Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A Safety Net Constructed of Blood

This post was written as part of Blog Action Day 2008

As a family-historian and genealogist, part of bringing to life the statistics of a family's existence is to learn how those people lived, worked, and survived. Like many of my fellow colleagues who blog about their genealogy research, I've not only encountered poverty within the confines of my ancestors' histories, but within my own history as well.

I grew up in upstate New York during the 1960s and 1970s, being raised mostly by my mother Jacqueline MacEntee. Raising two young boys solo was hard enough, but add to it a judicial system which refused to enforce child support payment laws, the prejudice against women in the working world and the economic downturn of the early 1970s - well, you could easily see yourself at the precipice of poverty.

Mom grew up in much worse circumstances, having been born in Jersey City, New Jersey and growing up in one of the first housing projects in the country. My mother was one of 12 siblings and to this day I just don't know how my grandparents managed with all those children to clothe and feed.

Like many families, they were part of a safety net constructed of blood - relatives helping relatives get through another day, another month, another year. My great-grandparents were a great help in that each summer they took in all 12 children and treated them to fresh air, home-grown food, and country fun.

Those same people did the same for my mother. My great-grandmother, Therese McGinnis Austin was always there for me, Mom and my brother and I don't just mean around holidays or for special occasions such as graduations and birthdays. Both she and her husband, John Ralph Austin, took an active interest in my survival, as it were, and made sure that Mom had what she needed to raise two young boys. I don't mean the monetary aspects - I mean the emotional, social and moral support that every child needs when growing up.

In reading back through the history of my family, it has always been this family-based system of "carrying each other through" that has enabled one generation to look at the next and say, "they do have it better than we did."

And in those same readings, I see many families who prospered during the 1920s and forgot the frugal ways under which they had lived or were raised, only to revert back to them during the Great Depression. I see the same thing happening in more recent times: people ditching their SUVs, eating out less, more brown bag lunches, stay-cations, etc. There are, however, some of us who never lost our frugal ways, and still hang on to some of them, to the obvious embarrassment and irritation of our children or our nieces and nephews.

So with a family history steeped in a tradition of “pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps” or relying on family members for support, I am conflicted when I hear people speak of economic assistance with disdain. As if “those people” were being lazy, were not working hard enough, or didn’t deserve assistance.

In the past of my family, there has always been community assistance besides the family safety net – be it through local houses of worship or benevolent associations, etc. It’s just that we never took advantage of that. Some members of my family were the typical obstinate “I don’t accept charity” types while others saw a certain value in “doing for oneself.”

While all that is admirable, there should be no sense of failure in asking for help. There should be no shame in asking for help. In my mind, although my view is somewhat idealistic, any program whether it be faith-based or government run is not intended as a lifestyle, but as a “jump start” to being self-sufficient. Too many times I’ve overheard the not-so-silent “tsk tsk” when someone uses food stamps or a WIC card; I’ve seen people yell at those standing in line at a soup kitchen saying, “Get a job, ya bums!;” and I’ve actually witnessed one successful woman ask another how much her monthly Section 8 voucher was worth and why she had it.

We only choose to see what we want to see very often. It isn’t my role to judge, nor is it any of my business that the woman with the WIC payments was just abandoned by her husband; that a “bum” in the soup line is actually a skilled office worker who was laid off and then beset with health problems; that the woman with a voucher is actually taking care of her nieces and nephews while her sister deals with her drug habit.

Yes, there are people that abuse systems – any system – when it is set up for good. There will always be someone who will try to make bad out of good, to leverage something to their advantage. Perhaps, again, the idealist in me is holding the bar too high for my expectations of those in poverty.

But what is far worse to me is to be well-situated from an economic standpoint, yet be impoverished of mind, and starving of understanding.

And far worse is to not even know it.


Sheri said...

Bravo Thomas, well said!

Sheri Fenley


For six years, I was a single mom raising three children. Like your mom, it was my family who acted as my "safety net." Like your mom, it wasn't the monetary aid as much as it was the helping me see to a 1001 details that come up when you are raising children. Who would watch the kids when I had to work until six on Fridays? Who would go to Mike's baseball game, while I was at Eric's? Who would watch Joy when she came down with the chicken pox while I went to work? Sometimes it was just as simple as a "stay and have a cup of tea, and tell me about your day."

I'm guessing that your mother, like many single parents, felt that special bond with her children that comes from shared struggles. And I am guessing that like many other single parents, she felt the sorrow of not being able to share her child's achievements with the one person in all the world who should have had the same vested interested as she.

Even a quarter of a century later, my feelings are still too raw, and I would feel too exposed to put my experiences into my own blog. Somehow, your own story, written by a child of a single parent is a salve to an unhealed wound.