When the Bough Breaks

Why "building community" isn't as easy at it sounds if you're poor

As a freshman in college, I stumbled across a type of newspaper editorial that appears from time to time: the rant against the wayward and wily ways of "welfare mothers." A fellow student wrote this particular article for the college paper. It didn't offer much in the way of original thinking; the editorial simply complained that this student's tax dollars were being used to support the television and Diet Coke habits of women who kept having children so they didn't have to get real jobs.

My initial response was genuine surprise at the writer's naiveté. He painted a picture of well-fed women painting their toenails, sipping sodas, and plotting their next pregnancies. A couple of women watching television together while their meal-ticket children played with all those taxpayer's toys in the next room. The scene he described was that of a small, pleasant community of women and children.

What surprised me the most was the writer's use of the word "women"--the plural--and the connection he drew between poverty and leisure time. As a child who grew up in the hand of those social services he was lambasting--low-income housing, welfare, food-stamps, state-subsidized education for my newly divorced mother--I didn't recognize myself or my mother in that picture. During my childhood, I didn't have what is currently called "a sense of community." Poverty isolates. Poverty takes up all your time.

I remember my mother being busy and being alone--alone, perhaps, because of being busy. My mother's time was swallowed by raising three small children, enrolling in a local college, studying, grocery shopping, cooking, student teaching, cleaning bathrooms, looking for work, hunting for the cheapest winter boots, waiting in a myriad of social-service lines, filling out reams of paperwork for different agencies, and searching the thrifty ads for used household items. Being poor was the ultimate time-consuming lifestyle. There was no such thing as a quick trip to buy a new winter coat or a stop at the garage to get the car tuned up. Because there was so little money, every expenditure was major, requiring research and time: shopping for the cheapest used coat sturdy enough to hand down to the next child, waiting till the car actually stopped running and then hunting for the mechanic who could fix at least part of the problem for whatever money was in the bank. And while mom searched for that cheap mechanic she hoped existed, there was no car: every outing would take twice as long by bus or be skipped altogether. At the end of a typical day --not to mention the days when the car did die or one of the kids was sick or any other ordinary mishap--my mother cleaned, cooked, studied, sewed, and went to bed late. There was no daytime TV, no coffee gaggle with friends.

Over the past year, I've had the opportunity to reap the benefits of having a solid community--the type of support network of family, friends, and neighbors that my mother never experienced. The past year has also allowed me return to, rethink, my ideas about community, time, and money, and what these things may come to mean to my children.

From one December to another, our family experienced a dizzying set of setbacks, surprises, and changes. It started with the welcome news of my pregnancy with our second child: two weeks later, my husband lost his job--and our health insurance. The loss of our family's only income initiated a major reshuffling of our priorities and a reevaluation of our plans for the future. At thirty-five, my husband was something of a working-class stereotype: white male with a high-school education; twenty years experience printing T-shirts; pregnant wife and small child to support. I, on the other hand, had a more employable printout, with a Ph.D. in process and lots more lucrative work experience. But I was also committed to remaining home with our children.

Those first few winter weeks my husband and I talked night after night about our options, dreams, finances, and responsibilities. Although it was frightening, it was also exciting: it was a time to evaluate, set goals, and make some changes. But while we were chock full of ideas, we were desperately low on cash. What wasn't exactly the proverbial dark night of the soul was certainly the dark night of the checkbook.

As we were weighing our options and panicking about health insurance, the help began. A phone call here and there. My friend Deb asking if John had the phone number for a state-run job training program that she'd used with success. Becky called to tell me about options for health insurance and offered a list of local clinics that immunize and treat children on a sliding fee scale; she offered to sit for Stryker if I needed to go downtown to apply for aid. Another friend counseled John about his options. Still another introduced him to possible career choices. Friends, relatives, and neighbors offered all kinds of referrals and advice. Our front porch began to see a steady supply of surprise drop-offs as the news of my pregnancy spread: baby clothes, blankets, a crib, car seat, and more.

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