baby knowing his only value to you is as a stud.' Here I was trying to help her have a better life than her parents only to find out that's where she learned an alternative lifestyle that didn't value earning their way. Her dad had moved out so his wife and children could qualify for the welfare programs."

A few short months later, he left the program just months from graduation. He had lost the conviction that he could change lives.

Ms. Parker was my third encounter with the effects of the welfare system. She articulates a very convincing case that our War on Poverty programs are better examples of endenturement rather than compassion. She says they are "enabling" self-destructive behaviors.

As I once again pondered these things, I had to agree with Thomas Sowell (an incredible economics professor and columnist who worked his way up from poverty). He sees welfare programs as a modern day form of slavery. The government removes all adult responsibility from recipients, reinforcing negative self-image of themselves as dependent, incapable persons, destroying families and individuals alike.

Somehow, I can't convince myself that any of that is compassionate.

The first time I heard David Yeoman tell the "Booze Yacht" story, I knew I had found my heart's home in the Down East area of North Carolina. I grew up in Georgia (not my fault but my mother's migration) with a family of storytellers differing from liars in that their stories were real events that actually happened. All the older generation seemed to "own" a story and pity the poor soul who tried to retell a story they did not own!

If the owner of the story was present, the pretender was toast!

Everyone gathered round would drown them out with cries of, "That's Susie's story! Nobody tells that story like Susie!" And, of course, Susie was then obliged to retell her story. If Susie was not around, others could retell her story without being shouted down as a fraud if they introduced it with the proper respect. For example, "I know no one tells this story like Susie" or "I always loved to hear Susie tell the story about ......" (fill in the blank). Then, the story could be told to be best of the recounter's memory though woefully aware that he or she was not up to Susie's caliber.

In the winter, on Friday nights or Sunday afternoons, we would visit someone's home who had a fireplace. We would sit around the fire eating popcorn and drinking hot chocolate. Just the thought of that combination now makes my stomach rebel but, as a child, I thought it was great.

In warm weather, we gathered where there was a large porch (front or back, it didn't matter). If we were lucky, there would be churns of homemade ice cream. The alternative was someone's signature pie or cake. As with the stories, if you didn't "own" bragging rights to the pie or cake, you'd best not try to serve your attempt at one of these gatherings. There was no such thing as serving cookies.

The annual alternative to these gatherings was the family reunion...almost always held in August with "dinner on the ground." No one ever explained to me why the hottest month of the year was chosen for the family reunion which, quite often, was held at the Roe home place with dinner on the ground. For that one day, we were all one big happy family unless and until someone tried to "steal" another's story or recipe! The children had a choice on that one day of either listening to the storytellers or playing ball in the adjoining pasture.

On one such day, I remember asking (don't ask their names, I only saw them one day a year and at funerals!) why everybody sat around telling the same old stories every time they got together. I got two answers. The first was, "It's family history. You need to know it." When I protested, "But, we have albums for that" I was told, "Pictures fade. Memories don't." My IQ dropped about thirty points with that person because of the question and her face showed it! The second answer was, "When we were growing up, we were so poor, the only toys we could afford were words." I liked that answer.

Decades later, in my first year teaching, I was appalled to find that many of my fourth graders could not even sequence the events of that day let alone the events of a story they had been assigned for the night before. I was further appalled to find that many could not even make up a story of their own even with prompts!

I've noticed, over the years, that storytelling seems to be a regional thing. That came to my notice as I got a different response from friends north of Mason Dixon or west of the Mississippi. Their eyes glazed over as a story sprang forth from my lips. But, I also noticed that, if those same friends had a close relative from south of the Mason Dixon or east of the Big Muddy, they responded just like my mother's family.