Washing Laundry in The Bathtub

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Being both a writer and a woman who was once a teenage mom, I’m often asked: “If you could write a letter to your 16 year old self, what would it say?”

The answer is always the same: “Don’t worry. You’ll own your own washer and dryer one day.”

No. I never want to tell myself about living fairy tales—whether involving Prince Charming stories or Ugly Duckling tales. I always default to self-reliance, and simply finding that place in life where I’m finally “okay”.  This probably all seems strange, but when you’ve been where I have, you understand the glory of doing laundry.

See, I spent a great deal of my life lying to folks about my financial status. Not because I wanted to mislead anyone, mind you. Just because I was raised believing “Poor” is a self-chosen social disease we should look down upon. When I fell squarely under the heading myself, shame overcame me. I told the tales of my “having” days, but rarely did I speak of when I was a “have not”.

My childhood was privileged with private schools, all the nice clothes and toys, boats, new cars, nice homes, and upstanding parents. This changed during my parents’ divorce when I was 13-14. My mom left with little or nothing. When my father decided it best for me to live with her, I shared in her nothing, and we ended up on public assistance. Shortly thereafter, due to my parents being the typical divorced parents in the mid-1980s who only worried about one-upping each other and who they were dating/marrying, I led a mostly unsupervised life. My son was born 5 days prior to my 16th birthday.

Dad refused to provide any level of support to us, financial or otherwise. Mom moved out, and there I was, son in tow, with absolutely nothing. No phone. No cable. No car. I had my feet and determination, but that was about the extent of our resources.

Our apartment, rented in my mother’s name, but occupied only by my son and I, did not include a washer and dryer. There was a common pay per load laundry facility in the middle building. When you’re living off $3.15 an hour (minimum wage then), even trying to pay the meager amount of rent, electric, and still buy food takes every dime. I really didn’t have the dollar or so it would have cost me to wash a load of laundry. I realize that seems silly, but it’s one of those aspects of poverty one can only understand when they’ve been there. If only I’d been taught this in childhood, maybe the shock wouldn’t have been so bad, but I digress.  Washing laundry, then, was a matter of physical labor only women pre 20th century might understand.

Each night I would kneel at my bathtub, fill it with water and pink, generic dish soap (rarely could I afford laundry detergent) and dump our small basket of laundry in to soak. After they’d set for long enough, I’d begin the job of scrubbing each piece of clothing by hand, rinsing, re-rinsing, and wringing out the water. It was a painstaking process. My fingers often became so dry they’d bleed from doing something that, in 1989, most people did without even a thought, let alone physical effort. On the weekends, the laundry included towels and bedsheets. By Monday, my hands would look like I’d spent a month in the snow sans gloves.

When the day finally came that I could afford the laundry mat, I felt like a millionaire. No joke. I loved going to wash clothes because that meant the skin on my hands would remain, and my clothes wouldn’t be stretched out and sour smelling from hanging on the shower curtain rod to dry overnight.

Eventually, I moved out of an apartment, and into my own home. My very first home purchase was made at Sears with an unbelievable amount of joy: A brand new washer and dryer! Yes. I could simply walk down the hallway, drop clothes in the top, push the button, and trot off to help my kids (3 of them by then) with homework. I could even afford laundry detergent. Liquid laundry soap, even!  Queen of Sheba!

My life has changed so much over 43 years. I’ve gone from being part of a family with more money than most, to abject poverty, to doing okay.

I own my own little piece of the Earth, now. It’s meager and small, but I it’s mine free and clear, and I love it.

I’m doing what I love most: Studying. Momming. Writing.

Although I’ve long since replaced that first washer and dryer, I’m still doing laundry in the manner I’d dreamed. I even have a clothesline so, in the summer, my bed linens smell fresh and nice. My kids are happy, healthy adults. I’m a grandma now. Life in general is pretty great. I’ve even almost finished my college degree.

When people ask me what that degree means to me, I never answer status or fulfilling a family legacy.

I simply say: It means I’ll be able to leave a legacy for my kids—to show them that just because you’re skinning your knuckles today doesn’t mean you always will. With enough hard work and determination, you’ll realize your dreams, too.

Hard work and determination are the two resources we Poor People will always have. They can’t take those from us, mostly because they never believed we had them to begin with.

(image source: http://www.howtocleanstuff.net/how-to-hand-wash-clothing/)

Welcome to Modernity, Austin, IN.

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How long have we been battling HIV/AIDs? Since the mid-1980s or so, we’ve actually had a name for the disease that still goes without a cure. Many places in the world have been fighting not only the direct effects of the disease, but the indirect effects as well for decades. In places like Africa, misinformation about HIV/AIDs has even led to folklore such as the belief that sex with a virgin would cure or somehow prevent the disease, leading to the rape of many innocent young people. While the United States has not experienced this effect, we have our own brand of bad information.

Recently, the tiny town of Austin, Indiana made national news because of an HIV outbreak. The outbreak, according to officials, is largely caused by IV drug use of the prescription pain killer Opana, and of course, heroin and methamphetamine. While one might wonder how what should be a quiet, tiny town becomes the hotbed of drug addiction, and makes National news as the “epicenter” of an HIV outbreak, it really isn’t that much of a shock to those of us who are native to this area. This little town has been a center of drugs and violence for decades.

With little industry, few resources, and no growth in sight, the town has basically been a dead zone for years. Austin has always been a place plagued with trouble. It’s just now that stronger, more lethal drugs have become prevalent and people are overdosing and becoming ill, heads are turning in that direction. That’s not a shocking trend. Overlooking areas such as Austin is not unique—many small towns never make the radar until something shocking happens. What is troubling is the horrible misinformation about both the cause and the solution to the problem.

Watching my local news reports on the goings on in Austin, one story sticks out in my mind. A woman stood on her porch describing how she and her children had borne witness to drug deals and prostitution on her street. She spoke of caring a gun, now, to protect her home and children. While this probably isn’t a crazy idea, it is a bit misguided to think that she could combat this problem with a firearm. Could she protect her home from intruders? Sure. Protect her children from strangers? Sure. Stop drug deals and prostitution? Probably not—maybe…maybe she could get lucky and stop what is going on directly in front of her home, but there is no way that gun ownership will lessen drug addiction and the prostitution that often accompanies it. What really troubles me, though, is during the conversation about people who have contracted HIV, gun ownership rears its head as part of the solution. I mean, the woman never said she’d kill or harm HIV patients, but the news report seemed ill timed when the focus is on stopping the spread of HIV/AIDs and not on stopping crime.

Other misguided conversations on social media called those who had contracted the disease “disgusting” and “scary,” making it seem as if one could catch the virus from a neighbor’s sneeze. It actually took the CDC to clear up some antiquated ideas about the spread of HIV/AIDs. Hearing what people still thought might happen reminded me of 1986-1987 when I first learned about the disease. We were frightened then because we didn’t understand how this all worked. We asked questions like “can we get it from sharing a glass of water?” I really thought, though, that the uncertainty and incorrect assumptions we all made nearly 30 years ago were long gone. Granted, we haven’t been fighting this monster on the scale they have in larger municipalities, but we have had residents with HIV/AIDs for years. Why did we all of a sudden think sharing a neighborhood was akin to sharing a needle?

I do understand that addicts dropping needles all over the place is a danger, as is the danger for medical professionals, but rather than talking about taking up arms to protect oneself, why aren’t we having involved conversations about clean needle exchanges and free condoms? Those subjects are nearly taboo in an area where fundamentalist conservatives have a stronghold.

The CDC did make its way into Austin when the number of those testing positive for HIV hit double digits. By the time it had hit triple digits, a temporary clean needle exchange had been established, as well as free testing. The keyword is “temporary”. For only 30 days, addicts can come in free of fear of incarceration to exchange their needles for clean ones, thereby helping to halt the spread of the disease. What happens after 30 days, though? Where do these people turn?

Surely, we understand that very few, if any, of these people will be drug free and clean in 30 days. Since the needle exchange is working—people are absolutely coming in for clean needles just as they do in larger cities with the exchanges—why aren’t we going to continue? Drug addiction isn’t going away. Guns won’t scare it away. Sorry. That demon is not afraid of death. This idea that giving away clean needles and condoms somehow “supports,” “condones,” or even “encourages” drug use and promiscuity is absurd.

I’ve read the remarks of people who have said we need to show people this behavior is not to be “admired”. The idea that people become drug users/addicts because they think its “admirable” is asinine. Truthfully, it’s the socioeconomic climate the residents of Austin must fight that breeds addiction, and prostitution just follows along as a cottage industry built by their broken lives. I would never assume any of these people wanted to be an addict when they grew up. To believe that is to totally misunderstand addiction. Addiction is something people turn to when there’s nowhere else to turn. It covers their pain. It’s the self-medication that is both the cure and the disease. Loose morals and lack of religion didn’t create this situation. Hopelessness, helplessness, and a feeling of living in an inescapable hell built what we’re dealing with for most. For some, this is a multigenerational problem that both parents and grandparents couldn’t escape. But no one cared 40 years ago, 30 years ago, or even 5 years ago. The violence and drug and sex trade are nothing new to Austin, Indiana. HIV is—or at least people knowing they have HIV is.

Putting a gun in someone’s hands will not kill this problem. Killing the bad information, killing the idea that if we close our eyes it will all go away, and killing the conservative stance that clean needle exchanges and free condoms somehow hurt society will fix this problem. Maybe it won’t stop people from using drugs or working in the sex trade to earn a few dollars, but it might very well stop the rampant spread of HIV. Locals who are too invested in personal religious tropes to invest in the public heath might want to rethink their primary investments before they end up bankrupt.

No. HIV is nothing new. Austin, Indiana, unfortunately, is just a small town that was hurled into modernity to meet up with what the rest of the world has known for decades: You cannot stop addiction, but you can prevent HIV!

(Image source: http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/apr/01/indiana-hiv-outbreak-health-workers-funding)

Classism: The Discrimination That Knows No Bounds

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What is it like to be poor? That’s a subject I think more people should investigate as I’ve heard so many disparaging comments made about those who aren’t as well off financially as others. Funny though, people seem to believe that because they have a new car, the largest cable package on the market, or some fancy electronic device this somehow points to the fact they are light-years ahead of those who need government assistance. I’m here to tell you, folks, you may not be as far ahead as you think. Moreover, if you ever hit the ranks of those who are forced to, as so many wrongfully phrase it, “apply for entitlements,” you will find that the word “discrimination” is now part of your vocabulary—and here’s a shocker for you—even if you’re white.

If you’re poor and can’t afford to pay your bills on time, an employer can deny you a job as they may conduct a background check, including a credit check, to decide if you are reliable enough to hire. Landlords can refuse to rent to someone with shoddy credit history. Getting a credit card is out of the question, so if your car breaks down, you might be out of luck in getting it repaired.

The poorer you are the more likely it is you might land in jail for debts you cannot resolve as well. While we do not have “debtors jail” proper anymore, we still have what is known as the Writ of Attachment.

Let’s say you are forced to go to the emergency room, and without insurance, are left with a hefty bill you cannot pay. Once that bill hits the hands of a collection agency, they will drag you into court to try to resolve the issue. Credit agents will use all means possible to drag money out of debtors, and many people just agree to payments. If those payments are not made, the agency will drag the person back to court, and here’s a huge problem.

Poor people are often forced to move faster than the mail system can catch up with them. So sure, the court mails out a notice, and often an officer will sometimes serve a notice to appear, but if the person can’t be found, the notice can’t be delivered. It might be left with a relative or neighbor, but not always. The court date comes, and the person does not appear because they had no way of knowing they’d been served. The court can then issue a Writ of Attachment, which calls for the arrest of the individual. All it takes is to get pulled over for a busted tail light, and BAM! you find yourself in handcuffs, and often without money for the hefty bond a Writ usually carries. (Generally the cost of the bill you owe.)

These people are not criminals. They’re simply unable to pay a bill. Now, with not only being a poor, but an arrest record to boot, they’re definitely going to be discriminated against. No one cares to hear why they went to jail. They just know they don’t hire, house, or educate criminals. The world of opportunities they once had shrink before their eyes as being poor becomes a criminal offense.

Of course, men of color experience this disparity two-fold with the intersection of both ethnicity and class, and women of color experience this three times over where gender, ethnicity, and class meet. Nonetheless, white folks, when I say we need to end discrimination, the new Jim Crow laws so many people of color are experiencing, you better open your eyes because if you’re poor, they will affect you, too.

See, we’re big on covering our eyes to issues with which we have no personal experience, but I’m betting most of you out there are not eternally wealthy. You probably have not amassed the kind of wealth that can’t go away. Sure, you might have a nice car, a home, and maybe even a boat, but I’m betting you’re so far in debt that you’re no more than a paycheck or two—maybe a month or two’s wages from living in poverty.

It doesn’t take much, really. A heart attack. One nasty divorce. A death. Maybe a natural disaster. Life changes easier than we might ever believe. I know folks who, in 2008, went from massive mortgages and expensive car payments to $400 per month rentals, used cars, applying for food assistance, and bankruptcy court. They waved good-bye to six figures and tried to find ways to live on unemployment. Some of them still haven’t fully recovered six years later. Most of them were college educated and had never broken the law. Nearly all of them have ended up in court being sued for monies owed to some creditor.

Humiliation is bad enough. Being discriminated against for something beyond your own control is mind breaking. In fact, I know of at least one man who committed suicide because he lost everything, couldn’t find help, and was denied employment because he was a “theft risk” due to his dwindling credit score. He had only experienced this discrimination for a small portion of his life. I cannot imagine the psychological effect on those who experience discrimination for the entirety of their lives.

If we ever think discrimination only happens to people who aren’t like us, we should look around us at everyone who is being treated poorly. No one should face discrimination for things of which they have no control—not the color of their skin, not their gender, not their sexual orientation, not physical and mental disabilities, and not the size of their wallets.

Now more than ever, it’s important that we all stand together. It’s time we quit looking for ways to differentiate ourselves from others, and realize that most of us, 99% probably, are very much alike. We all face similar issues, just in different ways. We all struggle to make it through life, and the best way to win that struggle is by helping, rather than fighting, one another. Holding one person down to get a head up helps no one, because while you’re busy trying to hold that person under you, someone else is plotting your demise for their own benefit, too. You’re not safe in a world where it’s acceptable to criminalize others for things which they do not control. First class passengers may watch as the poorer passengers below struggle and drown, but they should remember as they watch idly by, they will regret their inaction as the ship slips under the sea.

Drug Testing for Food Assistance: But Who’s Testing The Man?

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Recently, many states have begun drug testing state assistance recipients and applicants. So many people are pro-drug testing of that particular group of people, but I take much exception to this new trend.

The pro argument seems to be based in the theory that people who work must submit to testing to earn money, so then people asking for assistance should be forced to submit in order to receive benefits from the money working folks pay into the system. I get it. Working folks feel slighted because A) Part of their tax dollars go to folks they’ve been taught to believe don’t work, and B) they are forced to submit to a test that crawls up into their private lives. I’ve heard many a person say “You shouldn’t worry if you haven’t been doing things to worry about.” The truth is, they’re wrong on both accounts.

Americans by and large do not understand poor people unless they are poor people. It’s easy to stand in judgment and use the example of a family elder who worked their fingers raw and lived without assistance. The staggering reality is that life is infinitely more difficult than in decades past, and this might come as a shock, but even working folks need assistance.

People really do want to work, most people anyway. Many of those applying and receiving state benefits do have a job, but when a person meets tough times, they still need to eat or have medical care. The road to government is assistance is not just paved with laziness or drug addiction. For some, it might very well be, but for others that road is paved with illness, death of a spouse or loved one, losing a home, job loss, and too many other tragic events to list. Moreover, not that many people who are in the system are using drugs. In fact, many states have found those numbers who do test positive to be miniscule. Take for instance, Tennessee.
In this article, we are told that of the recipients and applicants in Tennessee, Florida, Utah, and Maine, very few actually tested positive for drugs. In Tennessee, that number was less than 1%. Testing for drugs, therefore, is unfounded and an utter waste of tax payer dollars.

The disinformation in which testing is based is really troubling. During the Reagan era, former president Ronald Reagan invented the image of the “welfare queen”. She was the woman with more babies and baby daddys than anyone could keep up with. She was driving her Cadillac while spending the tax payers’ hard earned cash in the form of food stamps. She probably bought crack cocaine, alcohol, and cigarettes with most of her funds, according to the stereotype. The one factor we often keep hidden behind a veil is that when this stereotype was created, this woman was probably also African American. This stereotype was used to not only shame those in need of public assistance, but also to disenfranchise and shame people of color, specifically women of color. Moreover, everything about this stereotype was a delusional fantasy. This woman does not exist in the world I know regardless of her ethnicity.

That’s another problem with the drug testing trend, we shame poor people—even the working poor, although we don’t understand what it means to be poor. We make some strange assumptions, but we don’t really understand.

See, being poor means when you’re sick, you probably stay sick because even if you’re able to afford one trip to the doctor, there’s no way to afford the subsequent testing or medication. What person can afford to pay out of pocket for an MRI, CAT SCAN, X-Ray, blood work, or expensive prescription besides the very rich? Who can pay for follow up visits at more than $100 dollars per visit? Very few. So, while you feel your symptoms worsen, the aches and pains spread through your body, your blood pressure remains high, your vision dims, and your energy escapes your body, all you can hope is that you just miraculously improve. You can’t even hope to die because you know your family can’t afford your funeral.

When you’re poor, it means dreading checking the mail because it’s time for the utility bills to come again. You were careful and suffered through the milder days without heat or air, but you know it’s still going to take most of your pay to keep the electricity and gas on. It also means choosing whether or not you want cable or internet, if you can even afford either one, because those are luxuries.

New clothes are a luxury, too, and as a poor person, you become an expert at thrift store shopping. $100 shoes? That’s never going to happen. $300 jeans? Hell no. That’s a month’s worth of groceries. That’s all okay, though. You just buy what you can afford. Not that you never wish, but you would never make a splurge like that. If you did, you’d be homeless.

Poor people can’t afford to make bad decisions, and in fact, most of them don’t. Many poor people are too busy educating themselves, working, and trying to better their lives to become involved with drugs and alcohol. Of course, there are those who are addicts, but those are people with a disease. Some say it’s self-chosen, but I disagree with that, too. Sure, they chose to use the drug, but there was a psychological issue that drove them to that point. And I want to make this point loud and clear—No one chooses to remain a drug addict. Their psychological and physical states may lead them to act in a way that seems converse to that statement, but they are not really making a conscious choice. It’s the addiction talking—not the addict, which is the other problem with this state testing. What forms of help are being offered to those found to be using drugs?

Do we just cut them off assistance and tell them to come back when they’re clean? How does a poor person just go get clean without assistance? To me, all this system does is create a system of discrimination. If states are willing to offer real help, then testing is fine, but if the intent is to throw addicts away like they don’t matter, then it’s exclusionary and wrong. Moreover, the other qualm—the “I have to be tested at work” argument, is also little ridiculous.

People aren’t drug tested at work because of some bad stereotype or discriminatory act, they’re tested because they might cause harm to a co-worker. Someone who’s been using meth, has been awake for a week straight, and just happens to be operating a piece of machinery next to me is a danger to me. I’m sorry, folks, that testing just makes sense.

There is also another testing I’d actually like to see: White Collar testing. Yes, those of you on Wall Street, working as legislators, senators, congressman, let’s start testing you, because the one thing so few address is that drug use and addiction does not discriminate. Rich folks are addicts, too, meaning that those making decisions that just so happen to effect all of us and our money could be shooting up as we speak. Don’t for one second think money and power make one exempt from drugs and alcohol.

I once heard the saying “Never fear Rome, the snake lies coiled in Naples.” How true is that? We are looking so hard to blame those whom the stereotype was built around that we rarely glance to those who might cause us more harm than we ever imagined possible. The Man built the monster to keep the heat safely away from him.

In a way, I’m glad some states implemented drug testing because I’m hopeful it breaks down the misinformed notion that people who are receiving government assistance are bad people. I do hope we can look forward from this moment in time to more worthwhile causes—like questioning the actions of those we’ve covered our faces to for so many years. Poor people aren’t the problem here, folks, and neither are addicts. Our problem lies with those we trust too much, and it’s past time to end that.