Monday, November 19, 2007

Revolution Never?

The conference I was at last week was hosted by the state for agencies that work on preventing bad things from happening to kids: child abuse, juvenile delinquency, drug addiction, suicide, etc. Many of these problems are also wrapped up in the issue of poverty, so the opening keynote speaker gave a presentation on the book, Bridges Out of Poverty. I can't recommend this book enough for anyone who has to face poverty, whether it be in your personal or professional life, or if you just want to understand the experiences of a huge segment in our society.

During her presentation the speaker told a story of a woman she had been working with. It's not an exceptional story, and it's one I've heard a million times in different incarnations, but for some reason it hit me in the gut this time.

The woman - I'll call her Mary - was receiving training from a nonprofit agency on how to be more self-sufficient. She really took the lessons to heart and worked hard to get some education and improve her chances for a good job.

Mary received certification as a nursing assistant, and got a job at $7 an hour. She was a reliable, dedicated worker and got a raise to $7.75 an hour after only a few months.

Once Mary was making "so much" money, her housing subsidy was cut; her food stamps were cut; all the benefits she counted on to make ends meet while working hard and trying to improve her family's life were cut. Even though she did what she was "supposed to" - got an education, worked hard, received a raise - she found herself $400 behind every month. Despite her full time job, Mary had to sell plasma to pay her bills.

What should she have done differently? So much of the political rhetoric of the current government touts personal responsibility and excoriates the welfare state. Mary took responsibility and made good choices, and look what happened to her.

The main reason this story infuriated me is that it makes me feel powerless. An individual can respond to so many problems by volunteering time or making donations. But when it comes to economic and political forces I have no faith that anything I do will make life better for people like Mary. It doesn't matter how many letters I write or who I vote for or where I shop. As a society we've decided that people like Mary are expendable. We're willing to leave her behind no matter how hard she tries. It makes me sick, and it makes me want to burn something down.

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