Culture

My Mom, the American Hero, and (Today) the Birthday Girl

For the past few weeks I have been thinking about your journey through life, Mom. I know that there are lots of things I don’t know about you, lots of things that happened in your life before I existed (time existed then?). But what I do know about you plays in my head like one of your favorite movies, Forrest Gump. I imagine you as a child, living in incredible poverty and not knowing when your next meal would be. I imagine you as a preteen in all of your defiance, living with someone who was more of a drill sergeant than a nurturing grandmother. And then I imagine you making a journey that took you far from home, far from any semblance of the life you knew. That’s where our story as a family begins in this country, and where you start to become not only my mother, but my American Hero.

I have always asked you a lot of questions about your arrival in this country. It’s probably because I have a hard time picturing you ever being out of control and out of your element. You moved from the ranch to a sleepy seaside town. From what you’ve told me, you were shocked by all of the white women running around in sports bras and teenagers driving—and subsequently wrecking—brand new cars. Ronald Reagan just became President, Hall & Oates and Blondie were dominating the charts, and you were getting ready to start high school in the U.S. without speaking a lick of English.

People underestimated and dismissed you, but you worked and you worked and when you got tired you worked some more. You mastered the language, passed the California High School Exit Exam (which is no easy feat), and you became the first person in our family to graduate from high school in this country. I can’t imagine the level of pride Grandpa had when you wore that cap and gown and got that piece of paper.

As a young woman, you helped agricultural workers navigate the maze that is the naturalization process, all the while your own status as a resident was hanging in the balance. You sat in a room and translated for men with hands that were rough from working in the fields, across the table from the same force of people who could have detained you. (How brave are you, lady? Seriously.) You went to trade school, got some business savvy, and started establishing your independence. You got a car, you got your own studio, you got a perm, and you started living your best early ’90s life. I imagine you spending these years dressed in some sort of spandex awesomeness in the club, dancing to Bell Biv Devoe and Janet Jackson.

And then yours truly came along. You became a single mom, and your biggest point of pride in my early days was being able to take care of both of us without financial backing from anyone else. We had each other, we had our one-bedroom apartment, and we had our health. You raised me in a community of other strong women, and I never knew what it felt like to be hungry or unloved.

I remember being afraid of you because you seemed so serious. Now I understand that you were just tired—tired from working so much, tired from worrying about money, tired from being two parents in one to a rambunctious kid who talked a lot and watched the news too much.

That unfaltering hustle you have, that you’ve always had, pushed us into a new tax bracket. You found time when you weren’t working to study for the citizenship test, and in 2000 you became an American citizen. We moved out of the apartment and you bought your first home, right down the street from the brand new high school that was being constructed in San Marcos. For the first few months the house was full of dust from contractors sculpting the fixer-upper into your vision. I can still see you standing in the middle of our new living room, surrounded by furniture covered in sheets, describing paint colors and granite countertops. You looked so proud.

For the first time in my life, I had my own room. I still slept with you for the first three months because I didn’t know any other way. But eventually, I got used to having a space of my own to clutter (I’m really sorry about that).

You held my hand when I came out at age 16. You tried to protect me from the homophobia and rejection that came with that, whether it was from California residents under Proposition 8 or our own family members. You made sure I graduated from high school, even after my grades started slipping. You helped me finance my college education, and you were there when I was the last student to cross that stage. My cap had your high school portrait pasted on it, and the message “this is for you, Mom.” And it was. That degree is yours just as much as it is mine.

I left the nest and moved across the country. You have endured the phone calls when I droned on and on about politics, and always responded matter-of-factly: “I am not political.” That was before.

It was before the national conversation turned on our family. Before the vitriol was about people like Grandpa, Grandma, and your siblings. Before the twin monsters of ignorance and xenophobia gnashed their teeth at you, my idol.

The surge of hatred towards immigrants has angered me. And it has angered you too.

For a year now, you have been calling to tell me about polling you heard about, and about PBS specials on the candidates you watched. You’ve been sharing stories I’ve never heard before about being undocumented, about being a woman of color in this country, about “becoming” an American. We FaceTimed when you made your first-ever campaign contribution, 16 years after you became a citizen (I’m sorry you keep getting spammed).

You are the building block of this country

In 50 years you made it out of abject poverty, to the U.S., to independence, then to comfort. You accomplished more in half a lifetime than most people could in centuries. Now people are trying to argue that you aren’t a real American, but what they don’t realize is that you are the building block of this country. You embody what this country has sought since its establishment: exceptionalism.

So on this, your day of birth, I wish you a restful day full of flowers, Godiva chocolates, and love. I have so much to thank you for, Mom. Thank you for showing me what real strength is. Thank you for your patience. Thank you for being a hesitant audience to hours of Lady Gaga and RuPaul’s Drag Race, for your grace and dignity, and for being a light in the lives of all of the people who have known you. And thank you for being political. You are my hero.

A modified version of this post originally appeared on the Human Development Project.

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Safety Net

Public Housing Can Be Good for Kids. But There Isn’t Enough of It.

Finish this sentence: “Children who grow up in public housing…”

Whatever your political leanings, you probably didn’t come up with “…do better in life than their peers who didn’t.” But according to a recent study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), it’s true. The authors compared siblings who spent different amounts of time in public housing, and found that the children who spent more time in the projects had higher earnings and a lower chance of being incarcerated. Kids got a similar benefit when their families received vouchers to help them pay the rent at a private apartment.

The point, of course, is not that public housing is an ideal place to spend a childhood. It’s that the alternatives can be much worse.

In my city, Nashua, New Hampshire, one of those alternatives is the Country Barn Motel and Campground. It’s an old house and barn that the owners turned into a bunch of individual rooms, plus some trailers on blocks. Everything’s painted a rustic brown, and when I visited—a week before Halloween—it was decorated with fake cobwebs.

It’s a nice place in a lot of ways. Kids ride bikes around the quiet, wooded grounds, and neighbors volunteer to babysit for each other. But many of the families here are facing the kinds of stress that can have troubling long-term consequences for kids.

Inside one door, guarded by three carved pumpkins, Crystal and Jimmy live with their baby, five-year-old son, and three-year-old daughter in a single room. There are two beds, a TV, a refrigerator, and a stove—only one of the electric burners works—and that’s about it. They’ve been here for about five months. While I talked with the adults, the older kids showed off their gymnastic moves, mostly ignoring a cartoon playing on the TV.

“We’re trying to save money for a place, but everywhere’s expensive,” Jimmy said.

As of 2012, there were around 6.5 million U.S. households waiting for either a spot in public housing or a housing voucher.

Before moving here, the family lived with Jimmy’s stepmom. But, between her five kids and their three, squeezing everyone into a three-bedroom apartment didn’t work for long. Crystal and Jimmy have been on a wait list for public housing for two years, but their number hasn’t come up. Researchers who study housing policy have found that’s not terribly unusual. As of 2012, there were around 6.5 million U.S. households waiting for either a spot in public housing or a housing voucher.

Crystal and Jimmy do get government help with their rent, but it’s through a city program that’s supposed to be a short-term emergency backstop. They worry that they could lose that assistance any day now. Meanwhile, Jimmy said, living at the motel is tough on the kids.

“Just putting them to bed, everything’s extra hard,” Jimmy said. “We’re so on top of each other. If one of them’s awake, they’re all awake.”

The U.S. Department of Education warns that moving around a lot, or living in temporary situations like motels or doubling up with other families, tends to hurt children’s school achievement and emotional development. One recent, randomized study in New York City found that families that don’t get help with housing are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety compared with those that move to new, subsidized housing. That repeated exposure to acute stress might help explain the long-term effects on kids’ incomes and incarceration rates that the new NBER paper found—the stability matters.

David Evans lives with his girlfriend and their three kids, including a newborn baby, in one of the trailers at the Country Barn. It’s $225 a week—cheaper than living inside the motel—but it only comes with a hot plate for cooking, and you have to use a shared bathroom in a separate building. Between his paycheck from a warehouse job and his girlfriend’s disability benefit, they can only afford rent, food, and clothes for the kids. An apartment with a monthly rent might be cheaper, but they’d have to save up for the security deposit.

Things were easier when the family got part of their rent through a federal Section 8 voucher. But then his girlfriend got into a dispute with her family, who had control over her Social Security checks. Ultimately, David and his girlfriend lost access to the checks, which made it impossible to pay their rent. They were evicted—which meant permanently losing their eligibility for the voucher.

“Telling my kids we have to go live in a trailer, that’ll break you down,” Evans said.

Evans is a former heroin addict, clean three years. He’s used to working hard at seeing the bright side of things. But he said living in a 200-square foot trailer is hard on the whole family, particularly his eight-year-old stepdaughter.

“She gets edgy, so she has a little bit of an attitude,” he said.

In fact, the girl has been lobbying her mother to go live with her biological dad, who has been in and out of jail and recently got back in touch after years out of her life.

“She’s even like ‘Mommy, it’s just until you get an apartment,’” Evans said. That’s hard on his girlfriend, but he sees where the girl is coming from. “I don’t want to be here either.”

Unlike a lot of people at the Country Barn, Angela Winslow said she really likes it here. She’s fixed up her room in the motel with country-style knick-knacks and some of her own furniture. But she may not be able to stay long. When she moved in two and a half months ago, she had custody of her seven-year-old grandson—so she was able to get some help from the local welfare office.

“He’s such a great kid,” she said. “I had him since he was 12 months old.”

Recently, Winslow’s daughter regained custody of the boy. Winslow doesn’t think that’s a good situation for him—she isn’t crazy about some of her daughter’s life choices—but she’s been happy to at least care for him on the weekends when her daughter drops him off.

Now, though, since she’s no longer his legal guardian, she’s liable to lose her housing assistance, health insurance, and food stamps. If she can’t stay at the Country Barn, Winslow said she’ll move in with her other daughter. They get along well, but she’ll have to sleep on the couch or a blow-up mattress. That will complicate her weekends with her grandson, and it might not be the best situation for her and her daughter either.

“She’s a night owl,” she said. “I’m not.”

The thing is, even if getting help paying for housing would benefit Angela Winslow’s grandson, and David Evan’s three children, and Crystal and Jimmy’s kids—and all the rest of the kids who’ve spent time at the Country Barn—there isn’t enough funding for it. The U.S. hasn’t built much public housing since the 1990s, and it has demolished some of what it used to have. Housing vouchers aren’t filling the gap, since only 1 in 4 households that qualifies for a housing voucher actually gets one. Meanwhile, the federal government spends almost twice as much on mortgage interest tax deductions, which overwhelmingly go to the wealthy, as it does helping people with rent.

Winslow said her worries about losing her room, along with everything else that’s happened in her life over the past few months, have gotten her feeling kind of depressed. She’s hoping her case worker returns her call about staying in the hotel soon.

“If they give me the news they’ll help me, then of course I’ll stay here,” she said.

Otherwise?

“I’ll just figure it out.”

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Culture

The Cost of Coming Out in College

After two years of gradually coming out to friends and family, three weeks ago I finally proclaimed that “I’m here, and I’m queer,” to everyone on social media. Being painfully millennial, I made an extra effort to ensure that my Facebook status was just right. It was the most public part of my coming out process, and I wanted to strike the right balance between conveying my pride in being an out, queer woman and explaining why I had kept my orientation a secret for so long.

I received, to put it mildly, a warm reception. My friends shared their support in the comments, and I even got a share and a big shout-out from my mom, who voiced her clear and unconditional love and support.

My friend Julius, a sophomore at Wake Forest University, was not as lucky. A few weeks ago, he mentioned that his parents cut him off during his coming out process. His tone was casual, so we moved along with our conversation about whatever was going on in the queer universe that day, but he’s mentioned since then that finances have been tough. Julius’s job is a work study position that limits him to working a few hours per week, so it’ll be hard for him to make ends meet on his own.

Fortunately, Wake Forest has resources for students like Julius. School administrators helped him file as an independent so that he could apply for financial aid on his own and stay enrolled in the university. There were a lot of hoops to jump through—and he’ll have more student debt as a result—but it worked out in the end.

Most colleges and universities do not offer the type of support that Julius received. According to Campus Pride only 7% of campuses have institutional support for LGBT students, which leaves many students who are rejected by their families to fend for themselves during complicated legal and financial proceedings. Julius noted that in order to accomplish his dependency override, he needed three documents of support—one of which had to be from a certified counselor. He will also have to write a statement detailing the painful events leading up to his financial independence every year when he reapplies for his financial aid package.

Some students fare much worse, and are ultimately forced to drop out. Harlan Mitchell, a 21-year-old queer person living in Knoxville, had to leave the University of Tennessee after he fled his abusive home last year. “It’s really kind of difficult to get a degree, to get a good job, [and] to do all the things to support yourself financially,” Mitchell said. For a few months, he slept on friends’ couches while he saved money he earned at his retail job. If he hadn’t been able to rely on friends, he says he isn’t sure where he would have gone next.

This is not a fringe issue.

For queer youth, this is not a fringe issue—half of us experience a negative reaction from our parents when we come out. Without financial independence, we’re particularly vulnerable—whether it’s to increased debt, the inability to complete our education, or homelessness. This follows us into adulthood, with the potential to impact our earnings and our ability to hold successful jobs. Add in the fact that it’s legal to fire and evict LGBT people because of their identity in most states, and it becomes easier to understand why the number of LGBT people who reported feeling as though they are struggling financially is up by a margin of 10% despite improvements in the economy as a whole.

The reality is, coming out is a financial privilege that not everyone can afford. Ultimately, that limits the economic mobility of queer people—it creates a space in which not all of us are free to be who we feel we are, and who we want to be.

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Labor

Conservatives Say Raising the Minimum Wage Kills Jobs. New Research Says They’re Wrong.

Raising the minimum wage would help a lot of Americans. It would raise wages for 35 million workers, bring 4.5 million people out of poverty, and reduce the wage gaps that plague women and people of color.   Local movements to raise the minimum wage have started to take hold—30 cities have raised their minimum wages since 2014—but the minimum wage has not been increased at the federal level for seven years.

For decades, the main argument conservative policymakers and business leaders have been making against raising the federal minimum wage is that it will bring about economic doom in the form of massive job losses. In 1980, then-Governor Ronald Reagan declared that “the minimum wage has caused more misery and unemployment than anything since the Great Depression.” Today’s conservatives seem to agree, with Ted Cruz warning that “every time we raise the minimum wage, predictably what happens is a significant number of people lose their jobs.” Speaker Paul Ryan has dared to get specific with his doomsday predictions, saying “when you raise the minimum wage, you’ll lose over a million jobs.”

New analysis from the Center for American Progress Action Fund shows that this isn’t the case. From 1993 to the second quarter of 2015, cities raised their minimum wage 43 times. In 74% of these occasions, the unemployment rate did not increase a year after the minimum wage hike. Of the 11 cases where the unemployment rate rose a year after the minimum wage increase, six were during the Great Recession when the unemployment rate rose across the United States. Due to data limitations, the analysis was unable to evaluate more recent minimum wage increases that have occurred later in the economic recovery.

By themselves, these findings aren’t enough to prove that the minimum wage does not cause job losses—but when they’re paired with the numerous academic studies that have also found that raising the minimum wage has no discernible effect on unemployment, it does poke holes in conservatives’ reasoning.

The argument in favor of raising the minimum wage is still crystal-clear

As the argument against raising the minimum wage becomes increasingly fuzzy, the argument in favor of raising it stays crystal-clear. The current minimum wage is a poverty wage: a family with one child and a single parent working full-year, full-time for the federal minimum wage would be below the poverty line for a family of two. Raising the minimum wage would help these workers directly, and it would have ripple effects throughout the entire economy—it would reduce inequality, increase the GDP, and even create modest job growth.

It’s clear that conservatives’ claims about the impact of the minimum wage do not square with the evidence. Cities that have raised the minimum wage have not experience massive job losses or economic ruin. And with the minimum wage losing value every year it is not hiked, many cannot afford continued opposition to increasing the federal minimum wage.

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Media and Politics

The President of My Dreams

In my dream, the next president is an anti-poverty president because he or she knows deep down that the way we think about poverty in America is wrong, the way we treat people in poverty is wrong, and therefore what we do about poverty is more off the mark than need be.

My president declares his or herself the Educator-in-Chief on poverty, and uses the bully pulpit to teach Americans. She tells the stories of struggling people and their experiences, and regularly takes us to communities that are used to being dismissed, demonized, and disempowered.

My president shows Americans that people in poverty are not who we have been led to believe they are—some fixed group that has lost its initiative; that, in fact, more than half of us will experience at least one year of poverty or near poverty during our working years. My president recognizes that while generational poverty is important, it is only a small part of poverty; that over a 3-year period, only 3.5 percent of people were in poverty for the entire 36 months, while the national poverty rate ranged between 15 and 16 percent.

My president teaches that most of us fall into poverty due to universal experiences—like the birth of a child, an unexpected illness, job loss, or reduced work hours—which is why we have a safety net that is there for all of us; and though it is much-maligned, it is highly effective.

My president explains that without the safety net our poverty rate would be nearly twice as high today—approaching 30 percent. He or she states clearly that cutting poverty in half is not “losing a War on Poverty”—cutting poverty in half means that we are half way to where we want to be. (She will also suggest that we stop using that tired, dated metaphor.)

My president tackles head-on the foolish notion that the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant—our cash assistance program—should serve as a model for our safety net. My president acknowledges that whatever the intentions of those who created the program, it has not done what it was supposed to do—unless what it was supposed to do was make assistance nearly impossible to come by, erode any national standard of basic economic decency, and drive people into deeper poverty.

My president explains to us that when TANF was created in 1996, for every 100 families with children living in poverty, 68 were able to receive cash assistance; now that number is down to just 23. In 12 states, ten or fewer families are helped for every 100 in poverty. My president warns us that when we hear talk of block-granting Medicaidfood stamps, or housing assistance, what we are talking about is less healthcare, less food, less housing, and lower standards for assisting vulnerable people.

Instead of embracing a broken program like TANF, my president embraces the evidence about what works and shares it with the American people. He or she teaches, for example, that women who had access to food stamps early in life fared better as adults than their peers who didn’t—that they had better health outcomes and increased economic self-sufficiency, including less welfare participation. He or she notes, too, that boosting a struggling family’s income when children are young is associated with greater education performance and increased earnings when those children reach adulthood.

My president reminds us that we need to use such evidence to keep moving forward in our anti-poverty efforts, and to ensure that we don’t turn back to recent and far worse times. He or she tells us to consider the words of Peter Edelman, who traveled down to Mississippi in 1967 with then-Senator Bobby Kennedy, and said, “We saw children who were tangibly, severely malnourished—bloated bellies, running sores that wouldn’t heal. It was this incredibly awful, powerful experience that’s with me all the time.”

My president reminds us that was what America looked like before we expanded the food stamp program to take on hunger.

In my dream, the next president is an anti-poverty president

My president uses all of these tactics—visits to struggling communities and people’s own stories, evidence of what works and doesn’t work, and his or her own courage and determination—to embark on a new anti-poverty/pro-opportunity agenda. It’s an agenda that among other things includes: a bold jobs program to help rebuild our neighborhoods, schools, and infrastructure; raising the minimum wage so that it can once again lift a family of three out of poverty just as it could in the late 1960s; closing the gender pay gap, which would cut poverty in half for working women and their families; paid leave and affordable childcare, so that people can work and take care of their families and don’t have to choose between them; immigration reform so that our most vulnerable workers aren’t exploited; and a Commission to explore reparations for African Americans and educate the public about this issue.

My president constantly engages with the grassroots and the nascent anti-poverty movement to build support for action—just as occurred with the passage of the New Deal, the Civil Rights Act, and more recently, the Affordable Care Act.

For too long we have been listening to lies, not recognizing our progress, and failing to fight together for what we know will work to ensure that everyone has a shot at the American Dream.

My president puts an end to that madness and begins a new day.

This post is modified from the original, which appeared at TheNation.com.

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