Sometimes We’re Lost Without a Burden: Joshua’s Story

by on August 23, 2019 · 0 comments

in San Diego

By Joni Halpern

Dear Ohio,

The massive gap between what we know about each other and what we hear from a myriad of information sources is killing us.  This gap is rendering us incapable of measuring the facts and opinions to which we are exposed against the truth about our individual lives.

How can we know if it is correct to cut 3.1 million Americans from the food stamp rolls if we know nothing about people who get food stamps except what powerful people tell us?  There is no cure for this ignorance except to hear each other’s stories. I’ll go first.

In the recent past, when I was working as a volunteer lawyer, running a nonprofit that served very low-income families, I opened my door to a distraught mother of three children — two girls  ages nine and seven, and one boy age three. Each one shook my hand and introduced themselves. They were very well-behaved children, but they looked tired, even worn out, as the two girls shook themselves out of their knapsacks and slumped onto the floor.  Joshua, the littlest, knelt on the floor, but kept his backpack on his shoulders.

“Get out your books,” the mom encouraged them gently.  “We have to turn in those books at the library tomorrow.  You need to finish them.”

Instead of taking off his backpack to get his picture books, Joshua turned his back toward his mom and let her extract them.  His mom self-consciously smiled at me. “He hates to take off his backpack. In fact, he would sleep in it if I let him.”

The mother’s legal matter took almost an hour, what with questions and papers and a struggle with tears.  Joshua’s mother had been forced to flee to California from another state, because her abusive husband had discovered where she and the children had been living.  She had left a good job and raced to what she thought was the farthest corner of the U.S. in the hope of avoiding a husband who had threatened to kill her. Having exhausted her savings, she had hunted unsuccessfully for a job in California that would cover rent, transportation and child care.  When nothing turned up, her last resort was an application for public benefits — welfare, food stamps and basic medical care.

Oh, I know what you’re thinking, Dear Ohio.  If you were in her situation, you would die before you ever asked the government for anything.  That is nearly what is expected of applicants for public benefits. They are required to be so poor before applying that they have exhausted nearly every resource they have.  They also must exhaust their dignity and pride, because almost every state and federal application requirement is designed not only to ensure an applicant is destitute, but to convey to them how morally deficient they are for even asking their fellow taxpayers to help.

And just to make sure these flawed indigents do not sit back and rest on the public largesse, the amounts provided by public benefits fall far short of what it takes to maintain even meager subsistence.  But then, we cannot have our fellow Americans turning down dangerous, distant, low-wage, no-benefit, dead-end jobs because public assistance is too generous. (Especially now that we are getting rid of our immigrants.) No, sir.  Federal and state law ensure that public benefits, even in the most generous states, are far below what a parent could earn in the meanest, lowliest, most poorly paid job around.

But even the great architects of welfare reform ideas — people like David T. Ellwood who wrote the famous book Poor Support, which Congress and Bill Clinton distorted into welfare reform legislation — have made it clear that poor people work when there is work they are able to do, provided they can find transportation and child care, and sometimes even when they can’t.  But it costs money to have a job. You have to have the proper training or be able to train on the job.

You have to be able to get to and from the job, since most employers are not within walking distance of their employees’ homes. If you have young children or a family member who needs care, you have to earn enough to pay for the consequences will interfere with your work.   Today, a job that meets basic needs to keep a family like Joshua’s going — something known as the “self-sufficiency wage” — would have to pay almost $30 per hour in Ohio and almost $50 per hour in San Diego.

When my interview with Joshua’s mom was over, it was already far past lunch time.  I was hungry, but I wasn’t going to eat until I was sure she and the kids had their own lunch.  Shelters often require their residents to leave after breakfast and chores, take all their belongings, and stay away until dinner time.  Since most residents are penniless, that means they wander around in heat or cold, tire or not, and go without lunch. That’s hard on kids and parents as well.

“Ready for lunch?” I asked the kids, knowing low-income mothers often are afraid to admit they have nothing to feed their kids.  They worry about losing their children to child protective service agencies.

“Oh, we’re fine,” said the mom.

“I’m hungry,” said Joshua.

“We’ll eat later,” said the mom, gathering up her things.  “Come on. Let’s pack up your books and go.”

“But I’m hungry,” said Joshua. The girls were silent, staring warily at Joshua.

“Well, so am I,” I said.  “I don’t know about you guys, but I figure that place down the street has something you might like.”  I turned to the mom. “What do say we eat together?”

She caught the anticipation in her kids’ eyes and was silent for a few seconds.  Then she said, “Well, maybe a little something would be good.”

We decided to walk to the little food joint, but Joshua’s backpack was heavy.  I had given the kids some donated books, and he was shifting his load back and forth, up and down, trying to get comfortable.  I tried to convince him to leave the backpack in the locked office, but he would have no part of it. Finally, his mother convinced him, and he reluctantly peeled off the pack and gave it to me to put in the office.

We had gone no more than a quarter of a block when Joshua started bawling, sobbing so hard he couldn’t speak.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.  “What happened?”

His family gathered around him.  His mother tried but couldn’t console him.  His sisters patted his back, looking as if they were going to cry.

“I’m sorry,” said Joshua’s mom.  “Could you go back and get the backpack?”  She saw my perplexed look. “You don’t understand,” she said.  “We’ve been in shelters on and off for the last few weeks. They don’t have any place to store belongings, so you have to carry them with you all day, every day.  Joshua’s whole life is in that backpack. His books, his little cars, his toothbrush, his clothes. He can’t part with it, not even for a minute. Once he almost lost it in a shelter, and ever since then, he won’t take it off until I take it from him after he falls asleep.”

I went back to the office and got the backpack.  I gave it to him and he slipped his arms through, his ebony skin stained with tears.  In a few moments, his burden was lifted onto his back, and he felt whole again.

I cannot say if Joshua’s story illuminates an American reality for you as it does for me, Dear Ohio.  But perhaps it is a start, something we might build on to help us weigh the promises and performance of those who seek to steer the course of this magnificent ship of state, something that will help us measure the information we get against the standard of our countrymen’s reality.

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