We are now in the midst of the longest government shutdown in United States history. If you aren’t following it there are hundreds of thousands of workers who have now missed a paycheck. These workers are facing the hard decision of working without pay so they receive back pay, or possibly not being able to afford to get to work at all. And some federal agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration and federal aviation technicians, are operating at such low levels that the lack of their usual services may cause actual physical harm to the population at large.
A story made its way onto my Twitter timeline last week. A woman affected by the shutdown had to pawn her wedding ring in order to pay bills or buy food or whatever her immediate needs were. But good news! Her family found out that she had done that, so they went and bought it back for her from the pawn shop! What a feel good story!
Luckily we are all much more critical consumers of media, and other Twitterites latched onto the fact that this was NOT in fact a feel good story. The fact that this woman had to pawn her ring at all was a travesty, and the fact that her family then had to pay what was probably a higher price than what she pawned it for to get it back for her seems terrible too, an act of charity that should not have been necessary.
I’ve been thinking about this story for the past couple of days, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on why the entire thing bothered me. What could have happened differently? If her family had the money to buy her wedding ring back, why hadn’t they just cut out the middle man and helped her directly? If her family felt close enough to help her in this way, why didn’t the woman ask them directly for help?
The more I asked myself these questions, the clearer the answer became. It’s an answer I’m all too familiar with, and anyone who has ever struggled financially, to the point where bills go unpaid in favor or groceries, or food waits so that you can buy gas to get to work to make more money in the first place. All of it is rooted in shame and isolationism.
The amount of shame that accompanies being poor in this country is overwhelming. People assume you are lazy, that you don’t have a job, that you aren’t trying hard enough to get a job, that you spend your money unwisely, that you are stupid, and that you are a leech or a thief among other things. To admit that you need money or other forms of assistance is to open yourself for these kinds of judgments, and they come swiftly and immediately. I can’t count how many times I berated myself instead of asking for help. There had to have been something I could have done differently, spent in a different way, made different decisions – but the heart of the matter is that when you are poor enough to necessitate help, the walls have closed in so tightly that your decisions are forced, choice doesn’t really exist anymore, and all is survival.
This shame breeds a kind of isolationism, both on the part of the poor in an effort to avoid mistreatment and judgment, but also on the part of family, friends, and society at large. We live in a society that emphasizes the idea that we should take care of our own, and mind our own business. Conservatism lauds keeping our money in our own pockets, lowering taxes and leaving the power of deciding what to do with our money to individuals. The problem is that it is human nature to be selfish and so a kind of hoarding mentality has taken over much of the population – people on welfare are seen as thieves coming to steal our hard-earned money. Why didn’t they work hard for their income like we did? Why should we have to give up what we earned to help them? They’ll just get comfortable leeching and then we’ll never get them off welfare! And so instead of reaching out to hold up everyone and lift them into a place where they are safe, housed, and fed, we screech that we got ours, and everyone else can go to hell.
We reach a point where a daughter can’t reach out to her parents for help, she has to pawn her belongings to hide her shame, even when that shame stems from a situation out of her control. And then, instead of knowing their daughter/sister/niece is a federal employee and reaching out to her to see if she needs help, they wait until it’s something they can fix for her and bring it back. They aren’t giving her money! They are getting her wedding ring back! She shouldn’t have to give up her wedding ring! The family got to choose how to spend their money without giving a handout, the woman made a decision how to get her money, and all is right with the world. Right?
Our culture punishes, shames, and actively damages the poor people in this country. To change how this particular story played out we would need to shift an entire national mindset concerning what it means to be an American. What it means to be a part of a society, part of a community. We would need to understand that only when the least of us have the necessary income, housing, food, and opportunities are all people lifted up and their conditions improved. I think we did understand this marginally once (public services like schools, libraries, Social Security, the New Deal, etc), but the past 20-40 years have been a slow process of breaking it all apart again.
So a woman can’t ask her family directly for money. A woman can’t easily go to her community for help. A woman is expected to handle her own business. Then, if others discover what she’s chosen to do and disagree, they can swoop in, judge her actions, and then helping is okay because they are the heroes instead of just existing to make sure everyone has what they need to live. They know better and love to show you how, which only perpetuates the cycle of shame. No, this isn’t a feel good story. It isn’t a feel good story because it puts on display how our country works when we refuse to foster community and instead insist on divisiveness, scrutiny, judgment and shame.
I’m not really sure how to end this post. I want people to care, but I don’t know how to explain to people that they should. I don’t know how to explain caring to people that lack empathy. The fact that this lady had to pawn her belongings has roots in so many dysfunctions in our society that it’s honestly difficult to hold myself back from talking about them all at once. We all play a role in breaking or reinforcing these behaviors and beliefs, and it takes courage to face the very strong cultural norms that will fight back in resistance to change. Always choose compassion. Always choose to help. Choose to share. Choose support.
Read. Be brave. Stay angry.
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