Inner City Blues

Earlier this week, I participated in a discussion that really unnerved me. The discussion revolved around comments that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie made regarding the American people. As other members of the forum chimed in and agreed with Governor Christie, slamming entitlements and vilifying those who received them as lazy, I could feel my blood begin to boil. I kept my emotions in check though, and asked myself why such comments had the ability to affect me. The answer was simple: I can’t let her go.

In my thirty-plus years of existence on this planet, my life has taken interesting turns. But regardless of the changes there is someone who remains with me. From the AP classrooms of my public school to corporate America to the plains of Northern Tanzania, a little girl has come with me. She is a little girl who came of age on the wrong side of the tracks. She is a little girl who used to pray that her classmates wouldn’t see her at the store as she bought her groceries with food stamps. She is a little girl who shared a one-bedroom 650 sq. foot apartment with her grandmother. She is a little girl who bit her lip in dismay every year as she did her back to school shopping at Kmart. She is a little girl standing with her Grandma at the local welfare office,filling out the applications and explaining them to her Grandma. She is the little girl sitting next to her Grandma during her annual reviews, mute with rage as the case worker berated her Grandma spoke to her with utter disrespect and condescension. That little girl was me.

My life did not start out this way. Prior to age ten I had little dealings with “the system”. My Mama had done everything the “right way”. Within days of graduating high school she joined the military and married my father, who had joined the Marines. I was born within the bounds of wedlock to parents who were employed full-time in stable careers. By the time I was two years old they would divorce and my Mama would have full custody of me. And though she was a single parent, I never wanted for anything. On the contrary, my early years were quite idyllic, as my Mom took care of everything that I needed. But later events would shatter that life. When my Mom fell prey to drug addiction and her second marriage fell apart, that sent all of us into an unknown world. My Grandma would become my guardian and was eligible to receive welfare benefits on my behalf.

There is a serious misconception regarding the nature of public assistance in the United States. President Ronald Reagan’s myth of the welfare queen has proven to be the gift that keeps on giving. When people hear “welfare”, “government assistance” or “benefits”, they tend to picture pot-bellied, slovenly people spread out on their sofas, flipping channels as they pop bon-bons in their mouth on the taxpayer’s dime. This  misconception is so far from the truth that it makes me want to laugh and cry.

There was nothing luxurious about my life as a child in a household that received welfare. To care for me, my state gave my Grandma a whopping $342.50 per month. This amount stayed the same for the eight years that my Grandma received benefits. Even if one was so inclined, it is not possible to live like a baller on less than $500 a month. And we did not. There was never a day where we splurged or spent frivolously in my household. There was never a day when my Grandma told me to always expect such assistance. On the contrary, she constantly preached to me pf the necessity of going to college and working as soon as I was old enough to do so. And at sixteen years old I got my first job. With the exception of my daughters early years, I’ve spent the majority of my adult life in the workforce.

The life that I live now is quite different. The inner city that shaped my adolescence is a memory, as I now live in the suburbs. And though I find myself in a position quite similar to that of my Mom when she was young-divorced and rasing a daughter with absolutely no input or assistance from my ex-husband-I am doing it all without benefits. I do not receive food stamps, welfare, child support, housing subsidies or assistance of any kind, as I’m fortunate enough to have a full-time job that allows me to take care of my family’s needs. But I absolutely refuse to look down upon or condemn those who may not be in the same position that I am, who are unable to provide adequate food and shelter for themselves and their families. My life has changed, but the little girl inside me keeps me from looking down upon others and gives me compassion for them. I will never forget where I came from.

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A native Seattleite and recent East Coast transplant, I have been interested in politics, religion, and race from the day I saw “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” on the bookshelf belonging to my BFF’s mom back in 1991. While my zealotry has thankfully diminished with maturity, I remain the deep thinking, passionate, and humble woman I have always been. I reside in the suburbs of NYC with my husband, daughter, and our two feisty but deeply loved cats.

9 thoughts on “Inner City Blues

  1. What an incredibly moving post! Thank you so much for being so emotionally transparent, Danielle. I will say this, though: Most people who comment on public assistance have never had to use it, but I personally saw the dark side of welfare that can so often cause others to think less of those using it.
    My aunt owned a store in South Miami, in one of the worst neighborhoods in the 90s and constantly had drug-addicted welfare recipients try to sell her hundreds of dollars worth of food stamps for a fraction of their value in cash in order to score their next fix. I’ve attended school with children who’s parents purposely kept expanding their families in order to keep receiving more and more benefits. No, I do not look down on those receiving assistance, but neither do I assume that they are all victims, either. The welfare system needs a great deal of work (like drug testing, for example) before it can stop being a crutch for so many and so that taxpayers can rest assured that the dependents of recipients aren’t being exploited.

    1. Well due to the welfare reform bill that passed when Clinton was in office, welfare grants are not extended upon the birth of a new child, so people are not able to game the system that way. And while I understand that there are individuals who unfairly exploit the system, I think its callous when people-not you of course-suggest that we completely get rid of all safety nets based on the actions of the minority. The examples you mention are the exception when it comes to public assistance, not the rule.

      1. I agree, and that’s why I will never say ‘Do away with welfare”, which (to me) is the equivalent of ‘Do away with charities.” Many people need the help, but the way the system is set-up now, I don’t think it’s doing much good to tax-payers or recipients. I’m not sure if the examples I mentioned are the exception, not the rule; I actually think that it’s a fair amount of each, since I went to a high school located in the ghetto and saw Cadillac Esclades parked in front of section 8 housing every single day. I think what people do, as far as benefits, and whether or not those actions are legal are determined not just by the individual, but the area that they live as well. I’m fairly certain that only a more streamlined approached to the system could ever really showcase whether or not I’m right.

      2. It’s worth keeping in mind that, at the end of the day, the case worker that made things miserable for you and your grandmother got paid the same and kept his/her job regardless of how well people were treated. The case worker did not have to compete with anyone, and did not make more or less money depending on the quality of service provided.
        Factors like these mean that doing away with welfare would most certainly not be like doing away with charity. Charities are not inherently inhibited from getting rid of incompetent, dead-weight employees. Charities can specialize in a single area they are very good at, rather than having to cover everything. Charities usually have to have some semblance of efficiency. There are a considerable number of charities that have a good reputation for treating humans with kindness and dignity. Can the same be said of many government departments?
        The biggest difference is that charities are voluntary. People start charities because they want to. People can be guilted into donating to a charity, but at the end of the day they are still choosing of their free will what to do with their money, rather than having it required of them by law.
        It is a great disservice to aid recipients to project the inherent qualities of a charity onto the government and expect similar results.

  2. John Stossel did a very insightful report on this issue. It turns out that the real parasites are– surprise, surprise–usually rich. Here’s the best part of the article:

    “In 1980 I built a wonderful beach house. Four bedrooms — every room with a view of the Atlantic Ocean.
    It was an absurd place to build, right on the edge of the ocean. All that stood between my house and ruin was a hundred feet of sand. My father told me: “Don’t do it; it’s too risky. No one should build so close to an ocean.”
    But I built anyway.
    Why? As my eager-for-the-business architect said, “Why not? If the ocean destroys your house, the government will pay for a new one.”
    What? Why would the government do that? Why would it encourage people to build in such risky places? That would be insane.
    But the architect was right. If the ocean took my house, Uncle Sam would pay to replace it under the National Flood Insurance Program. Since private insurers weren’t dumb enough to sell cheap insurance to people who built on the edges of oceans or rivers, Congress decided the government should step in and do it. So if the ocean ate what I built, I could rebuild and rebuild again and again — there was no limit to the number of claims on the same property in the same location — up to a maximum of $250,000 per house per flood. And you taxpayers would pay for it.”
    The full article is still posted here:
    http://reason.com/archives/2004/03/01/confessions-of-a-welfare-queen/singlepage

    Unfortunately, the current system is geared to favor companies and individuals that spend lots of money on lobbyists instead of something more productive (e.g., reinvesting in the business). Microsoft found this out the hard way and now saves money (!) by spending hundreds of millions of dollars on lobbyists each year.

    1. Hello Ethan,

      Thank for your input! I really appreciate your comment comparing charities and government agencies, you made me look at the two from a fresh perspective.

      1. Thanks, Diva!
        Your response was a lot kinder than I expected. I was kind of concerned there would be backlash among the people with Emelyne’s political orientation. From my experience, there’s a difference between government being responsible for something in theory and being responsible for it in practice. It’s not that it’s good for poor people to have nothing, it’s that
        1) Government will waste a lot of my money in the name of “caring for the poor,” such that the economically disadvantaged subjects in question will rarely see one cent.
        2) According to the social contract theory, the only damn reason people should have a government is if your lives/freedom/property/etc. is better protected than with no government at all. Few people feel the government is fully adequate at the basic social-contract things like protecting us from criminals, so how could it possibly make sense to add to this incompetent government’s responsibilities? In other words, it’s not that it’s a good thing for poor people to starve, it’s just that the government is shitty and wasteful enough with things that are its job (e.g., neither you nor I could match the National Guard’s firepower privately, but the Pentagon manages to waste or simply lose billions every year), with things that we need a government for and cannot do better ourselves, so why entrust it with responsibility and citizens’ hard-earned resources to do things that aren’t its job and that can be done with amazing results by groups like Habitat for Humanity, Doctors Without Borders, Project: AK-47, and, one that is particularly prominent on our campus, the Red Thread Movement. Are we really to expect the bureaucratic mess we call Uncle Sam to be even remotely as effective, efficient, or humanly kind* at addressing homelessness, lack of medical care, usage of child soldiers, and human trafficking, respectively, as any of the above mentioned groups?

        *Case in point: Hir Evilness, Darth Caseworker, Inquisitioner to the Old and Humiliator to the Young, and of unspecified and therefore questionable gender

        By the way, great post about how grown women torture girls who are suddenly no longer “innocent girls” even though the only difference is that blood comes out their hole in addition to the standard urine and cum. It’s funny how those grown black women find it acceptable to inflict that on their daughters when they themselves, a grown adult who has far more autonomy and emotional resources than a girl with developing breasts, get all hurt and offended if some random white person on the street were to call them a “she-boon.” For some reason, it’s okay for adults to use words like “heifer” in reference to a teenage girl developing curves she has no control over, but the same adults would never stand for having words like “Negroid”/”Buck”/”Sow”/etc. being used in reference to them for the wide noses, big lips, sloping forehead, and frizzy hair that THEY have no control over.
        I don’t normally read left-wing feminist stuff because of people like Gloria Stenheim, but Jessica Valenti does a great job writing about this issue in “The Purity Myth.” Really woke me up to the stupidity prevalent in the shitty masses of humanity, and particularly the Islamic world, wherein virginity (for which there is no existing medical definition) determines whether one is a valuable breeding-cow or a worthless piece of rubbish that is to be scorned or horrifically killed; personality, intelligence, contributions to the world are of no importance, and you are sentenced to this horrific system by default for the crime of being born with a vagina instead of a penis (Valenti, of course, doesn’t mention the Islamic world, but expecting a typical Western Marxist to have contact or knowledge of fellow liberals in places like Iran. Unlike American Marxists, Kurdish anarchists, for example, are actually aware through firsthand experience of the evils of Islamist culture that vastly dwarf the suffering induced by the American government’s monumentally stupid decisions).

  3. @moderator Please delete my second comment. The login/post system wasn’t working very well on my computer, meaning that I posted twice by mistake because my first post wasn’t showing on the page.

  4. What an excellent post. Thank you for sharing yourself in such a profoundly personal, and moving, way. When we stop caring about the vulnerable in our society, we have truly lost what it means to be a community and a society.

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