Treats for the poor

If you’re not living in dire poverty, you probably found yourself having recourse to little treats throughout this pandemic, to cheer yourself and your family up. Maybe you splurged on a tasty but extravagant snack or dessert, or something to brighten up the house, or a new book or movie or game you’ve been wanting. Little treats can’t fix the problem, but they can make it more tolerable.

It’s not that they’re hugely important in themselves, but they help because they remind us that, even though so much of our day is clouded and burdened with problems and anxiety, there is still good in the world, still sweetness, still calm, still satisfaction.

Little treats also remind us that we’re worth putting a little bit of effort into, and that our current state of misery and distress is not normal and not desirable, but should be remedied.

Well, my friends. Whether there’s a pandemic on or not, why not give little treats to the poor? Why not offer them small, unnecessary consolations, just because they’re poor, and that sucks, and it will cheer them up to have a little treat?

It’s very common for financially comfortable people to have a conscious or unconscious policy of denying even the smallest of treats to the poor. I think some folks don’t even realize they harbor these thoughts, but they believe deep down that it’s okay for comfortable people to give themselves little treats as a consolation when times are hard, but it’s somehow not okay for poor people to enjoy the same. That there’s something unhealthy or unhelpful or unseemly about the poor receiving any charity beyond the bare necessities.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image by frankieleon via Flickr (Creative Commons)

T-shirts and other heavy burdens

Let me tell you a story about old t-shirts, and I promise I have a point.

Several weeks ago, I had a spurt of energy and decided to tackle the laundry room. When there’s some article of clothing nobody wants to think about, they stuff it in the laundry room, and have done so for years. So I girded my mental loins, took a decongestant for the dust, and dived in.

I’ve been something of a hoarder in the past, partly because I’m sentimental, partly because anxiety makes it hard to make decisions, and partly because we were so poor for so long, it really was reasonable to hold onto iffy stuff in case we needed it someday, somehow.

But on this day, I was ruthless. I got rid of stained tablecloths; I tossed out bedsheets with sub-par elastic. I said goodbye to stacks of once-adorable onesies that several of my little ones had worn, and had thoroughly, irredeemably worn out.  I called people over to give me a definitive answer about whether or not they would ever wear all these overalls and cardigans and leotards, and I filled several bags and marked them “give away.” And I turned up dozens of t-shirts with corporate logos on them, and these I threw away.

Even though there was so much more I could have done with them, I just threw them away! Nobody in my house wants these shirts. We have clothes we like, and don’t need to wear t-shirts advertising an insurance agency that sponsored a long-ago softball team, or commemorating a marathon we didn’t actually run in. We already have plenty of comfy pajamas, and I already have plenty of rags. There is no chance in hell I will recycle them into some shabby chic rag rug or boho wall hanging. I want them out of my tiny, overstuffed house, and I want to get on with my life.

When you want to get rid of stuff, you have choices, of course. I could put them in a local clothing collection bin, whence they will be collected, shredded, and sold by the pound, and the proceeds will go to an organization that helps the poor in third world countries by pressuring them into getting sterilized.

I could put them in the back of my car and drive around with them for months until I remember to put them in the one bin three towns away that doesn’t have ethical problems, but by the time I get around to it, my children will have stepped on them so many times, they will be literal garbage. Or I could donate them to a local thrift shop, which, because it’s already so well-stocked, would entail making an appointment with someone, who would sort through everything and accept some but not all of them, and would add them to the already vast assortment of cast-off t-shirts with corporate logos on them, which the poor can buy for a dollar or even take for free.

Or I could throw them away.

Maybe this wouldn’t feel like a radical act to you, but that’s how it felt to me. Americans have been trained to believe that, because our world is drowning in garbage, we should always search for some other solution besides throwing things away, and if we do throw things away, we should at least offer up a pinch of the incense of guilt. But there’s more to the story than that… Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

 

How to spark joy with the stuff that no longer sparks joy

Kondo encourages you to shed the things that you can easily do without; but you’re not everyone. Maybe some poor person would love to have what you can’t wait to get rid of.

Or would they? If they don’t spark joy for you, does that mean they won’t spark joy for anyone? Do poor people who live off donations even really need joy, or what?

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly. 

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Should you go into debt to get a liberal arts degree?

So if you hear someone telling you that a liberal arts education is a luxury in which only the independently wealthy should indulge, I’ll agree . . . if you mean the kind of education that makes you think of your own brain as an exquisite platter of pâté, to be passed around at parties and admired for its velvety richness. Don’t get that kind of education, no matter how much money you have. The world needs exactly zero of that.

But if you mean the kind of education that gives you the unshakable idea that life is interesting, worth thinking about, worth talking about…

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image via Pixabay (Creative Commons)

In defense of the corporal works of mercy, for crying out loud

A few weeks ago, a fellow complained that the winter concert at my kids’ school shouldn’t include any songs about Christmas, because here in New Hampshire, it’s cold, people are hungry, and some of them don’t even have a place to sleep at night. We should be focusing on them, he argued, not on Christmas.

That won a pretty strenuous eye roll from me. But I assumed he was so mistaken about Christmas because he is a secular guy. A secular person could easily believe that “Christmas” means only tinsel and lights, steaming hot chocolate, and extravagant electronic toys. Surely, I thought, any serious Christian could see the connection between the Christmas story and the desperate search for a warm, safe place to sleep in a cold, dark, world. It’s right there, right in every nativity scene you see.

Surely? Nope. It’s not only ignorant pagans who can’t see the connection between celebrating Christmas and caring for the needy. The Vatican nativity scene, which includes a large group of rather gaudy instructional figures acting out the corporal works of mercy, has been irritating many of my Catholic friends. One friend said that the corporal works display has “stolen Christmas” and “placed the emphasis on liberal social justice themes.”

Spoken like someone with a full belly and warm feet.

It’s very easy, when your body is already well-cared for, to dismiss the corporal works of mercy as some kind of SJW pocket sand used to distract Catholics from the actual faith. Try being naked, hungry, lonely, or dead, and get back to me about how open you are to hearing the Gospel. It’s hard to pray when you’re very hungry, and it’s really hard to pray when you’re hungry and someone who’s already eaten is chiding you for your spiritual flaws.

These tiresome “liberal social justice themes” come directly from the mouth of Jesus:

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Faith without works is dead. Even at Christmas!

Fr. Longenecker has a slightly more nuanced take on this idea that Christmas is no time to think about the corporal works of mercy. He says:

The biggest temptation in Christianity today is to make the church relevant by focusing on good works rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Hold up. “Good works rather than the Gospel”?  Because the two are . . . different? Opposed to each other? Mutually exclusive? I kept reading, because I thought I must be misunderstanding. He says:

We quietly forget the message of a lost and sinful humanity alienated from God and in need of redemption, and we substitute a religion of helping people, and making the world a better place.

He’s right, you know. This kind of thinking is just poison to the Church. Helping people, pshh. I know a guy who claimed that this pagan hooker was doing God’s work just because she let a couple of guys hide in her apartment.

Oh, um, that was St. James who said that.

[W]as not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?

26 For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.

Faith without works is dead. Yes yes yes, even at Christmas.

Fr. Longenecker continues:

The corporal works of mercy are important, yes, and theologically it can be said that they flow directly from the nativity of Christ. Because Christ took corporeal form we are engaged in the corporal acts of mercy. Because he took a human body we care for the human bodies around us. Because he entered this world of matter–matter matters.

And before the Incarnation . . . matter didn’t matter? In the old testament, you could just let people starve and it was no biggie? In his haste to condemn people who care too much about pandas and global warming (yes, he specifically mentions both), Fr. L has stumbled into some choppy theological waters here. St. James also says that

Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? 22 Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? 23 And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.”[d] And he was called the friend of God. 24 You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.

Serving God with your body is not some newfangled idea cooked up recently to put an extra polish on man’s relationship with God. Matter has always mattered. What we do is not some kind of also-ran. Faith and works go together. Even at Christmas.

Corporal works are not optional extras in your spiritual life, like nuts nestled in a cake. They are the bare minimum that we are required to do for each other, if we want to serve God. They are what we absolutely must do, if we can, before we can even dare to start putting our fingerprints on someone else’s soul. If we are not at least willing to perform corporal works of mercy for each other, then our spiritual lives are hollow.

Faith without works is dead. I’m not making this up.

But Fr. Longenecker continues:

So follow the logic. If everyone is going to make it to heaven in the end, what’s the point of all that talk about sin, hell, repentance and faith in Jesus Christ? None of that matters is everyone is going to heaven in the end.

And all that is left therefore of the Christian religion is to be kind, preach a sort of bland message that every cloud has a silver lining, look on the sunny side of life and let’s solve the problem of climate change if we can.

I can’t follow the logic, because it’s not there. When we give a homeless guy sandwich before we bring up the topic of confession, that’s the same as saying everyone goes to heaven? I read this four times, and I can’t make any sense of it.

Here’s that lame-ass social justice warrior St. James again:

1If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does itprofit? 17 Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

Look. I know there are some Catholic parishes that have become the Church of Christ without Christ. It’s all about fellowship and donuts and new playground equipment, and God doesn’t enter into it, except as a kind of ambient lighting designed to flatter aging skin. This is not what Christ died for. I get it. I’ve heard those sermons, where sin is largely imaginary, but if you can’t sleep, you can cut a check to Catholic Charities, amen.

But I’ve also been at parishes where there is nothing but talk about spiritual things, and if someone needs help — tough shit. Someone shows up at Mass wearing skanky jeans, because that’s what she’s got? Tough shit. Someone doesn’t have a car and can’t make it to the six required baptism preparation classes?  Tough shit. Someone smells bad, someone is weird and noisy, someone’s kid with autism makes the other parishioners uncomfortable? Again I say unto thee: Tough shit.

I have been at parishes that have acres and acres of crushed red velvet and every last inch of everything is covered with gold, but if you say you want a wheelchair ramp, they roll their eyes and cry poverty. I have been at parishes where they pride themselves on jam-packed perpetual Eucharistic adoration, but no one signs up to make a casserole for the single mom with a baby in NICU.

Dead. They are dead. Because faith without works is dead.

Fr. L complains that the corporal works of mercy

swamp the Nativity–over ride the Nativity and make it take second place. The good works are literally front and center. The nativity of Christ the Son of God and Son of Mary is in the background.

Does he have a point here? Is it appropriate for the corporal works of mercy to be set up in front of the creche?

It reminds me of something that happens routinely with my kids. I ask them to clear the table. No response. I ask them again to clear the table. Nothing. I ask in a slightly louder voice if someone will please clear the table. Still nothing.

So I start to yell. “CLEAR THE TABLE NOW!!!!” And everyone looks at me like I’m some kind of maniac. What is she making such a fuss about? Like clearing the table is the most important thing in the world all of a sudden! Sheesh, lady. Try and have some perspective!

Well, I would, if you would listen to me the first time.

Even the demons know what baby was born on Christmas morning. But do we know that, in His name, we’re obligated to care for each other? Every day, even Christmas day?

Faith without works is dead. If you don’t like being shouted at, then listen the first time.

***

Image: Coptic icon of Christ feeding the multitudes, author unknown, via Wikimedia Commons

Making poor people pray

Many years ago, despite hard work, thrift, and a small family, we were poor.  As in no-heat-no-car-no-food poor.  And so I started traveling to a church which hosted weekly grocery nights, when needy people could browse over tables of expired dry goods, wilted produce, and drippy ice cream at cut-rate prices.  I remember the thrill of putting a true luxury, a box of crackers, into my bag, and feverishly calculating how many meals I could squeeze out of a single chicken breast.

That part of it was great.  But the part I didn’t like was in the beginning:  Before they opened the auditorium, they made us pray.

I hated that part.

Let me explain.  I pray.  I did pray at the time, I will always pray, and I will always be in favor of people praying, and in favor of encouraging other people to pray and to become closer to God.

But I am vehemently opposed to insisting that people suddenly start praying aloud, or giving intimate details about their spiritual life to a stranger, just because they happen to be vulnerable or in need.  Too many Christian ministries, including food pantries, crisis pregnancy centers, and homeless shelters, include mandatory prayer in their good works, and I think it ought to stop.

Well!  You may say.  Those who are vulnerable or in need are exactly the ones who need to hear about God!  Should we leave these poor souls in their misery?  Man does not live by bread alone.  Should we feed only the bodies of those in need, but leave their souls hungry?

Also:  what, should we be ashamed of our faith?  Should we hide our light under a bushel, cover over the name of Christ like those weasly Georgetown Jesuits?

The Good News is never out of place or inappropriate.  It’s always a good time to pray, and anyone who suggests otherwise is denying our Lord.

Okay, then.  How come you never insist that rich people pray?  When’s the last time you made it very clear to someone in a nice suit that he needs to start being thankful, out loud, right this minute?  Why is this on-command spirituality only standard practice for a guest who’s already on the ropes?

I know these good Christian folks had kind intentions.  They meant it like this:  we have a chance to do a corporal work of mercy—and while they’re here, we have the chance to share his glorious Good News with people.  So let’s be like the early Christians—let’s pray!  That’s all they meant.  And I was truly grateful for the food, and for the time they volunteered.

But let me tell you what messages I, as a bona fide wretched poor person, actually received:

1.  “We can see that you’re poor because of some spiritual failing, so let’s take care of that.”

2.  “Don’t you forget for a moment that we’re doing you a favor.  So before you get your dented box of Special K, let me see you bow your head.”

Now, there may have been someone at that grocery night who was smitten to the core—who needed to be there, needed to be forced to pray.  Maybe his life was changed forever by those mandatory prayers.

But I was there.  I guarantee you that thirty more people in that auditorium learned to connect the name of God with humiliation and intrusion.

Being poor means you never have a choice in anything.  Even while you’re grateful for bags of free clothes, boxes of food, and rides from volunteers, never having a choice about what to wear, what to eat, or when to come and go—it stings.  It makes you feel like crap.  Whether you’re poor because of bad luck and tough circumstances, or because of laziness and stupidity, being poor doesn’t make you sub-human.  It shouldn’t give other people an excuse to treat you like a child, even if they’re helping you.

So here is my suggestion to people who, God bless them, want to help the poor, and want to evangelize at the same time:  be quiet.  Put up lots of crosses and statues and Bible verses on the wall, wear T-shirts and medals—go nuts.  But don’t say a word, unless someone asks.  At the very most, extend an invitation:  “We are available to tell you about our faith—just let us know!” or “Don’t forget to check out our lending library, if you’re wondering why we’re here.”  Poor isn’t the same as stupid:  people notice when help always comes from someone who believes in God.

So please, never require someone to have a spiritual experience in exchange for your help.  The first thing about personal relationship, with God or with anyone else?  It’s not a quid pro quo.  It’s never mandatory.

***
Photo: Steven Depolo via Flickr (Creative Commons)

The privilege of saying “no thanks” to NFP

One Catholic blogger says she doesn’t use NFP because, for her, it’s just easier to go ahead and have babies. (This was years ago, but I only saw it recently.)
 
Most of the response was cheers, congratulations, and admiration. Only a single reader pointed out that it’s easy to feel that way when you’re rich, you have a huge house, your husband supports you easily on his secure, lucrative job, and you have daily hired help (none of which she had mentioned in her essay).
 
The blogger responded, “I would happily give up absolutely any comfort or convenience to have my children. I’d eat beans and rice in a trailer with them in a heartbeat.”
 

More hosannas. And that’s where I stopped reading neutrally and started breathing heavily. Ain’t no privilege like the privilege of ignorance.

First, nobody’s talking about trading in any of your kids in exchange for a cushy lifestyle. That’s not how it works. When you decide to use NFP to avoid pregnancy, you’re not saying, “I have kids, but they’re not so great; so now I choose to devote my life to a pursuit of filet mignon.”

Second: oh my dear. Poverty isn’t beans and rice and and a sweet little hut.
Poverty is dirty needles in your kid’s play space. It’s lead poisoning and cockroach-induced asthma. It’s windows you never open, even though it’s sweltering hot and you can’t afford AC, because your drunk neighbors are screaming obscenities at each other and you don’t want that to be your children’s lullaby at night. Poverty means you never have silence, ever, because someone’s always blasting their bass so hard your walls shake, shrieking, endlessly revving their engines, or beating the crap out of each other. 
Poverty means you’d like to bake your own bread, but the oven doesn’t work, the landlord doesn’t care, and the corner bodega doesn’t sell yeast anyway; so you end up getting the dollar loaf of white bread, because you do have a dollar. Poverty means you’d like to sew your own clothes, but you can’t afford a sewing machine, and you don’t have an extra six hours to throw together a simple sundress for the baby because you’re working at Taco Bell; so your kids wear pilled t-shirts from the free pile. Poverty means you’d like to grow your own fresh herbs and vegetables, but the tiny patch of green in front of your apartment is full of broken glass and used condoms, and the meth head who lives upstairs let his rottweiler poop there anyway.

Poverty means everything takes longer, works out worse, has less margin for error, and doesn’t ever give you a break. Poverty means that you build your day around trying to assemble paperwork for some government office to prove that you really are poor, only to find that they arbitrarily changed the guidelines, and you’ve now already missed the deadline and are back on the bottom of the list, and the person who denied your claim doesn’t work there anymore and you have no recourse, because you’re just another poor person, and there forty more on hold ahead of you.

Poverty is endlessly telling your children “no,” you can’t have extras, you can’t have treats, you can’t have lessons, you can’t have trips, you can’t have musical instruments, you can’t have art supplies, you can’t have pets, you can’t have a ride on the merry-go-round. Very soon, kids stop even asking.
Everything you own is rickety; everything you own is ugly. Nothing you own is what you would have chosen.
Poverty is hard on marriage, hard on your kids, and hard on your mental health. Poverty is not sweet. Not simple. Not beautiful. Just ugly and grinding and unjust. Not beans and rice. Bedlam and ashes and mold.

We deserve no credit for saying we’re willing to live a life we don’t even halfway understand. It’s not wrong to be rich or secure; but it is wildly offensive to assume that poverty is just like wealth, minus some perks, as if you could continue to live inside the walls of your privilege, but just shop at Pottery Barn less. That poverty is something you can take in stride if you just love your kids enough. 

No, poverty (especially generational poverty) invades every corner of your life, physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual, and it invades every corner of your children’s lives. If you think it would be different with you, I only pray you never find out how wrong you are.

I’ll stop now, because I know poverty is my particular bugbear. But I’ll tell you something else about NFP and privilege.


It is always a privilege to be able to say “no thanks” to NFP. Yes, even if you’ve made some sacrifices in making that choice. 

It is a privilege that comes from having wealth, having security, having a supportive, cooperative, patient husband — or from having enough stability and peace of mind that the sacrifices you make don’t wreck your life.

It is a privilege that comes from having enough physical and emotional and mental wherewithal to care for your other children sufficiently while you are pregnant.

It is a privilege that comes from having a healthy body that produces healthy babies. Some people can’t say “no thanks” to NFP because they desperately want a huge family, but then the babies they conceive so easily keep dying, no matter how much progesterone their NaPro doc crams up in there.

And I could go on. There are more kinds of poverty than financial poverty. Some couples endure poverties you, with your privilege, cannot imagine, and that’s why they use NFP to avoid pregnancy. Not because they refuse to make sacrifices, but because they simply cannot have what you take for granted.
 

When we talk about NFP, it’s important only to talk about our own choices, and to avoid making judgments about other people. But if we allows ourselves to be seen as a role model, even keeping it personal isn’t really good enough. We must include the context of our choices. We must acknowledge the privilege that makes those choices possible. If we choose to use our lives as an illustration, we can’t crop out the details.

 

Hear me, public Catholics: If you’re in a position to say “no thanks” to NFP, then get on your knees and thank God for your dozens of life-changing privileges. They, and not your virtue, your generosity, or your free spirit, are what makes it possible to say “no thanks” so blithely. Yes, even if you’ve made sacrifices to say “no thanks.”

Acknowledge those privileges, be grateful for them, and confirm that not everyone is as lucky as you. Believe me, it’s important. So many women accuse themselves so harshly for things that are beyond their control. If you don’t acknowledge your privilege, you are telling a dangerous lie.

When you give a man money, you don’t own a share in his soul

Several years ago, my family went through a rotten patch, and we couldn’t scrape up enough money to pay our basic bills. A friend of the family got wind of our troubles and fired off a generous check. She did the same the next month, and then next as well, always with a little note saying she hoped it could help make a dent in our expenses.

One month, we miraculously found ourselves above water. One of the most miserable parts of poverty is having to deny your kids. It almost hurts worse when they learn so quickly not to ask for even the smallest treat. So when the mail came and there was yet another check from our friend for expenses from, the first thing I thought was, “Oh, I can buy the kids a swing!”

But I didn’t want to be presumptuous, so I asked her permission to spend her money on a swing. She was flabbergasted. She begged me to spend it however I saw fit, because it was a gift. It wasn’t her money; it was mine.

This is how you live the gospel. This is how you don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. When she gave me the money, she didn’t give herself permission to manage my life. She wasn’t buying a share in my life or my soul or my day. She understood this better than I did.

Having been the poor, I don’t want to romanticize the poor, to paint them as some kind of holy, spotless victims who can do no wrong simply because they are poor. The poor are just people, just like the rich. Sometimes they are greedy; sometimes they are stupid; sometimes they are ungrateful; sometimes they are dishonest, just like the rich.

Sometimes poor people do dumb or dishonest things with money, even the money you gave them. (Rich people can hide or get past their dumb or dishonest actions more easily than the poor; that’s the main difference.)

I’ve been on that side of this difficult transaction, too. I’ve been the one to give money to a needy person, only to discover that he wasn’t as needy as he claimed, or he spent the money foolishly, or he spent it in a way that I thought showed an ungrateful attitude, or a million other flaws in the way he received my gift. Maybe I denied myself so that he could eat, and then he turned around and got himself a treat, and acted like it was no big deal.

That sucks. It feels horrible. No one wants to be played for a sucker. No one wants their good will offering converted into something evil or gross; and no one wants their sacrifice treated like dirt.

In situations like this: sure.  If the person you gave money to lied, don’t give him any more money. If you think the money is making his life worse, don’t give him any more money. If interacting with this person is an occasion of sin for you, maybe take a break. Find someone else who needs your gift. God knows there are always more needy people.

But this is very basic: Once you have given the money, it is no longer yours. That’s what it means to give. If you give but still want to hang on, then you haven’t really given; you’ve just tried to buy a share in another human being. Charity doesn’t come with a rubber band that you can twitch any time you feel like it, making the other fellow dance to your ideals. That’s not giving. That’s investing, and we’re not supposed to treat other people like investment property.

Scripture is full of imprecations not only to give to the poor, but to be gracious about it, or at very least to shut up about it.

Do we want any chance at all of getting into the kingdom of God? Then we have to recognize that we, all of us, are the poor — poor beyond measure — and that Christ gave recklessly to us. He gave without any hope of being paid back, without any hope that we’d use His gift well, without any hope that we’d be anywhere near sufficiently grateful. He gave up Heaven to become a man, and then gave up his body and became a dead man. That’s what He did for us. He doesn’t threaten to withdraw salvation every time we act ungrateful (which we do every day) or squander his gifts (which we do every day) or fail to shape up (which we do every day). Instead, He gives more and more.

Look at your weekly bulletin. Is there Mass? Are there baptisms? Is there confession? You’re receiving charity. Are you living up to it? I’m not. I’m a horrible investment. I’m a black hole. Christ knows this, and still He gives.

That’s what he does. And we’re going to be jerks to each other about money?

So if we give — and we must, if we can at all! — remember we’re not making an investment. We’re not teaching a lesson. We’re not purchasing a share in someone’s life. We’re imitating Christ. Christ will make our gift into something great, if we will let go of it. 

***
Photo: Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr (Creative Commons)

How to motivate Ben Carson

Because I’m basically a giver, I have a few ideas for Ben Carson. Specifically, I have some ideas for how to motivate him so he doesn’t remain entrenched forever in his current unsustainable, dependent lifestyle.

Carson is, of course, the kindly-faced sock puppet who boasted zero experience in public housing or government and was therefore appointed head of HUD. He is now on a fact-finding tour of government-subsidized housing to make sure it’s sufficiently horrible.

The theory, popular among folks who mistake luck, wealth, and support for personal virtue, is that, just as people catch pre-existing conditions because they didn’t take their vitamins and wear a scarf when they went out, the main reason people are poor because being poor is just so dang comfy. If we make poverty less fun, then poor people will get their act together and stop being poor.

Like so many brilliant ideas, Carson’s theory is both simple and universal. So let’s go ahead and apply it to him.

As head of HUD, his income comes directly from taxpayers; his comprehensive health insurance (which covers pre-existing conditions) is heavily subsidized by taxpayers; and he spends his days in government-sponsored housing. Does he even take the subway to work? Nope. Someone drives him around, and it’s all on your dime.

He’s a leech, pure and simple. This is a life devoid of dignity and integrity. But does he show any signs of wanting to better himself? No, he does not.

Why? Because he’s too damn comfortable. How are we ever going to get this fellow up, self-sufficient, and independent if we allow his daily life to be so cushy? Here are my compassionate recommendations for Dr. Carson:

He gets three paper clips per annum. Need more than three paper clips? Should have planned ahead. Nothing like running out of paper clips to drive home the hard lesson that paper clips aren’t free, and when they’re gone, they’re gone. If he’s really desperate to hold papers together and has already burned through the allowance that an agency who knows nothing about his daily life has decided is sensible, he can put on his thinking cap and fashion some kind of substitute out of, say, bootstraps. People in desperate situations have no end of bootstraps, and just about any problem can be solved by giving them a good yank.

No chairs. When we sit, it trains our gluteal muscles to become accustomed to rest, rather constantly tensed and engaged in work. As a doctor, Carson can surely confirm that you do more, live better, and can even be excused for existing as long as you are never at rest and feel constant stress and tension at all times. All the better if we can erect some kind of treadmill to his workspace, so he can grind grain or something as he works. Give a little back.

Walls and floors of his workspace should be concrete and colorless. If he starts to feel like he owns the place, by putting up photos of his family or choosing the color of the drapes, he’s going to start to feel like he belongs there, and he doesn’t. It’s temporary, and the sensation of security is the enemy of humanity. The best way to think clearly and make good decisions for the future is to have constant reminders that your very existence must be accounted for, and that everything that makes it possible for you to live could be yanked out from under you at any time.

Perhaps we could hire someone to follow him around chanting, “Shame, shame, shame, shame, shame” in his ear and to sigh disgustedly every time he cashes his government-issued paycheck. Hasn’t done anything to be ashamed of? So what? My sister’s husband’s aunt’s friend used to work at the white house, and there was this other guy in HUD who gamed the system left and right, and we can’t take the chance of that happening again. Fraud is rampant in the system, so it’s essential for anyone who cashes a government check to be made to feel bad, all the time. This is empowering and encouraging and extremely compassionate.

You think this is silly. You think that Carson is a man who has worked hard his whole life, has accomplished more than the ordinary man, and who is doing an important job — one which will be made more difficult if every aspect of his life is made unpleasant and difficult. He doesn’t deserve to be treated like scum. That’s inhumane, not to mention counter productive.

Well, you just described the typical poor person. You just described veteran. An elderly person. A refugee. A disabled person. A homeless person. A person whose life is already so severely proscribed that already nothing comes easy, nothing is by choice, nothing is certain, nothing is soft.

These are the people who live in government-subsidized housing. If their lives were easy, they wouldn’t be there. If their lives get uglier, harder, and less comfortable, as Carson apparently wants them to be, they’ll still be there. They’re there because they have nowhere else to go. And yet the crowds cheer as here comes a man in a tailored suit, stepping out of his limo and nodding in approval because the homeless men have no TV in the warehouse that shelters them at night.

Shame, pain, discomfort, inconvenience, and ugliness will not end poverty. Despair is not a motivator. Misery is not an engine for enterprise. I do not know how to solve the problem of generational poverty, but I do know that poverty is already ugly enough, and deliberately making it uglier will encourage fraud, not upward mobility.

Policies that deliberately employ shame and deprivation are not for the benefit of the poor. They are for the benefit of the well-off who despise the poor.

In the past, Carson has cast doubt on the relatively new policy of offering housing to low-income people even if they are not clean and sober. He believes that the morally corrupt should be excluded from government assistance.

In March of 2016, Carson candidly explained to NewsMax  that he didn’t want to endorse Trump, but Trump offered him a job.

It is a federal crime to exchange support of a candidate for appointment to a public or private position.

What was the phrase? “Drain the swamp?” Maybe we could, if the swamp were a little less comfortable for nakedly opportunistic careerists like Carson.

***
Image of Ben Carson by Gage Skidmore via Flickr (Creative Commons)

The day I bought steak with my food stamps

I cried every night, the week before I finally applied for food stamps. I was so ashamed. Food stamps are for losers, people who make stupid, irresponsible choices,people who want to live a life of luxury while other people work hard to pick up the slack. This I knew.

We were homeschooling, because the schools in our town were wretched. We were in that town because we were renting a house from my brother-in-law, because we had been evicted from our previous apartment, because the landlord had sold the duplex, and nobody else would rent to us because they thought we had too many kids for the size of apartment we could afford.

So there we were, in a dead end town. But we were getting by. I budgeted like a maniac, playing Scrooge with the precious hoard of toilet paper, detergent, and apples we could afford. I once bought a used linen toddler dress for four dollars and blushed the whole way home, nauseated with the extravagance of my purchase. It wasn’t a great way to live, but as long as my husband could get enough overtime hours and WIC kept us in cheese and Kix, and as long as the kids could stomach a rotation of pasta, hot dogs, bananas, and tuna noodle casserole, we were okay.

Then my husband’s employer cut the overtime hours, but still required everyone to hand in the same amount of work. No, it’s not exactly legal, but there weren’t any other jobs to be had that year. His schedule still varied wildly and unpredictably from day to day, and we couldn’t find any jobs that would make up the lost overtime income and allow him to show up at either 8 a.m. or 11:45 p.m., depending on what else he was doing.

Now the kids got hot dogs for supper, and the adults got a hot dog bun with ketchup. We figure and figured and figured, and discovered that, no matter how hard we squeezed, we were always going to be about forty dollars short of being able to eat and pay our basic bills. Just forty dollars — something that, five years ago, when the economy was better, I would have spent on odds and ends at Target without thinking twice. But it was forty dollars that we didn’t have now, at all.

So off to the welfare office I went. And they granted us $800 a month for our family of seven. I couldn’t believe it. So much money! Boy oh boy, I thought. They were right about food stamps: you can live like a king on this stuff. No wonder people just sit back and let the free checks come in! I knew we weren’t like that, though, and I decided we’d just use what we needed, and let the rest sit there, so at least we won’t be part of the problem. I’d put money in the bank as a down payment on an apartment in a better city, and I’d only use my benefits to make up the slack that I had found in our budget, and no more. We’re no freeloaders.

And we followed this plan for many months. I salted away savings, and I strolled past the meat freezer in the supermarket, lusting after the trays of meat, scorning the shameless slobs who stopped and filled up their carts on the taxpayer’s dime. Freeloaders. Scum. Oh lord, look at that steak. Stop looking. Now go get some spaghetti.

You know what? I was still ashamed of myself for being on food stamps, even though at this point I was working, too, tutoring and then delivering Meals on Wheels while still homeschooling, while my husband worked what amounted to swing shifts at his job. I was obsessively drawn to arguments about food stamps online, and, feeling extraordinarily defensive, belligerently or pathetically pled my case to strangers over and over again. It wasn’t our fault. We didn’t mean it to be this way. We’re really trying. We’re not worthless, truly not!

And they hated us anyway. Oh, man. They told us everything I had been saying to myself: freeloaders. Not willing to work. What’s wrong with America today. Culture of dependency. And all the while, we went around the house with winter jackets and three pairs of socks on, because we couldn’t afford to turn the heat above 60 degrees when it was below zero out. My kids never got a new toy, never got new clothes. They learned never to ask for a popsicle or a box of crayons. We cobbled together a bizarre school curriculum out of whatever books were 25 cents at the thrift store. My husband’s glasses were taped together at the nose, we had no auto or health insurance, and I chose my driving routes according to how many hills I could coast down, to save gas. We prioritized bills according to how threatening they were.

And we were thoroughly, thoroughly stuck in a neighborhood where everyone was on parole for beating, cheating, or molesting someone else on the street. They set the actual street on fire once. I remember staring at the green catfish we kept in a tank, a leftover from our old life when we could consider buying luxuries like pets. He would swim around and around, and I would have these cartoonish, drooling fantasies about how delicious he would be, fried up in a pan with a little lemon juice. I’ve told stories about these things as if they were funny, but they were not funny.  My kids were not safe in their own yard. I would let them play in the rain puddles only after checking for used condoms.

I couldn’t stay away from comment boxes about food stamps. And every single one told us that we were shit, because we needed help buying food.

So I went out and bought a freaking steak. And pop tarts, and ice cream, and chips, and asparagus, and mangoes, and all the things that we had trained ourselves to stop even looking at. And with the cash I saved from using food stamps, I bought a giant carton of cheap beer.

Everything else in our material lives was completely awful. There was no hint of luxury anywhere, no wiggle room, nothing simple or easy. Everything was dirty and sour, and everything was a struggle. Everything we tried to accomplish was impossible because six other impossible things had to be fixed first. The one and only expansive thing was the food budget. So I bought a freaking steak, and it was so juicy and good.

Not everyone has a story like ours. But not everyone has our advantages, either: the advantage of knowing that life isn’t supposed to be like this, that fresh fruits and veggies are important, that debt isn’t normal, that work is normal, that reading books is important, that family can be depended on, that kids need structure and order, that marriage and monogamy are normal.

Not everyone knows how to maintain a car. How to show up on time.  How to file taxes, make photocopies, save paystubs, request forms, and fill out the reams and reams of paperwork necessary to keep the welfare office from cancelling your benefits — or, as happened to us one month, to keep from despairing when the welfare office makes a mistake and gives you too many benefits, and then, when they discover the mistake, it turns out you owe *them* money, which you pay off with the money you’ve been saving in the bank until you run out of money, which means you have to go back on food stamps because you can’t buy food.

It may very well be that the ratty, vulgar, freeloaders you see with their L-shaped leatherette couches, their flat screen TVs, their tattoos and yeah, their food stamp steaks are in the same position. They may be stuck. They may have been stuck for generations, and they may not even have anyone tell them that there is supposed to be more to life than getting as many benefits as you can. They may have been shrieked and sworn at, neglected and molested since they were babies. They may have lead poisoning and FAS. The may have been numbed and dimmed by being told from day one that they’re retards, so go watch cartoons and drink your orange soda, retard, and leave mommy’s boyfriend the fuck alone. They may never have seen anyone cook in an oven. They may spend their lives on waiting lists for another dank, foul, dim, narrow subsidized apartment with a yard of dirt and broken bottles. And all of this may be the only thing they can imagine, because everyone else they have ever known lives exactly the same way.

They may have tried to get ahead by getting a second or third, minimum wage job working overnight at a gas station, or sweeping floors at the tampon factory, and discovered that their food stamps are immediately cut by exactly the amount they bring home.  They may hear that they’re not going to get any more benefits until they sell their cars (because that’s a great way to find a steady job) or get rid of their phones (because teachers, employers, and the welfare office itself really appreciate not having any way to get in touch).

They may hear that they should somehow miraculously vault over a lifetime of the degradations of generational poverty and just . . . be better. Be self-sufficient. Be a completely different kind of person out of sheer will power. That if they don’t do this, they are pathetic, and have no one but themselves to blame. Look how they live! Such luxury, on the taxpayer’s dime!

And they may get their monthly benefits and think, “Screw it, I’m gonna get something I want for a change.” They may buy themselves a freaking steak. And they may not care if you think they deserve it or not.

***

UPDATE: Several people have expressed concern about our financial state. I appreciate this very much, and would like to reassure everyone that this essay describes what we went through several years ago. Thanks be to God, we have been off WIC and food stamps for several years. I wrote this essay mainly to get  it off my chest, and my husband encouraged me to publish it — so I did so assuming it would only reach my normal audience, who are already familiar with our family. If I had known this essay would get as much attention as it has, I would have made it more clear that we are doing (more or less) fine now, thanks!

Image by Michael Berch via Flickr (Creative Commons)