The Politics of Being Poor

I’m going to use this space today to write about something that I don’t often talk about, and that’s the fact that we are poor.

Our children qualify for Medicaid, which pays for their check-ups, vaccinations and dental care. They qualify for free breakfast at school and a reduced fee lunch. My youngest would qualify for WIC checks, which is a resource we’ve used in the past. We receive a federal subsidy under the Affordable Care Act, which helps my husband and I afford health insurance for ourselves.beggars

We don’t think about often, because we don’t feel poor. We can pay our bills (most of the time). We have two cars that run (most of the time). We bought a house last year, with a little help from our families. I can even work part-time for a non-profit, because a relative helps out with childcare.

We are the Luckiest Kind of Poor People, the kind with wealthier family members who pass down furniture and appliances to us. We go to the beach every year because someone else pays for our lodging. We can afford to eat out now and then and maintain a couple of streaming subscriptions for entertainment. Life is pretty good.

We also don’t spend a lot of time talking about being poor, because, well, it’s embarrassing. There’s a stigma associated with being poor, the constant implication that you’re just not trying hard enough.

Americans have a long history of associated prosperity with virtue, which is why most us pretend to be more affluent then we actually are.

And there is certainly no end of people who will tell you that you just need to do X or give up Y, but the reality is that financial situations are complex and the path upward isn’t always straight.

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This is the irony of the world we live in now: I have a device that can access the internet, make calls, stream TV, and instantly translate hundreds of languages, and this device fits in my pocket and I can buy one for less than the cost of a doctor’s appointment. Think about that for a moment.

So when social welfare issues hit the national spotlight, there’s this funny thing that happens where I look around and realize that this is just an “issue” for a lot of people. It’s an abstract concept that has no actual effect on their lives.

And a lot of them have been told, over and over again, that world is full of greedy, entitled poor people who are scamming the system, and the best way to stop that is not to fix social welfare programs, but to reduce funding for them.

School Food - Chicken NuggetsIf the government cuts back the free and reduced lunch program so that fewer families are covered, that has a direct effect on our grocery budget every month. And as I said, we are the Luckiest Kind of Poor People. Our kids won’t go hungry. They might not eat as well and they won’t get milk every day, but they won’t go hungry.

That’s not the case for every family.

Children have no control over their household income or stability. They have no control over the family budget. I can’t imagine what people think would be resolved or improved by letting children go hungry.

The larger, looming issue for us these days is health care. I’ve had a stomachache since November wondering what was going to happen to our health insurance, and the recent roll out of the health care plan proposed by the Republican party isn’t making me feel any better.

My husband and I have an “Obamacare” plan and have for a number of years. Neither one of us can get insurance from our employers, so the exchange was a perfect solution for us.

Over the past few years we’ve listened and sympathized with people who have been forced to change plans and faced rising premiums. I’ve listened to people complain about the subsidies they don’t qualify for and being forced to pay for services, like maternity or mental health, that they don’t use.

The American healthcare system in general is a lumbering, creaking Frankenstein monster. Obamacare was certainly not a complete solution, but that’s a topic for another day.

Obamacare works for us. Our current plan costs us $209 per month. That’s up $80 a month from last year, which I realize might sound like a very small increase to some of you. We had to cut things from our budget to be able to afford it.

It covers our routine medical costs with a minimal copay. It covers any testing that we need. It provides partial coverage for the medication I take for hypothyroidism.

Without the subsidies provided by the ACA, our plan would cost $674 per month. That’s more than our monthly grocery budget.

Even if we cut our coverage to bare-bones catastrophic, accepted a $5,000 deductible like we used to have and paid for all of our routine medical expenses out of pocket (and by that I mean never go to the doctor, borrow money or put it on a credit card, because there is no room in our budget for insurance AND routine medical costs) we would still struggle to afford $250 or $300 per month. It’s not a matter of cutting X or doing Y, the money just isn’t there.

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This is where I’ll probably be getting my thyroid medication from. They seem nice.

And I just want to emphasize, that insurance is only covering the two of us. If our children ever get dropped from Medicaid, we’re up an entirely different kind of creek.

Like millions of Americans, we hope this time in our lives is temporary. We are trying hard. Where we are is not the bottom, it’s a place we scrambled up to.

My husband works full-time and goes to school at night so that someday he’ll be able to get a job with insurance benefits. We know that our kids won’t be little forever and there will be potential for me to work more hours without the expense of daycare.

We have hope for the future.

We hope that someday we won’t need help to pay for insurance. We hope that we’ll be able to pay for our children’s medical care. We hope to reach a place where we can actually put money in our savings account and not take it out two weeks later. We might even someday get to grumble about our taxes!

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#GOALS

But for right now, this is where we are. And when you turn on the news and see people in nice suits talking about how people could afford health insurance if they just tried a little harder and cut back and little more, it makes me want to laugh. Not in a happy way.

Every social welfare program in this country has people who being served by it. Real people with real lives, not some mythical lazy stereotype. People who are disabled, people who live with chronic illness, people who were raised in poverty and never made it out.

To ignore us, or to insist that we’re victims of our own irresponsibility is not a solution. It’s a convenient excuse. 

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November 9, 2016

So, the election is over and I’m going to say a few things.
Like a lot of people, I was surprised by the outcome of the election, but that’s democracy. It’s one of the great strengths of our country.
But there were a few other things that surprised me during this past year. I was raised by principled Republican parents who told me over and over again that the character of the people we elect matter. Even as my own politics shifted from Red to Blue, I held many Republicans in high regard, knowing what their heart was for their country.
During my lifetime I’ve voted for Republicans and Democrats, but always for people I believed to have character. People with the qualifications of a good leader.
When Donald Trump took the Republican nomination I really felt for my R friends and family, because I was sure he didn’t represent them or what they wanted for their country. I watched people like Mitt Romney and Ana Navarro take a stand. I watched people like Ted Cruz waffle back and forth. It was a pretty good show from the outside.
But when it came right down to it, to the people I personally knew, I really thought most of you would take a stand and make it clear to the Republican party that you would not support such an unqualified, dishonest and inflammatory candidate.
And I was genuinely surprised by how many of you went to the polls and voted for a man you claimed you didn’t respect. I understand why you did it. You made the pragmatic choice, and your party won. But it still surprised me.
On a national scale, 81% of white evangelical Christians turned out to vote for Trump. That’s a higher percentage than Romney, McCain or Bush got. Trump owes his victory to white voter turnout, and the contrast between the votes of white Christians and nonwhite Christians in this election couldn’t possibly be starker.
It’s not really a secret why, is it? Anti-immigration and racial rhetoric was a huge part of Trump’s campaign from the beginning. He was literally endorsed by the KKK. I’m going to say that again, for the people in the back. He was literally endorsed by the KKK.
I realize most white Christians are willing to brush that off. After all, it’s not like Trump can help who endorses him, right? It’s unfortunate, maybe even regrettable, but a small concession for those conservative Supreme Court justices.
But if you think that, I don’t think you understand what this feels like to nonwhite Christians.
Over the past few months as support from white evangelicals fell into line behind Trump, I’ve heard anger, I’ve heard frustration, and I’ve heard betrayal from people of color who share our faith. But probably the hardest thing to hear was the people who gave a fatalistic shrug and said “I knew they would. They always do.”
Because white Christians choosing to ally with white supremacists over their nonwhite brothers and sisters is, if nothing else, a historically consistent position.
So this is my plea to my fellow white people, and it would have been exactly the same plea if Hillary had won. Because this racial divide is A Problem, and it’s going to have a big impact on the future of our churches and our communities and our country.
Can we please stop assuming that we know what’s best for people of color? Can we please acknowledge that we don’t always have a full understanding of the issues that affect them? Can we please listen more? And can we please not insist that only we can decide what is and isn’t racist?
I didn’t sleep a lot last night. This election has one pretty significant consequence for our family, and that’s that we’ll more than likely be losing our health insurance early next year. With Andy back in school, we have a lot to balance and lot of uncertainty. Pray for us.
While I was in the process of writing this, my 7-year old came home from school and said that one his classmates told him that Hillary wants to kill all the newborn babies. This isn’t the first time I’ve had to talk to him about the things he hears on the playground.
Our children are watching and listening.
We’ve tried to be so careful about what we’ve said to them. We’ve talked about the process of elections, and respecting a person’s right to vote, even when we disagree. The election is over, and I have a lot to think about and lot of process. I’m sure many of you do too.
We’ll see what happens. My job hasn’t really changed. One foot in front of the other. Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly before God. Fail repeatedly at those three things. Try again.

Love before Judgment

It can be hard, in a house with three small children, to have any kind of adult conversation. That’s why when my husband I do manage to talk, these conversations often take place in pieces. A few minutes here, a few minutes there, a handful of texts exchanged during the day.

Often we’ll start a conversation on the way home from church that spans into the week, and this week we’ve been talking about judgment. It started because of something Andrew said in our adult Sunday School class. I might be paraphrasing here, but he said “Jesus started with love. Until I can love someone like Jesus does, I can’t judge them.”

“But…”

Because judgment is one of those topics in faith. We say “well, we can’t judge” as we’re judging someone. We can judge someone for being too judgmental. We can spin it into a slippery slope argument (well, if you can’t judge, how are you supposed to know right from wrong?). It’s very easy for conversations about judgment to get tangled up and go nowhere.

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Much like my garden hose.

This is the famous “judge not” verse in the gospel of Matthew (7:1-2, Contemporary English Version):

Don’t condemn others, and God won’t condemn you. God will be as hard on you as you are on others! He will treat you exactly as you treat them.

It’s the second part that always chills me. The NIV version talks about being judged by the same measure, which always makes me picture a scale where all the judgments I’ve made are piled up on one side, dragging the ground.

So here’s a straightforward, unambiguous commandment. Don’t judge. Great. Conversation over.

Except that it’s not, because everyone will invariably respond with, “But what about pedophiles? What about murderers? What about people who throw their trash out of car windows? It’s okay for us to judge them, right?”

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I think part of this is a language issue. “Judgment” in our context, is not always a bad thing. I try to exercise good judgment with my money. I weigh a lot of factors before making a large purchase, and I try to make sound decisions that will benefit our household. We call that judgment.

But that’s not what Jesus is referring to in Matthew, which is why I like the CEV better than the NIV. Jesus is talking about condemnation. He’s talking about the human reflex that allows us to rationalize our own flaws while looking down the weaknesses of others.

So can we condemn pedophiles? Murders? Litterbugs?

Andrew and I continued talking about this through the week and this is the answer that he came up with. He said we absolutely can condemn the actions. We can and should condemn the sexual exploitation of children. We can condemn murder. We can condemn littering.

But we can’t condemn the person.

And this is where it really gets tricky, because what does that look like in practice?

Jesus condemned the actions of the money lenders and the people who were economically exploiting others, but when he saw Zacchaeus, a dishonest tax collector, he called out to him and invited him into his presence.

And yes, Zacchaeus repented, but Jesus reached out in love first. It wasn’t conditional. Jesus didn’t say “repent and then I’ll eat with you.”

Of course, Jesus, being Jesus, knew Zacchaeus’ heart. We might reach out in love and never see it followed by repentance. The only repentance schedule we really have any control over is our own.

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This is my repentance schedule.

I came across this passage in Romans this week (13:8-10, CEV again):

Let love be your only debt! If you love others, you have done all the Law demands. In the Law there are many commands, such as, “Be faithful in marriage. Do not murder. Do not steal. Do not want what belongs to others.”

But all of these are summed up in the command that says, “Love others as much as you love yourself.” No one who loves others will harm them. So love is all that the Law demands.

It’s a shame that “love,” much like “judgment,” is also a word that we can’t seem to agree on the meaning or the application of. I’ve heard many people argue that judgment IS love, and they would want someone to point out their sin if they were the one sinning.

That is, of course, a steaming load of horse manure.

Because there is no “if.” We all have plenty of sin in our lives. And most of us go to the church on Sunday safe in the knowledge that no one will call us out on it.

And that’s what we want, isn’t it? That’s how we want to be treated. We want to be given the benefit of the doubt. We want time and space to work through our issues. We want to be accepted as a flawed, complicated human being.

We want to be loved.

It’s so much easier to accept that grace than it is to give it.

This is my blog.

In my head I keep a list of things I want to do someday. I think most people do. I want to visit New Zealand. I want to own a cherry red El Camino. I want to learn American Sign Language. I want to start a blog.

I watch other people start blogs, and it doesn’t look that hard. I’m web savvy. I’m hip to social media. I keep up with cultural trends. I can write. Why not type out a few posts and share it with my friends and family?

I’ll tell you why not.

Or I guess you could just look at the title of this blog.

But with my older children in school and my toddler taking regular naps, maybe…just maybe I can pull this off.

So I’m starting a conversation with myself. One that will probably consist of short posts and long words. It’s up to you if you want to join in, or watch from a distance.

And thank you in advance for your patience. Because it turns out this is harder than it looks, and I don’t know as much as I thought I did.

For example, I still haven’t figured out how to end a blog post.

So I’m just going to end it.