A Thank You to the American Taxpayer

I want to offer my thanks to the readers of the Nouveau Poor and the American taxpayer. For the past several months you’ve been helping to buy my groceries. But I’m relieved to tell you that business has now recovered enough that we are back on our feet and ready to totter forward.

The past few years have been extremely difficult. Because of you, our family has had one bright spot in our daily life—the knowledge that we could afford food. When you can’t afford anything else, your next meal becomes incredibly important.

I’m happy to say the safety net worked like it should. Your help not only got us through some impossible months, it saved the jobs of our remaining employees, so their families could keep eating also. Still, when over 46 million Americans are on food stamps—one of every seven people in the U.S.—you know something is wrong. When the number of people receiving food assistance rises more than 70% in four years, and the cost of the program reaches $72 billion, you realize the system is broken.

But it’s fair to ask which system. While I’m very grateful for the assistance, I would have been even more grateful for a solution that made food stamps unnecessary. Since October, we’ve received nearly $5,000 in assistance or $687 per month for a family of four. Of this, we spent about $3,700. How much better would it have been to lower our taxes that amount so we didn’t need food stamps? Or how about removing the government’s foot from the neck of business so that buyers and sellers could make rational decisions? How about stripping out the endless regulations and requirements that make it almost impossible to make a profit if you’re a small business owner? How about not using businesses as the faceless cash cow for every harebrained scheme to come out of Washington? “Tax the rich” sounds great until you end up with no jobs.

I’ve tried to convey in these posts over the past months what it’s like to walk into a grocery store and buy food with an EBT card—all the while knowing that the cashier and the people in line behind you are eyeing your purchases and evaluating the worth of your clothes and your car. Those critics constantly whisper in my head. I can hear them now saying that if I didn’t like using food stamps we should have quit being leeches and gotten jobs—as if it’s that easy. Never mind that approximately 41% of the people on food stamps, including us, already live in working households.

Many people complain that the system is corrupt and riddled with fraud. And I’ve tried to be honest. Food stamps do warp buying decisions. The money comes at no cost except to dignity, and you don’t get to keep what you save—any money that isn’t spent rolls over, but at the end of the day the savings go back to the government. That makes it hard to be conscientious. Only the benefit amounts and a person’s own ethics act as a brake.

That said, many of the current proposals to “fix” the food stamp program are expensive and/or damaging. Some states have proposed limiting the types of food that can be purchased. But determining what to allow and policing such a system is costly. Others states, like Pennsylvania, have instituted asset testing, which makes sense as long as the asset limits are reasonable. If you force a family to sell a car they need to get to a job or look for work, how does that help taxpayers?

Other proposals include requiring photo identification on EBT cards, instituting a work or volunteer requirement (which would penalize job seekers and parents) and drug testing recipients, which besides being demeaning would be too expensive to be worthwhile. A more targeted approach might be to test only those who request replacement cards.

None of these solutions address the real problem: Taxpayers don’t want to see the person next to them getting for free what they have worked for. If you ask 10 people if they are willing to help the poor, nine of them will say yes. But if you take those same nine people to Wal-Mart and show them a woman (or man) using an EBT card, the majority will be outraged by something the person is buying, by her clothes or haircut or the number of children surrounding her or by her car. They will be sure the person is abusing the system.

Again, they’re focusing on the wrong issue. Food stamps are a blessing when you can’t afford food. Are they the right solution? I still don’t think so. Fix the country’s economic woes, and the majority of people receiving food stamps will be able to solve their own money problems. Lower taxes. Reduce regulation. Encourage education.

It’s hard to make the decision to go off food stamps. It’s hard to give up that safety in the face of uncertainty. The construction industry is showing faint signs of life, following the rest of the limping economy, but it’s far from certain that business will continue to move in the right direction. Much of Europe is back in recession, and the U.S. economy shows many troubling signs as well.

So we make this decision with trepidation. On the one hand, walking into a grocery store and paying for our own food will be a huge relief. On the other, the thought of going back to the days of walking out with as little as possible is daunting. But it’s the right thing to do.

I worry about the lessons my kids are learning. Will they decide there’s no point to saving money and working hard? Will they conclude that a college degree is a waste of time? I’ve wondered all those things the past few years. How has reading or overhearing the negative comments about welfare affected my children? What have they made of our choices with food stamps? For example, when they ask why we can’t buy ice cream or cookies, do they understand our decisions? How do they account for the fact that we’ve told only a handful of family and friends about being on food stamps?

I hope they take away some positive lessons: Help is available if you need it. People can be wonderfully kind and generous. You don’t need the latest gadgets and new clothes and entertainment to be happy. We have gotten good at re-creating foods we used to buy out and at baking our own treats. When you can’t afford any entertainment or extra expenses, being able to make a batch of cookies may be the bright spot of the week. And a packet of oatmeal eaten in a tent is more fun than any fancy breakfast at a restaurant.

This will be the final post for the Nouveau Poor as we re-join the self-sufficient. I want to thank my readers for your comments and encouragement and your own amazing stories. I’ve learned much and been given much to think about. I hope I’ve done the same for you, and I wish you all the greatest success.—The Nouveau Poor

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas everyone. May you all find joy and renewal this holiday season and hear the Whos singing. We delivered our homemade stollen bread to our neighbors this morning; my family has arrived to share Christmas with us; and the music is loud and strong. I want to leave you with a final link this season. These are Christmas stories collected by Yahoo’s The Lookout national affairs blog for its series “Down and Out.” Some of them are tough to read, but they also convey courage and determination. Again, Merry Christmas!

Let it Go, let it go, let it go–away

Tell me when it’s over!” Like the snowman in “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” I hold my umbrella against the blizzard, pelted by flying bits of Christmas, and wait for the storm to end.

Everywhere I go I’m bombarded by carols telling me to have a holly-jolly Christmas, by ads where smiling families unwrap their gifts under glowing trees and by displays of the latest and greatest. This year, for the first time in my life, I can’t wait for the holidays to be over.

Like the Grinch, I’m balanced on top of Mount Crumpit, trying to find some meaning in Christmas. But so far no one in Whoville is singing.

I go shopping and comb the aisles for something we can afford. I’m surrounded by people buying. I leave with nothing. It’s now three days until Christmas Eve. My husband and I have agreed not to exchange gifts so we can buy the kids a present, but I look at him leaving for work in a ratty sweater to hide the holes in his sleeves, and I want to cry. I’m haunted by all our past Christmases, just as surely as Scrooge.

The Ghost of Christmas Past shows me our old traditions. A favorite was a trip into Seattle to see the gingerbread houses at the Sheraton. Sometimes we’d spend the night at the hotel and take a night carriage ride to see the lights, listening to the clop of hooves on the pavement and watching the steam from the horse’s breath. Or we’d take the kids to the Nutcracker, and I’d tell the story about how I was a snowflake once and my tulle skirt caught and pulled down the scenery as I leapt out on stage. Closer to home we’d have an expedition to cut down a tree that always turns out to be too big for our stand, and we’d take the dog and the kids to buy hot chocolate and drive around to look at Christmas lights. Christmas Day we’d feast on a roast that never cooks on time, and share presents long-distance with our parents and our siblings’ families.

The Ghost of Christmas Present shows me wanting to trade any gifts for a month’s worth of heat. The present is struggling to put something under the tree for the kids. It’s trying to explain to family and friends why we won’t exchange gifts this year. It’s being too busy trying to work to spend time together. It’s buying the roast with food stamps under the cashier’s frown. It’s purchasing baking ingredients to make presents and enduring the litany of EBT comments in my head. It’s sorting through sales items and pretending I can actually buy something, knowing I’m going to leave empty-handed. It’s enduring comments from my stepmother about why I haven’t seen my dad in almost two years, even though he’s recovering from lung cancer. I can’t bring myself to tell them we’re on food stamps and I can’t afford a plane ticket.

I hope Christmas Future is better. This one I just want to be over. I know I’m supposed to find greater meaning. That the purpose of Christmas is to celebrate Christ’s birth. I know I have blessings beyond many, many people, and I’m grateful. But in truth, I feel like I’m mourning something lost. I want to buy my kids presents and see their expressions when they open them. I want the strain leave my husband’s face and to quit feeling guilty because he never complains. I want to hear my daughter play in the school Christmas concert and feel something besides stress. I need the Whos to start singing.

Giving Thanks

“Despite lingering unemployment and a still sluggish economy, many Americans are finding reasons to be thankful this time of year. In fact, for some, unexpected layoffs, financial setbacks, or simply a desire to spend more time with family have served as a reality check, a wake-up call for consumers to rethink their idea of wealth and prosperity.”

This sentiment drew over 3,000 comments on Yahoo’s finance page when the site featured a U.S. News & World Report column from Nov. 23 by Susan Johnston on “How Americans are Rethinking Prosperity.”  Most of the responses were scathing.  Apparently, many readers felt that fighting for jobs, struggling to buy food and pay bills, and watching their lifestyles erode does not denote any kind of “new prosperity.” And they don’t seem ready to reflect on any blessings these difficulties may have conveyed.

The article and the comments stayed with me through the Thanksgiving weekend. Can I find anything to be thankful for in our new situation?

The answer is yes. I appreciate that my viewpoint has changed. There are components to poverty that I didn’t understand when I was well off. For example, in the past I used to criticize the way poor people seem to lurch from crisis to crisis. I always wondered why they didn’t they plan ahead. Now I know. You can only put off normal maintenance and repairs and routine health care so long before disaster follows. For instance, I realize my 30-year-old stove needs replacing. The flames shooting out of it one night convinced me. But I patched it up and continue to gamble each night that it will sputter through another meal, because I can’t afford to do otherwise. So I, too, now lurch from crisis to crisis and a better understanding of poverty.

I also appreciate the lessons my children are learning. It’s hard to teach the value of money when it’s plentiful. We’ve always made our kids do chores and work for what they want, but I’m not sure they understood before why we never bought a new TV or an Xbox or upgraded cell phones, even when we could afford them. Now they do. Money is no longer an abstract concept. And they know first-hand the feelings of the kids at school who can’t afford the latest and greatest.

One of my proudest moment this year was when my 15-year-old daughter decided to earn her own money for a trip with her school orchestra later this year. While all her friends were vacationing at the beach and hanging out at the mall, she was working for the state picking up garbage alongside the highway–finding everything from rats to “trucker bottles” (you don’t want to know) to shopping carts full of booze. She now understands the true worth of college.

And I’ve been touched by all the people who are willing to help–from my neighbor who always seems to have cooked too much of something for herself, to the cashiers at the store who still have a friendly smile when they see EBT on the sales slip, to my sister who shares the occasional luxury and an optimistic outlook. People are kinder than I thought.

And of course I’m thankful we’re relatively well off. Our home is secure. We have health insurance and transportation. Work to do, even if it isn’t paying much. We’re all healthy. I know so many people coping with worse. I won’t lie and say I enjoy the new simplicity, because I don’t. But adversity makes you take stock of what you have and what you want. It forces you to learn new skills. For example, my husband is sitting next to me sewing up his ripped coat, and he’s become a gourmet cook. I can now build a killer fire and have attempted blogdom. So it’s not all bad. I understand what the article’s author was trying to say. But I’m with the 3,000 other commenters: I hope this “new prosperity” isn’t permanent.

Help for the Masses–Next Door

Recent headlines proclaimed the “re-emergence of concentrated poverty,” noting that the population in extreme-poverty neighborhoods—defined as areas where at least 40 percent of individuals live below the poverty line—rose by one-third in the 10 years following 2000. So in other words, not only are there more poor people, but there are more poor neighborhoods.  And many of these neighborhoods are now found in the suburbs as well as the inner city.

Researchers with the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution; a Washington, D.C., think tank; came to these conclusions in The Re-Emergence of Concentrated Poverty: Metropolitan Trends in the 2000s” after studying data from the 2005–2009 American Community Survey and the 1990 and 2000 Censuses. While I’m skeptical of many of their findings, my own neighborhood has morphed from a mildly upscale, white-bread suburb into a more interesting mix over the past couple years.  

For example, one couple now has their middle-aged daughter living with them. She’s been unemployed for over three years and is waiting for the bank to finish foreclosing on her home while she looks for work. Farther up the street, another man is hosting a mentally ill sister who cannot hold a job.

Then there’s the guy around the corner who inherited his home from his father. He does occasional odd-jobs, but exists without electricity, heat or transportation. A couple houses past him lives a family of immigrants who never have fewer than 10 cars in their driveway at any time. No one is sure how many people actually stay there.  Another family, from Central America, moved in last year and ran afoul of the neighbors by refusing to take their ancient, skeletal dog to the vet.  Apparently, to them, dogs have not yet become treasured family members that get their own Halloween costumes.

We’ve also experienced more crime in the past year, mostly from a spate of break-ins fueled by a pair of drug-sellers who live nearby. So occasionally we get our own episode of “Cops,” as the police chase the suspects through the neighborhood while helicopters hover over the treetops.

Does this sound like the suburbs? In some ways, these changes have been positive. As a stay-at-home writer, I used to get odd looks for being here during the day. Now I have lots of company. And the break-ins have forced the neighbors to talk to each other. We now swap notices of suspicious vehicles through a thriving block-watch system.  People never lack for neighborhood gossip when they run into each other. What used to be a mumbled hello is now more likely to be a discussion of job-hunting tips or the latest sightings of the neighborhood drifter. And the shift has shown what I’ve always suspected. It may take fifteen years to stop being a newcomer here, and Bunco parties may never catch on, but if you need a hand, this a great place to be.