I suppose because it’s election season right now, I’ve seen a lot of talk about how everyone taking anything from the government is lazy. I’ve heard this even from supposedly liberal friends. I thought, given that, it might be a good time to share some personal stories…
My dad was poor. Dirt poor. His father served in the Navy in WWII and Korea. When he came back, he worked hard. Still, there wasn’t always food on the table. The kids went hungry a lot. The parents went hungry even more.
When I was little we were poor. Both my parents worked, but sometimes my dad was laid off. They both had a hard time finding work. We always had food, but sometimes we could only heat one or two rooms of the house. My parents both worked very hard and yet, sometimes they missed payments on the mortgage. Times were hard.
I went to a good college. A really good college. The year before I graduated, practically everyone who came out either had a good job lined up or they were going to graduate school.
Then September 11th happened. When I graduated, the economy was in the toilet. I knew one person with a job. He had been hired by the accounting firm Arthur Andersen. If you don’t remember what happened to them, just Google “Enron.”
I took the first job I could get. Door to door canvassing. I worked strictly on commission. During an especially slow period, I worked two 40 hour weeks and got paid $140. It sucked, but no one else would hire me. Either I was over-qualified and they were sure I’d leave or I was qualified, but hey, here’s this other person who has four years experience and just lost another job.
Eventually, I quit the canvassing job to try and make ends meet as a substitute teacher. That didn’t go very well, either. I did find a job, eventually. It took me six months, but I got a job doing editing work. It’s the kind of job I would have been qualified for when I graduated from high school, but it was a job. It paid the bills. I was, at this point, what would probably be called under-employed. I never stopped looking for another job, but I never found one.
Eventually, I went back to school (and took on a bunch of debt I didn’t need) so I could be a teacher. This represented a substantial raise over what I had been making and it was work that didn’t make me miserable.
This entire process took six years. Times have only gotten harder.
During the first year after college, I had a lot of help from my family. My parents supported me. They paid my rent. They bought my food. I lived with them for ten months.
I shudder to think what would have happened to me if I hadn’t had them.
Because I needed some kind of help. I was doing everything you’re supposed to do. Everything even Mitt Romney says I’m supposed to do, but if it hadn’t been for my family, I would have had nowhere to stay. It is entirely possible I could have ended up homeless. With a college degree. From a good school. And a willingness to do just about anything to pay the bills.
If you’ve read this blog for long, you know I had surgery to remove a tumor when I was 18. My parents carried me on their insurance as long as they could and then they bought private insurance for me because they didn’t want me to have a “preexisting condition” dogging me for the rest of my life.
And then the insurance company dropped me.
Fortunately, I’d gotten a job with benefits and switched things over (though the coverage was pretty miserable). Otherwise, I would have been screwed.
What It Means
Look, I get that there are people who find a way to take advantage of the system. I get it and I don’t care. I think people who think of welfare recipients as getting an awesome free ride should look into it and see what they really think. I don’t know anyone who even has a concept of what middle class is who would rather depend on the government. I want those same people who don’t think healthcare should be a right to tell me why I deserved to very nearly have my life ruined by something totally out of my control.
There’s all this talk about how people should pick themselves up because we aren’t socialists and why are those other people so lazy?
My parents weren’t lazy. May grandparents weren’t lazy. Why did they have to go without heat or food?
I wasn’t lazy, but if I hadn’t had a family to help, there’s a chance I would have ended up homeless.
I had a conversation with a friend once and the very American notion that anyone can rise to the top came up. And, in one of my better moments, I said, “Anyone can, but everyone can’t.”
If everyone works as hard as they can, someone will still be at the bottom. In good times, that means working at McDonald’s. In bad times, it means losing everything. These are bad times.
I know that not everyone works as hard as they can. Few do, perhaps. But I also know there are many people at the top who did not work for what they have. I need look no further than the people who ran the company where I had my first real post-college job. They were incompetent. All of them. They were also the sons of the owners. That company went out of business not long ago. How do you think the incompetents at the top are doing now and how do you think the hardworking people at the bottom (and I know they were hardworking. I worked with them) are doing now? Who is better off? Who should be better off?
I look overseas, and every nation I can find doing better than us provides healthcare for its citizens. It often provides food and shelter for those who have nothing or some equivalent material benefit. It doesn’t ask for anything. It simply says, “you are cold and hungry. Eat this food. Sleep here.” I see that they have higher standards of living, longer lifespans, better education, and lower poverty rates and I think maybe there is something important about valuing every person, no matter how little they do. I think that maybe says something about your society and I think it maybe encourages your citizens in a way our “tough-luck” philosophy does not.
If you think that’s wrong, we disagree. I don’t want to live in a society where, “not my problem” is the response to other people’s struggles (go read A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer).
If you think you couldn’t easily be one of these people, you suffer from a lack of imagination.