Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Solution to American Poverty

“The war on poverty has been a complete catastrophe because welfare discourages work and sabotages marriage,” Rector said. “And what you need to do is fix those problems.”  - Robert Rector via BuzzFeed

Ten years ago, I was tapping these keys, combing data and writing reports that not many people read, but that could be distilled quickly and easily into a pithy sound-bite. "Think in sound-bites, Shannan." That's what my favorite boss used to tell me.

Back then, I sat in a cubicle in my Banana Republic separates and did my best to hide from the Scholars closing in around me. They were all so much smarter than I felt, far wiser and savvier, their shoes infinitely shinier.

In the afternoons, small groups of us would lunch in a tucked-away cafe on Capital Hill. Then we'd sit in meetings with Congressmen/women and government officials. We'd roll out the red carpets for them and feel so validated when they sipped our right-wing drinking water in their Brooks Brothers ties and seersucker suits.

We told them about the solutions to American poverty and the stats fell from our lips like air kisses. Marriage is the greatest key to reducing child poverty. Recipients of government assistance should be required to work.

Ten years later, I can't argue with any of that.

In a perfect world, every person would have access to gainful employment and every Baby Mama would be a wife.

The problem is, I know names now. The whole (airquotes) poverty issue isn't hypothetical or theoretical anymore, and it can't be squashed with a mouthful of social science jargon.

The problem is, I know a girl with long, brown hair. Her wariness of the world coupled with her deepest desires to create stability and cobble together a make-shift family cost her her children. I know right this minute, her mama is bundled up in a camper at the back of someone's lot. Her dad is long-gone. I know the roots of generational poverty coil up and around her family tree, taking on a positively viney appearance. She doesn't see the vines as a problem. She doesn't see them at all. They're simply part of the landscape, green-on-green, so all-encompassing and eternal as to be rendered invisible.

I know she sat in jail for half a year for a crime that wasn't hers and I know every time I saw her there, I felt the thrum of hopeful humanity reverberate from her to me through that tiny screen. I know she was too shy to ask for much, but when I pressed her, her request was a bra. I couldn't fathom she had already gone months without one.

She hooted and hollered when she walked out of that jail, shackled for 12 more months with an ankle bracelet but very sure life was taking a hard turn toward sun on her face and cloudless skies.

But I know she has lived in upheaval, chaos, and abuse since that day.
I know she has been hungry. I know she has almost given up.

Years ago, the solution was so simple - just find a job.

But my friend has no high school diploma (this wasn't valued in the fabric of her upbringing), a criminal record, and no transportation.

(Having walked a very similar road with my oldest son, I know applications say a felony conviction won't preclude you from employment, but I also know when pressed (as they were by my husband) they will admit they simply "throw those away".)

The light is peeking into the end of the tunnel for my sweet-smiling friend. In just over a month, the ankle bracelet comes off, but her children are a state away, and she can't get to them until she pays her home detention fees, to the tune of nearly $2,000.

There have been more moments than I can count in the past two years when Cory and I have been left fumbling with our heads hanging low, vicariously feeling the slow crush of a system that works against the poor. The most recent moment was when this friend of ours finally secured a job interview at McDonald's, only to be told 1) she needed a very specific interview uniform and 2) there was no guarantee of a job, given her criminal record.

This girl is beyond poor. She left jail without a single possession. She's been destitute and struggling since that day, leverage God-knows-what for a roof over her head, proud in a way we can't comprehend that "at least I'm not in a shelter".

After months of searching for a job within walking distance, this was it.

The "very specific uniform" was rounded up and I lost half a day inside my head, the minutes and hours blurring past as I begged God for a break and pleaded him to show her he's so much larger than all our crap and the mistakes we've made.

She got the job.

It'll be a couple weeks until she's paid and the food smells so good while she's working, but she doesn't have a penny to her name. Her walk to work is dark and cold, but she's smiling in her non-slip shoes and I promise you, you'd buzz through her drive-thru every single day if you knew it'd be her smile at the window.

We drop off gloves and the fleece scarf I bought 12 years back. We drop off granola bars, a loaf of bread, peanut butter, because she happens to live with oppressors, who view nothing as belonging to her and are quick to assure her she owes them the world.

Peanut butter isn't exactly a standard of excellence as far as gifts are concerned, but it feels particularly paltry right about now.

So we pray for God to turn her water into wine and remind ourselves that she is his prized lily of the field, the very singular reason his blood was spilled.

We thank him one hundred times a day for the grace of McDonald's.

All the while, political rhetoric rumbles, and sometimes the intentions are even good.

It doesn't matter. There's a reason both sides of our government will continue to bicker over the shortest road to a turn-around, there's a reason they'll both keep failing.

They do not know the names. Not really, and often, not at all.

If our hope dangles on a spindly thread of political best practices, it's time to shear it off.
If we find ourselves caught up in the puppet-string politics where society's easiest targets dance on demand, a jazzy chorus line to our real concerns, let's remember God's kingdom is theirs and the responsibility to right their wrongs was handed straight to us.

I could line a city block with potential husbands for this friend of mine, but her judgment in men proves faulty and all she knows of love is that it leaves, often taking the best of her with it.

I could dangle her fast-food job like a carrot in front of her so she keeps on trucking, but her kids will grow in inches and lose baby teeth while she works the fryer, their memories of her unfurling with its smoke.

A husband and a job - those quick-witted words, though perhaps technically true, are no more than marbles in my mouth now. They get in the way of real action and garble my American sensibilities.

God entrusted the poor to you and me. Not to a ballot or a platform or a piece of whip-smart legislation.

He gave them to us because we're actual humans with lives, families, problems and worldviews, in the unique position to learn their names, make them our own and love them straight into the arms of their fixer.