Yolanda described her personal experiences as a single mother of three children, two on the autism spectrum, juggling as many jobs as possible with medical appointments, school meetings and all of the duties any mother faces. “I was a person that was once on welfare,” she said.
As Yolanda described how she became an advocate for other people experiencing poverty, she talked about visiting prominent politicians in Washington, D.C. She shared a suggestion at least one politician had for how to improve her lot.
“Maybe if you get married, it will improve your financial situation.”
(For the record, Yolanda’s response was, “Sorry, I’ve already been there and I don’t recommend that to anyone.”)
One of Kat Bouska’s prompts this week is “Write about a policy that drives you bonkers.”
Any policy that places a woman in an inequitable position as part of getting assistance definitely goes in the “bonkers” category for me.
If a poor, single father went to a politician to advocate for safety net programs, is there any chance at all that the politician would suggest getting married as the solution? It’s doubtful.
I wish I could say I was surprised that getting married was suggested to Yolanda as a solution. I was a little surprised, but that surprise quickly abated. Maybe it’s a little more common in the South, where Yolanda and I are both from, but I’m not sure.
At that point in Yolanda’s speech, I thought about a byzantine Medicaid requirement I kept hearing of back when I worked at the Florida Healthy Kids Corporation. I may not be representing it right, but it was something like, “Pregnant minors living by themselves can’t get Medicaid unless they are living with a man older than 18.” I apologize that I can’t remember the specifics of it, but it was one of those things that, every time I heard it, struck me as ridiculous. Why not just help the young woman versus demanding she be in a relationship that may not be a) loving b) safe or c) financially any more secure than she would be on her own?
What is the solution?
I don’t know the solution (hey — the prompt just said to write about the policy, not solve it!).
However, here are a few thoughts:
First, we as a country need to recognize the degree to which many of our policies are drawn upon unfair assumptions that are often racist. This Center for Budget and Policy Priorities piece on TANF policies is a good primer, including this quote:
A “legacy of exclusion and subjugation is a major reason why TANF cash assistance, though a critical support for some, doesn’t meet the needs of most families in poverty, regardless of their race or ethnicity.”
Second, each one of us who is not part of a marginalized community needs to be willing to put aside the beliefs we grew up with.
Full disclosure: I was sitting in the conference room at Healthy Kids (my previous employer) once. Someone who was working with us part-time was talking about how hard it was for young, poor mothers to not have cable. I immediately snapped back, “Cable is a privilege.”
I was not a parent yet.
Now that I am a parent, I know what it feels like to have a kid who needs allllllll of your attention and how easy it is for exhaustion and anger to set in if you can’t shake free for even a few moments from the stresses of caring for little kids.
I am a social liberal who is probably more fiscally conservative than many of my advocacy peers, so I don’t know how to draw the line. All I can say is that, looking back, I hate my immediate negative response. There has to be some way to help young, poor parents, beyond forcing them to jump through bureaucratic hoops for scraps of assistance.
Third, we can take action on Yolanda’s “bold solution” (the theme of the TEDx was “bold solutions”).
She reminded the audience that we all have a right to speak to our legislators (and their staffs), and that they will take our calls and emails.
“Think about someone you know who you’ve never had a conversation with, but you see their struggle. When you see a politician on TV, get their email address. Tell them that we have families spending up to 50% of their income just on housing. Each time you hear a politician say something you don’t agree with, call them on it. Don’t complain about it; be about it.” (That last line was my favorite!)
“You should get married” is an absolutely “bonkers” policy suggestion.
While “pay it forward” isn’t a policy suggestion, I think if we did a different, better, more comprehensive job of helping the people who are hard workers but need assistance with housing, child care and nutrition in this country, we might find that they pay it forward in the richest of ways.
Wife of one, Mom of two, Friend of many. My pronouns are she/her/hers.