Taking off my mask…nope I am not like you at all: Updated for a Trump World

This original post ran in June 2011 on the blog; it’s the type of deeply personal piece I hesitate to share anymore in this space. Yet, as I heard about Trump’s proposed budget plan, I was reminded of my own childhood. Working-class in a good year and downright poor in a bad year. The availability of arts programming in the schools and community are what made the difference in my life and opened up a world where I could dare to dream and do more. For many years, I was ashamed of my upbringing but I also know that my parents did the best that they could and I now understand that for my father, as one of 16 kids born in rural Arkansas, he was fighting a losing a battle. However, my parents managed to raise two kids with a little help who have both gone on to give back far more than we took (to use the language of the GOP). Poverty has a face and as someone who was able to move out of poverty, I have never forgotten where I came from. And now that I have a voice, I will use it to help anyone that I can. In this case, my thoughts are with our truly vulnerable who will truly suffer under the Trump regime.
————————————————————-
I have a secret to share with you. Of course, the fact that I am putting it on this very public blog means it will no longer be a secret, but that is okay. I go through most of my days feeling like a fraud, a fake, an impostor. Oh, on the surface I look like your average college-educated middle-class person (do they really even exist anymore? Or is that the lie we tell ourselves because we can’t stand the idea that we are no longer in the middle but we didn’t rise to the top?). I have a job where to a large degree I have total autonomy, I live in a reasonable-sized home, have access to a car that is not a jalopy. That’s the sort of shit we see and assume that means folks are fine. Really, that is quite silly. In this economy there are people driving nice cars, hoping and praying the repo man doesn’t show up and who are crossing fingers and toes they can get their home loans modified. Yet, when we see these folks, we have no idea and again assume they are like us.

In the past week or so, there have been several instances both in my day-to-day offline life as well as my online life where it was assumed I was just like everyone else. In one instance, I actually had someone try to explain to me the lives of the poor; I nearly laughed but instead wore my mask of the middle class all the time feeling my guts churning and temper rising.

See, I may not emphasize it a great deal on this blog though I have shared this in the past, but I grew up poor. If it was a good year we were working class but really we were poor. Oh, my parents being young turned it into a fun game, but looking back, there is no mistaking the fact that we were poor. I am talking getting vittles at the food pantry poor; shit, I have only fairly recently started eating English muffins. Why? Because there was a period of time when I was a kid we ate a lot of them because that is what the pantry gave us. There was also the time the pantry gave us chocolate syrup and my folks scraped up enough cash to buy some ice cream so we could have a treat, only to discover that the chocolate syrup had expired (chocolate syrup gone bad has a smell you never forget). I can assure you in the 25 years since that incident I still remember it clear as day.

I also remember when we lost our apartment and moved into a homeless shelter for six months. It was transitional shelter run by Catholic Charities and two nuns who I imagine are long gone. I remember group meals with a host of characters and “shopping” for clothes from the donations that came in. Yeah, I am a card-carrying member of the Grew Up Poor Club and those lessons don’t ever leave you. I know another fellow blogger and Maine resident who had a similar upbringing and believe me, no matter how far away you are from that grinding poverty, it colors your life. Hell, I only recently stopped hoarding food though I will always buy toilet paper in bulk as I never ever want to have to wipe my ass with newspaper or scraps again.

That said, I must admit the level of classicism and assumptions that I see in my day-to-day life sometimes make me want to scream. I recently read this piece and it’s funny because while on paper I am squarely middle class. Never mind I am going bankrupt and my personal net worth is like negative two hundred thousand dollars plus but, because I present as a middle-class person, that is what I am treated like. The fact is in my personal financial life I am very much like the Cracked piece in part because when you do grow up and break free from the poverty it travels with you and you never quite leave it behind.

In my case I did finally make it to college, but I graduated with a shitload of debt and not nearly as much social capital as I really needed to advance my career. Turns out moving to Maine despite the low-paying gigs did a lot more for me professionally than I would have expected. It’s a lot easier to connect with folks when you live in a state with a small population. I truly doubt I would have landed my first Executive Director position at 31 had I stayed in Chicago since I didn’t have social capital. Yet in Maine, to some degree I got a do-over, and its been helpful yet most of us don’t get a do-over in this highly rigged game called life.

Here let me do a quick bit more updating than I did at the start. Like I said, the piece above appeared in 2011 and what appears above has pretty much only been updated for punctuation and grammar. But in the time it was written and the years before and shortly after, I worked with kids from poor (mostly white) families and I worked with old people (mostly white and with few or no family assistance or personal resources). As Trump plans to cut things like Meals On Wheels (which feeds the poor and housebound elderly) and as his cronies talk about how school meal programs don’t help kids (I know different from providing snacks in an afterschool program where kids sometimes missed many…or most meals at home due to poverty)…what he and his people say are lies. These kinds of programs aren’t dragging the country down. Maybe corporate subsidies and wars and the Defense Department play a role…not to mention huge tax breaks for the rich…but programs that feel the needy aren’t our problem. And if you think they are, YOU’RE the problem.
————————————————————–
If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

Who’s the real scammer?

From a brief glance it would be easy to assume that the economic catastrophe of 2008 is nothing but a distant memory, a bad dream that we have all recovered from. After all, the stock market is up, business profits are up, CEO’s are taking home ginormous bonuses and it seems every man, woman and child in America is walking around the either the latest iPhone or a tablet computer. Clearly we are all basking in the joys of economic stability or maybe it’s all an illusion?

I work in social services, granted as the executive director I do a lot less working with people than I used to. But I still analyze the data and talk to professional colleagues and the one thing we all agree on is that things aren’t getting better. We are all continuing to see staggering numbers of people in need of essentials such as food, shelter and childcare. (sometimes even school supplies, coats and shoes too) The spigot was turned on in 2008 and frankly the basin is overflowing with people in need. At my agency, I am facing record growth which if I were the CEO of a profit making venture would be awesome but in my line of work, record growth means I spend a lot of time making hard decisions since record growth doesn’t mean record revenue to meet the needs of that record growth but that is an entirely different post.

What I am seeing more and more of is stories like this, national publications are actually starting to take notice of those folks that I have been talking about since 2009-the formerly middle class. Folks who might look a lot like you; they used to own the house, two cars, and a few fancy gadgets and even had a nest egg. Many of those folks are now living in ways they never dreamed of, mired in the hardscrabble new world of poverty. They often still cling to their middle class fantasies and dreams that they will turn their ships around but make no mistake, once you have entered a world of living in the pay by the week hotels and frequenting food pantries, your odds of taking the elevator back to the middle class are only slightly better than a winning Powerball ticket. Especially in this brave new world where permanent well-paying employment opportunities elude even the college educated. This brave new world is a place where we are all the captains of our fate, using fancy euphemisms to hide the fact that we lack the stability that was the norm only a generation ago. Consulting, freelancing, self-employed are all valid options but too many of us aren’t doing these things because we want to, we are doing them because they are our only opportunities for employment. After all, some money beats no money.

Funny thing is that despite this economic tsunami and its victims, we Americans are a proud lot; refusing to accept that the jobs are gone and that going out and getting a job is a lot easier said than done. Instead we turn on one another and destroy our own, lashing out at the man down the street who decides to apply for permanent disability status which will ensure him a permanent though meager paycheck, access to healthcare via the government funded Medicaid program and access to subsidized housing rather than continue to suffer the indignities of a job search that is futile.

We eat our own for lunch and feel disgust for the moochers and the scammers, eager to cut people off from the dribs and drabs of the economic safety net rather than turning our anger on the corporate overlords who truly own our asses and have made us their wage slaves. But hey who’s the moocher?

 

Ending Childhood Hunger or not…thoughts from the frontlines

Like many people, I have a complicated relationship with food. Our relationship for the past decade has been especially tenuous as I have worked hard to unlearn a lifetime of bad eating habits and adjust to the metabolism that I really have and not the one I wish I had. As a result, I buy very little of my food at the grocery store instead opting to buy as much as possible at the local farmers market and direct from local farmers. As much as I would prefer to nosh on unlimited bags of Ruffles Sour Cream and Cheddar Chips and follow it up with swigs of ice cold RC, I know that such eating habits simply don’t work for me. However I am still a work in progress when it comes to food. Of course having an extremely picky eater keeps me humble when it comes to food since her list of what she won’t eat is three times longer than what she will eat. Whenever there is a food that she likes to eat, and will really eat it, I pretty much go with the flow.  I just keep reminding myself that my 21yo vegetarian son used to be the king of ham and chicken wings before he adjusted his views on food several years ago.

In addition to having my own issues with food, I am one of those rare people who literally sees food insecurity daily in my professional life. Currently at the agency I run, 95% of the kids registered in our programs come from food insecure households and on any given day upwards of 20% of the kids that drop into our programs, will not be going home to eat dinner because there is no dinner available to eat.

I started my social services career over 15 years ago in a program that offered meals to women in need and as hard as it was to see adults without food, I struggle deeply seeing so many kids going without. Kids in our center talk as casually about eating at the local soup kitchen with their families as middle class kids speak about the newest apps on their iPads.

Maybe it’s because of my professional background that my interest was piqued when I saw the hashtag #endchildHunger and #ConAgra a few days ago on Twitter. From what I gather there was a conference and attendees were asked to spread awareness about the issue of child hunger and apparently ConAgra would be donating resources to end child hunger. In theory this sounds great and many well-meaning folks were doing their part to spread the word…after all no one wants to think of hungry kids.

The problem is that ConAgra is not exactly going to end childhood hunger and if in this current US economy the idea of childhood hunger is not something you have heard about it, it’s because your head has been in the sand. Food stamp use has been up and while the economy is slowly turning around, for the millions of folks that were already close to the bottom of the economic ladder this supposed growth is about as real as unicorns.

ConAgra partners with Feeding America which is the largest hunger relief charity in the US and they do awesome work. They have a lot of great programs; some that I have worked with directly through my work and they make a huge difference in the lives of a lot of kids. They are also a supplier to a fair number of food banks in the US.

So what is the problem you may ask? ConAgra is helping out Feeding America and Feeding America is helping feed folks including kids, so how are they not ending child hunger? See, this is where it gets tricky. In most communities no matter how small they are in the US, there is a local food pantry. A place where people can get a bag or two of food if they have nothing to eat. In theory, the food pantry in your community should be able to get food from the food bank in your area but in many cases that is not the case. Ever notice how food pantries often have food drives? See, the reason they are asking people to donate food is because they can’t afford to buy the food from the food bank. Here in Maine, the food bank is Good Shepherd and if you run a food pantry, if you want to get food from that food bank that is getting support indirectly through ConAgra you have to pay. No money means no food for the hungry people in your town including those hungry kids that Con Agra is using social media to say they will be supporting.

Now I knew from my 1st job back in Chicago a lifetime ago that feeding programs that used the food banks had to pay. Actually part of my job at that agency was overseeing our meal program so I knew there was a cost. However at that time I worked at an agency in Chicago, which is only the 3rd largest city in the US at an agency that had a million dollar plus budget. So for us buying the food was a no brainer and affordable.

I didn’t learn until almost 5 years ago when I took over as the head of a small agency in a rural state that the economics of using the food bank means being poor and hungry in rural America sucks balls. In the county I work in, many agencies use a food rescue service (yep, its exactly what it sounds like) rather than the state’s lone food bank because they cannot afford to pay the food bank for food to give to people who cannot afford to buy groceries at the grocery store. In many small towns and villages in the US, the local food pantry is a volunteer run affair often operating in donated space with donated food and a shit load of good will.

When I learned a few years ago just how skewed social services are in rural states, it was a wake-up call for me. It meant unlearning much of what I understood about poverty and reframing it in a rural framework. In this case, if ConAgra were making direct donations and contributions to small pantry operators across the nation rather than the food bank network that exists through Feeding America, I would say hell yeah they are ending child hunger. The truth is they are nothing more than a band aid solution to ending child hunger on a wide scale in a social services system that favors larger agencies over smaller ones despite the fact that in many communities it’s the small agencies working tirelessly to meet needs in locations that sometimes are untouched by the larger agencies.

Am I saying ConAgra is evil? Not really, though I prefer to buy my food directly from folks who if there are problems with my food, I know where they live. I will say though that campaigns such End Childhood Hunger are not being as honest as they can be and that is what bothers me. Because the sad reality is even in the helping word much like the corporate world, the large folks are the winners. How many resources were spent on a campaign to increase awareness when those same resources could have actually fed folks?

 

PS: If you want to make a difference, donate directly to the food pantries in your community. Call them and ask them what they need, and if you have the means donate often. Real change only requires real people making a difference.