On Unemployment and the Cycle of Poverty

I wanted to share some facts I’ve learned about being on NYS unemployment that I didn’t know before, and since many of you haven’t ever experienced it either and there is still quite a few preconceived notions about people who end up on public assistance, I think spreading this knowledge is important. Because it is very, very easy to be doing everything “right” according to societal standards and still wind up needing help. And if I had lost my job 4 months after having my son, while living month-to-month and completely depleting my savings account while on maternity leave, we could very easily have found ourselves in a very bad situation. Thankfully that isn’t the case for us now, but it could have been.

So, I got my first payout of unemployment last week. My last paycheck was 12/16. It can take 3-6 weeks to get your first payment of unemployment. If you are living paycheck to paycheck, you are already screwed. Beyond feeding yourself and your family, you are already behind on the rent or mortgage for the month which in many cases means a late fee and sometimes means your rent automatically gets increased. There is one unpaid week of unemployment (not sure of the reasoning behind this… just to make sure you realize how bad you’ve got it?) and then once unemployment does kick in, it is substantially less than your paycheck – in my case about 50% gross though I’m not sure if it’s on a sliding scale. And I absolutely get the thinking behind not making it exactly what you were making previously because then it’s potentially rewarding people for getting fired, but still, if you’re living paycheck to paycheck like many people have to do, then you get to start playing the rotate-what-bills-you-can-pay-this-month game, start accruing more late fees, and eventually start getting dinged on your credit score (which can lessen the number of jobs you can get – did you know some places check your credit score before hiring?), and get kicked out of your living situation. And I suppose the theory is that being faced with all this, you will get yourself a job (any job) as soon as you can, so this doesn’t happen.

Well, you have 10 weeks to look for a job in your former field that pays 80% or more of what you were making before, and after that, you have to look for any job you can physically do that pays at least that much. Which means that if you were an office worker or customer service rep (many of whom have some kind of degree beyond high school because you usually need that to get one of those jobs these days) and you hypothetically make between $11 and $12 an hour, if you can’t find a replacement job, you could easily wind up working a minimum wage retail or restaurant job. Not only that, but “reasonable commute” to work is 1 hour by personal vehicle and 1 ½ hour by public transportation, which is understandable in a big metropolitan area (we did it when we were in Los Angeles) but completely ridiculous for any of the upstate NY areas. The distance I can drive in an hour, and being required to put that wear-and-tear on my vehicle for a low paying job is crazy. Someone having to be on a bus and make three transfers to go work at a McDonald’s is crazy. But that is what happens, because a lot of the time, when you get close to running out of unemployment benefits and have no option but to go on public assistance to support yourself and your family, you have to take whatever work you’re handed to keep up the benefits. Your kids are now in a publicly-funded daycare when not at school and you barely see them so thus aren’t really given the opportunity to raise them the way you see fit anymore (not that you’d have the energy at this point anyway), you are commuting almost 3 hours a day, constantly stressed until you just grow numb to it, and the obstacles in your way are growing daily because you will never catch up on the bills. This is one of the ways the cycle of poverty begins and why it can be so difficult to break.

My point being this: whether you are a conservative with a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps mentality or a liberal that feels intellectually and morally superior or you are a supposedly “woke” individual (and how much I am coming to loathe that word is a separate entry in and of itself) who enjoys putting down those who are still “asleep”, realize that there are many, many people who are doing the best they can, and sometimes doing anything beyond mere survival is impossible because of the systems that are in place. So try empathy before you cast judgement on someone. And don’t separate yourself from the masses. Creating the “other” is what got our society into this mess.

The Destruction of a Child

I went into an inner city elementary school last week with several people from my work as part of an arts initiative, and I witnessed something very troubling to me. While in the midst of working with a kindergarten class, in a somewhat chaotic situation, one of the teacher aides began yelling and berating a little boy who had started crying. This boy was sitting in his seat, sobbing, and the teacher aide kept going “Stop crying! You have nothing to cry about! Do you want to be taken out of here? Stop crying right now!” I felt like I had been punched in the stomach, as I was continuing to work with the other children, and all of the children surrounding this one stopped smiling and immediately blank faced, not making eye contact, not betraying a single emotion themselves. None of the other teacher aides interceded, and finally the nasty aide pulled the boy out of the room and got him to calm down and brought him back.

I had to walk away. I wanted so badly to slap the lady, to scream at her that she was causing possibly irreparable damage to a potentially already damaged child, not to mention the effect on the rest of the kids, but I was a guest to the school. And, had I done that, who knows what effect that would have had on the students? As soon as I knew I could speak, I did tell one of the people from our organization that is in that school on a regular basis, and she said “Well, we don’t know that situation. It could be a child that just cries for attention. We don’t know what’s going on and can’t judge.” So we went about our business and left. But all I could think is that even if a child is ‘just crying for attention’, it means that something is wrong somewhere, and shouldn’t a little effort be made to find out what was wrong? Maybe he was scared, or had to go to the bathroom, or has some undiagnosed SPD issues. It could be anything, and screaming at him isn’t helping him in the least.

The faces of the other children were what did me in. The total shutting down at such a young age. How often have they had their sense of “I am” destroyed in their short lives by those that are supposed to be caring for and instructing them? How many times have they been told not to speak or show emotion or disrupt what is going on around them? And how many more times can they take such treatment before they permanently shut down? And while I can’t help but have empathy for the aide, who is probably only repeating a cycle that was done to her, or maybe is just too run down with working against the odds in a neighborhood like that with so little resources, or who knows what, I can’t condone the treatment to those students. It is detrimental to all of us in society to allow these cycles to continue.

If I worship anything in this life beyond a generic “higher power”, it is the divine potential we each carry within us, the spark of creation and possibility that exists in our minds and souls. I think this is why I love young children so much. Up until sometime between age 5 and 8, their minds are so open to everything, so willing to soak in life and experience things on both a micro and macro level, and all of their possible future selves coexist in their beings. Then, at some point, the possible future selves get whittled down by outside forces and we become solidified into who we will become and breaking out of those walls grows very difficult. So when I see someone who is supposedly an authority over a young child abusing the position and not treating their responsibilities with care, it is a polluting of something sacred to me. And it hurts. A lot.

At the very least, everyone in the class, including the sobbing boy, enjoyed the work we did and got to be active participants in the program. They got to experience something they’ve never experienced before, and with a little encouragement and praise, they were beaming and excited. And maybe what we presented will be something that will get at least a handful of them through their difficult young lives and able to pull themselves out of the cycle they are currently trapped in. But my heart grieves for the ones that are lost already.