Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Taking Atticus's Advice: Walking in the Shoes of Others

Near the end of the book and movie, both titled To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout takes Mr. Arthur “Boo” Radley’s hand and leads him home. After he steps inside and closes the door upon a world he rarely ventures into, she turns and looks out at that world as he might experience it, from a distance, from his point of view, and she remembers the lesson that Atticus has labored to teach her: walk in the shoes of another if you would understand him. Today, I invite you to walk in the shoes of a poor, working single mother, living in the inner city.

Step into her well-worn shoes and enter her home where the furnishings are simple, worn, and spare, but sufficient. If you stay long enough, you will see that this woman, exhausted and sore, lies down to sleep upon sheets thinned by years of water, soap, and bleach.

In the morning, still tired, she dresses quietly, striving not to wake her children. She has taught them to set and obey an alarm, to be responsible in her absence, and in one small gesture of her love for them, she boils water for some oatmeal, the breakfast that she and her children eat day after day after day. It costs little per serving, and with a little milk poured over it, fuels her girls until lunch. The weight of uncooked oatmeal only adds to its appeal. Even a large container is easy to carry on and off buses, up and down sidewalks, and this mother with limited resources, including access to supermarkets and transportation, must consider those facts when making purchases.

The kids sigh when they lift the lid on the pot to spoon out their oatmeal. It has cooled and thickened in the two hours before they crawled out of bed. The milk pools on top and chills the meal even more. This morning, though, there are raisins throughout, and that’s a special treat that comes in the days after the card for the SNAP program arrive. (SNAP is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as Food Stamps)

The children wash their faces and smooth their hair. As they do, they smile, remembering how tenderly their mother washed, combed and plaited it the night before. They step into the clothes their mother laid out for them to wear, brush their teeth, and zip up their jackets against the chilly morning air. Soon they are at the bus stop, waiting to board and ride to school.

The children do not carry lunch bags. They qualify for the school’s free and reduced lunches for which their mother is grateful, but she wishes her children had more choices. Ever diminishing state and federal dollars put more potatoes and corn than salads and lean meat offerings before her girls.

In the evenings, near seven, thanks to overcrowded buses and long commutes, Mom prepares supper. Late in the SNAP card cycle, she often serves pancakes. They’re filling and a bit of syrup or thin jelly adds a touch of sweet to please her kids. Flour may be heavier to carry from store door to apartment door, but it stretches into hot biscuits and gravy on Saturdays, cakes for special occasions, and pot pies for variety.

The kids are alone weekday mornings and for several hours after school. Mom cannot afford child care. Worse, cuts in education eliminated after-school programs, but as soon as Mom’s work day ends, she calls to be sure her girls are home, safe, locked inside, and she breathes easier when they answer. They are good kids--as most kids are--but the world is fraught with both temptation and danger. Mom worries, especially about the teen years when even good kids grow tired of deprivation, when they need affirmation and stimulation, sometimes settling for the worst kinds.

Lest you think that I have in any way idealized this scenario, allow me to disabuse you of that notion. A single mom working 40 hours in Michigan, a state that offers a wage slightly above the federal minimum wage, thus earning $ 7.40 per hour, 40 hours weekly, 52 weeks annually, grosses $14,208, a figure that is $ 3,360 below the 2010 poverty threshold. This is why some single parents work more than one full-time job to provide for their families.

A gross income slightly above minimum wage allows Mom to qualify for SNAP. In 2012, the gross monthly income threshold for a family of three is 130% of poverty or $ 2,009 ( This Michigan Mom falls well below that amount, and she is not alone. In 2010, the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan reported that 31.6% of households headed by a single mother is poor.

In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared war on poverty, and the programs he championed succeeded in reducing the number of all people in desperate need to about 11.1% of the population by 1973. Now the nation is on the brink of exceeding the higher percentages that inspired Johnson’s domestic war, simply because we have allowed the social net to fray.

We lifted the elderly out of poverty and hunger with Social Security and Medicare, but Grover Norquist and Representative Paul Ryan are two who advocate reducing, even starving those programs out of existence. Almost 50 years ago, we also reached out to pull up children, using SNAP and health care initiatives for them, but both of these are in danger as one party accuses citizens of being hangers-on, wastrels, and lovers of a Nanny State while the other party walks a tightrope between Corporate influence and its historical role in advocating for equal opportunity in the pursuit of life, liberty, and some measure of happiness.

The consequences are that now no net stretches below those in the greatest need, and the number of children developing in impoverished households is rising to its early 1960s levels. But human need does not define the vision any longer; political fealty does. Everything depends upon political outcomes, and even drought-stricken farmers and ranchers cannot expect aid until post-election 2012. As Oklahoma’s Republican Representative Tom Cole said, “… we’re not going to be able to make a lot of decisions that need to be made until the American people decide who the decision makers are going to be. And that’s the biggest challenge to legislating right now” ( us/politics/house-passes-short-term-farm-relief-bill.html).

Shouldn’t we feel some measure of shame that politics trumps human life and human need? Shouldn’t we care more about the nation’s children than red and blue causes? Shouldn’t we be able to collaborate to solve the nation’s problems of poverty and hunger as we once did in the 1960s? Those pieces of legislation have allowed older citizens to thrive. Shouldn’t we care as much if not more for the youngest ones? Put on their shoes. Walk around in them. See what the world looks like from their point of view. Please.