The Unintentionally Entitled

“Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.”  

(James A. Baldwin)

In the profoundly harsh words of iconic actor and artist Tupac Shakur, “They got (sic) money for wars, but can’t feed the poor.” We are not a moral nation when we assume that security is more important than basic needs. Forgive me, men of uniform. I am not discounting the various sacrifices made in the name of freedom by these brave men who enter wars with heart and solidarity to this country. But shouldn’t we, as a nation that prides itself as a beacon of hope, be as proud and caring of our citizens who cannot–whatever reasons may be–care for themselves?

Being poor is not a crime. No matter what the GOP tells you, no matter how Republican pundits insert it into the national conversation–there is not a soul on this earth who wouldn’t rather have a better station in life. It is an irresponsible habit of the GOP to cradle the notion that poor people enjoy a life of welfare entitlements. There are not, nor were there ever any welfare queens. If you have ever seen 1974’s Claudine you have witnessed, not an exaggerated fictional character drawn from the white-guilt of a conscious writer, but a remarkably truthful icon of what society has long viewed as the Welfare Queen. It takes a boot to the misconceptions that built the unfair image of poor single black mothers in the ghetto.

Claudine depicts the struggle for respectability of a black family. Written by Lester and Tina Pine, the film points its lens on Claudine, a single black mother of six living in a rundown apartment with little means to better their situation. There is no husband/father in the home. Claudine, though working, is dependent on “Mr. Welfare” to keep her family afloat. He is a noose and a help; a burden but also a gift. When title character Claudine falls in love with Roop, a black garbage man, “Mr. Welfare” releases his tentacles. To keep the financial aid of the government, Claudine must not have any man living in her home. She must also not work because it is illegal. If “Mr. Welfare” has his say, she will remain unemployed, waiting for her monthly allotment to barely cover her monthly expenses. But Claudine wants more; she wants to be perceived as a hardworking woman and responsible mother–not the welfare-dependent scion.

Roop attempts to woo Claudine under the distrustful eyes of her children.

Lester Pine said of the film: After so many movies depicting black people as violent and cruel, Claudine wasn’t like that. Claudine was a nice picture about people who strive for exactly the same thing everyone else does: respectability. To be respected as human beings.

Washington is gearing up to fight the looming “fiscal cliff” that promises to change government entitlement programs and taxes. There are changes that should be made to structure our country back on its feet. When I hear politicians speak in clipped language about drastic changes that will shift the already shaky ground of low-income families, I cringe. Is being hungry entitled living or thinking? Isn’t being able to handle basic needs a responsibility any human being would relish having? That is not an entitlement.  According to Republicans like Governor Romney:

“There are… (people)… who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to – you name it,” Romney is seen and heard saying. “That’s an entitlement…. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax…”

Poor people are not entitled. They have no idea what it means to assume that someone will stand up for them. Believing that a government large enough to manage multiple wars in countries across the continents and also do its part to ensure the stability of its citizens is a responsibility, not an entitlement. The language used to describe programs that enable some to live as respectfully as they can should not feel scathing. If we are responsible to bring peace to Iraq and civil rights to Afghanistan, then we are responsible to our own citizens. Why is my health and well-being any less important than a poor woman in some distant country that receives aid from the United States?

It’s not.

I have a very personal stake in this story. After working, going to school, and striving to become a part of the middle class, I found myself single and pregnant, without health insurance. I was also still in graduate school attempting to finish a program that would award me with a piece of paper that said I shouldn’t be on welfare, but guess what–I ended up there. Pride aside, I thought of the life of my unborn child. I didn’t ever want to be a person that needed the government’s help because society indoctrinated us to believe those who do are less than.

I entered the building with every assumption and justification on my shoulders. I sat down in front of a well-meaning woman who did her best to make me as comfortable as possible. I was literally shaking in the seat. What if I were denied? What if my degree disqualified me for aid? I didn’t know. I had all the ignorant notions of confronting “Mr. Welfare’s” entitlements. 

From the case worker I learned that I was eligible to receive SNAP benefits, cash assistance when I hit the sixth month of my pregnancy, and immediate health care. Mind you, I hadn’t been covered by health care since I was sixteen years old. It had been that long since I’d seen a doctor. Almost fifteen years. The tape running in my head wanted to shame me, therefore shaming my child and the situation that had brought me into the arms of my federal government. It wanted me to be ashamed to pull out that SNAP card in grocery stores to purchase food that nourished my growing pregnant body. It wanted me to watch the eyes of the doctor and nurse I had chosen to see me through nine months of pregnancy. To perceive judgement or disdain because I was covered by federally funded health insurance.

It took a long time to overcome the shame in the grocery store. I live in an area that is not particularly low-income. Some of my neighbors would be considered upper-middle class. The first couple of times that I pulled out that food benefits card, I did so in the safety of a store that catered to the kinds of people I assumed wouldn’t judge. I  thought that by staying in the comfort of my shame, I wouldn’t have to look away when an angry shopper saw my card and thought to themselves that here was another one on the tax payer’s dime. But gradually I remembered a couple of things. One was, I had worked since I was eighteen years old. I had paid taxes. I contributed my share for those who were benefiting from a system I was not on. I didn’t complain. In fact, I saw it as my reasonable duty as a healthy citizen of these united states that we call America. It wasn’t my shame to carry. It was the person who would sneer at a pregnant woman who had the same nutritional needs. Eventually, I did end up in a grocery store that catered to a higher income bracket without worrying about their perceptions. In fact, there were times that other people who didn’t look like they belonged on SNAP pulled out their food benefit card ahead of me in line.

Intuitively, I happened to choose a doctor who treated me as if I were any other patient. I never saw one ounce of judgement over my healthcare insurance. No arrogance or disdain. My pregnancy was as wonderful as it could be with a doctor whose first thought is medicine, and not the politics of welfare. I don’t believe that all doctors practice this way. (I wouldn’t have mentioned it otherwise.) She showed compassion and never ever looked down on me. In fact, she always showed genuine interest in educational background and my accomplishments, my family and what I intended to do after I gave birth.

During the last couple months of my pregnancy, I was classified as high-risk which meant that I needed to see a specialist weekly, as well as have stress tests every two weeks. Without health care, none of these needs would have been met. My specialist came highly recommended and his practice was one of the more lucrative in our area. When I walked into his practice for the first time, I actually expected to see a chilly face when I mentioned my insurance provider. This doctor and his staff showed only compassion and humanity every time I saw them. The situation was highly stressful enough. I didn’t need the burden of my own imagined shame to add anymore. It was one of many unbelievable gifts of humanity that I never felt lower class, not ever.  I had a seamless delivery, a healthy baby, and health insurance for her upon delivery.

Am I a Welfare Queen? Did I take advantage of a system put into place to do exactly what I needed it to do when I needed it? Did my inability to find a job in this economy after graduating with two degrees make me hopeless? Was I any less qualified for these entitlement programs than Mitt Romney’s dad when he needed them?

I believe that I am a good citizen who has done my share to contribute positively to society. I am an advocate for education, the arts, cultural diversity, and leveling the field so that other players can enter. I do not believe that I am any less of a mother because I relied on the government until I was able to stand on my own two feet. But let me tell you, standing on my own two feet is wonderful, but without those benefits, there is a struggle there. I’m not starving, neither is my daughter. We are healthy. She will continue to receive health care until I find a full-time job that provides those benefits. Like many other Americans, I’m gambling that I will remain healthy and well until that time.

If I were entitled, I would assume that I should able to keep health insurance and cash assistance and food benefits so that I can move into the middle class. But I’m not. I’m a single parent, a black female, a woman, the mother to a daughter who simply wants the same opportunities as the next person. I am blessed to have a job that I love, good pay, and fair health. I don’t expect America to do anything except support me in maintaining those attributes.