A 21st Century Journalism Project

They Earn the Right

In Defining The Problem on March 1, 2012 at 3:12 pm


There are successes and failures. There are the laborious and the lethargic.

It’s easy to rationalize the world with politicized adjectives and opinionated bumper stickers, easy to fault those without for their lack thereof. It’s simple. The issue, however, is not simple. The working poor are not simple people. Living with your parents and taking care of a child with special needs is not simple.

Curious then that bumper stickers and talking heads on the news make it sound so simple. Newt Gingrich has called this election a battle between paychecks and food stamps, as if a simple solution like cutting back food stamps will fix America’s problems, but it cannot fix America and it will not fix the problems of its people.

Ms. Key, a Pennsylvania resident who asked to remain anonymous, is one of millions struggling through the recession. Decisions like food stamps or paychecks, and having your own place or moving back in with your parents are not simple, and they may not even decisions made willingly. For Key, moving back in with her mother in the spring of 2007 to support her family was the only option.

“It really wasn’t a decision of choice,” Key said. “If I had it my way it would not have happened. I just had my youngest son and not even a month later found out that I had lost my job.”

In 2007 the unemployment rate was 4.6 percent, about half of what it is now.

“My mother is primary source of income,” Key said, “but I do provide a lot to the household. I buy the food and oil. I also put money towards other bills as well…. I have no money because she gets 99 percent of it.”

One might think that families are the place to go during tough times, but some families are not so supportive. Key may have moved back in with her mother out of necessity, but it has made life difficult because of her family’s past.

“When I was little,” Key said, “I lived with my grandfather until the age of 4 or so. I was raised with abuse all around me. I lived on my own at age 15, and if I wasn’t alone I lived with friends. [My mother] moved me from here during my 11th grade year and left me at my uncle’s, only to come home every two or three weeks and to leave a few days later.

“Even now times are difficult. Before, I was quiet and never really could tell anyone, and the ones that knew looked away. Now I can complain but no one really understands because they don’t know the whole story.”

Key’s children are fortunate. They have a mother who loves them. Others are not so equally blessed. Cycles of abuse run rampant in families that experience economic problems.

For Key, living with her mother after all that happened is stressful.

“I love her,” Key said, “but we do not get along at all. We are too different. We argue a lot and frankly, she doesn’t care for me as she should. Having a horrible childhood stands in my way for complete acceptance. She likes to control and she does for the most part…. If I want or need to do something without my kids it has to be up to her to decide if she can watch my boys. Sort of like a teenager asking for permission.”

Key called her current living conditions a prison, and caring for a son with autism only complicates the matter. Unemployment would not be enough to pay the bills with a boy requiring special care. He requires structure in everyday things to help him function.

“His care has become easier over the years,” Key said. “I pushed for testing and help for him. I am always watching over his education and if something isn’t right then I make sure I find out why. … Medication was the last option, and about 2 years ago it was needed. It isn’t easy and it’s not simple. It has to be about finding what works. For example: not allowing food to touch, having what he likes to eat, what clothing he likes, what medication he will take and how he likes to do his homework. It also has a lot to do with his personality: knowing his moods and how to react to them. It took a lot of time and therapy but he has made a lot of progress.

“Also,” Key continued, “acceptance is a major factor. If you cannot accept a child with disabilities, they know. So showing them that you love them and you understand helps a lot.”

Though Key does not have to physically take care of her mother in addition to her son, many sandwich generation Americans care for their elderly parents as well as their children. According to PeoplePress.org, 26 percent of women are currently caring for an elderly parent, and 28 percent of women have a child living with them for all of or part of the year. Without much income of her own, Key, like so many Americans, is weathering difficult times.

“I am hoping this year that I will be able to leave and start anew,” Key said. “Be yourself and never give up. If you can’t be yourself, who can you be? Fight. Nothing is ever handed to you and despite the bad times you have to fight to get to the better days. Don’t allow society to dictate how or who you should be. If we were all to be the same we would have been born that way.”

These are not the words of someone taking advantage of the system, not the words of a lethargic failure despite what some politicians may believe. These are the words of someone who deserves the utmost respect and any helping hand.

Without “safety net” aid, millions of Americans by no fault of their own will have it even worse. America longs for the day when the net is no longer needed, but attempting to simplify economic and social problems like the working poor reflects a misunderstanding of the issues.

It is hardworking people like Ms. Key who deserve respect and aid. You who work for your children, your parents and your families deserve it most.

You earned the right to it.


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