This subject comes up from time to time so I thought I’d address it. I believe public assistance programs are good, and unfortunately increasingly necessary. They are a sign of an enlightened people and government because as we can all see quite clearly in these days of vast income inequality and shifting / decreasing job opportunities, there are many members of our society who need help. I also believe that people who cavalierly suggest one ought to accept public assistance have either been poor their entire lives and know no other way, or have never been and never expect to be poor.
My own attitude towards public assistance is colored by a period of poverty I experienced as a youth. It was a painful and humiliating time and some of my experiences then continue to have a lasting impact upon me now. I’m very grateful, for instance, that the school systems have changed and that my children can input their student id number in the cafeteria and the person behind them in line has no way of knowing whether their account was funded by mom or the free lunch program. They escape the taunts and shunning I experienced. Poor is not cool in high school.
I am well aware that there are many hardworking, deserving, good people on public assistance. I am also aware that society at large entertains many stereotypes about these people. I have gone through the checkout counter at the grocery store, fairly oblivious to what the person in front of me was purchasing or the means they used to buy it, only to have the chatty (catty) clerk confide in me when it got to be my turn that she didn’t think food stamp recipients should be allowed to buy cookies and soda pop.
For myself – and I’m only saying this for myself (please if you are on assistance do not take this as a criticism, everyone’s situation and experiences are different) – I believe that if I accepted government assistance (and here I should say ‘additional’ government assistance as I have enrolled the kids in Medi-Cal) I would feel like I was giving up. It is important to me to be as self-reliant as possible. After I was laid off initially (due to lack of work relating to the downturn in the construction industry) I received an unemployment insurance check. It made life easier – it was tight but I knew we could make ends meet. That insurance was paid into by my employers as a result of my employment with them – so in part because of my work. After my second lay-off I was no longer eligible for unemployment and could have applied for some sort of additional assistance. And it might have made things easier but I’m not certain that I would have been as focused on job hunting, on finding and creating opportunities for myself, on examining my skills and how they could be marketed and learning new things.
I have worked hard to make money as a freelance worker. It’s more difficult than just job hunting! I have to really actively work to bring in work. I’ve done archaeological surveys, commercial writing, edited scholarly papers and a book, done proof-reading, and even taken on the job of producing a newsletter for a non-profit. This latter project was complicated and required I learn an entirely new set of software – an undertaking that took many more hours than expected and for which I had to seek out help. If I were receiving public assistance I suspect I would have passed on that project! If I were receiving public assistance I don’t think I’d be motivated to pull us out of here and attempt to make a new beginning for us.
As far as asking for donations – it is a rare occasion that I actively solicit donations. Clearly donations are not required and no one should feel compelled to donate, especially if it makes them feel uncomfortable! It’s your choice. Personally I enjoy helping people – especially people I feel I know or with whom I feel a connection of some sort. I get more pleasure out of it than I do sending a check to a charity. Our family motto is, loosely stated, ‘if you see someone in need and can help, do so.’ I was brought up to be compassionate and involved and my children are learning the same lesson. Even in our straightened circumstances we enjoy lending a hand or helping someone out when we can.
We have – lent money to our neighbors when they were a little short and we had a little extra; picked up an extra box of food at the food pantry and taken it to our homeless friend Ben because he doesn’t have a car; given his wife Tricia rides to her doctor’s appointment or taken them shopping (before her demise last fall); stopped for a mom and her kids standing next to their broken down car and assisted her in getting some help; rescued a dog running scared in a 4-lane roadway and took him to the vet’s office listed on his rabies tag where they were able to reunite him with his owner and given a woman who just missed the bus in the pouring rain a ride to her job. I get a kick out of doing these things!
I believe my children are learning an important lesson and will be compassionate and caring adults and that those traits will extend beyond the people in their immediate circle to the greater world. They are also aware that we have people who might not ‘know’ us, who have never met us, but who care about us and lend a helping hand from time to time. So they get to learn about gratitude as well and I don’t think getting a check from the government would have the same effect. We are deeply appreciative of our friends and readers who reach out to us – sending work my way, buying cat beds, sending words of encouragement, keeping us in their thoughts and prayers and yes, sometimes sending us a donation. In the words of my teenager – you rock!