The last thing most poor, single mothers need is more self-loathing. But the right continues to shame them, says Lynn Beisner.
Calling single mothers trashy, sexually immoral, and lazy has become such a clichéd meme on the right, it’s hard to pick out just one of their denizen to criticize.
What kills me when I read self-righteous declarations by the likes of Rand Paul and Mike Huckabee about the moral waywardness and laziness of poor single mothers is not the right’s propensity to blame a national problem on its victims. What I find most infuriating is how inept their proposed solution is: to shame single mothers.
It’s as if they believe the only thing standing in the way of single mothers becoming pious, industrious, financial successes who raise upstanding citizens is a little more self-loathing.
I have news for the right: The one and only thing that most poor, single mothers have in abundance is self-loathing. We constantly worry about where we went wrong, are going wrong, and how many different ways we are screwing up. It is like suggesting that the problems of people stranded on a life-raft could be resolved with a serious infusion of sea-water.
I know how much self-loathing most welfare mothers endure because, on a dark fall day in 1995, I became a single mother on welfare.
Before you prepare yourself for a story in which I tell you all the ways I was not lazy and immoral by the right’s standards, let me just cop to both. Had today’s right wing had access to my files, they would have mocked me as lazy and they would have reviled me as immoral and sexually perverse.
Even the way in which I signed up for welfare would make them irate. I did not go to a welfare office, sit in a line, or receive a lecture on how to better myself. The social worker came to me.
Two days before, I had woken up in overwhelming pain, stuck in the rubble of what had once been my car, but was now a scene thick with chaos and emergency responders. Sparks flew from cutting equipment, the rainy night air was filled with the sound of splashing feet, metal groaning, sirens blaring, and someone screaming in sustained agony. I had no idea where or who I was.
Over the next two days, I remembered who I was and then learned that woman was now gone. In her place was a woman who had broken nearly every bone on the right side of her body, had sustained a serious head injury, and was still in grave danger of having one of her legs amputated. She was also newly single. Next to my bed in the Intensive Care Unit was a sheaf of divorce papers that a process server had delivered during one of my brief periods of wakefulness.
The papers hadn’t been a complete shock, but they were a blow. My husband and I had been having some serious differences. I believed that our marriage should continue as it had started—an agreement between two individuals. I was open to polyamory, under the right circumstances. But my husband had fallen in love with a woman named Caroline, and he wanted her to be his primary partner for life.
My husband had plunged deeply into the alternative and poly community, coming out to our families with aplomb. We would have a new family, one of choice. It might have worked out, but Caroline felt compelled to destroy every woman that she saw as competition. (In the years since, I have had the privilege of knowing many poly people, enough to know that Caroline is an abusive, sociopathic exception and not the rule.)
Once Caroline had so enthralled my husband that he had pledged himself to her for that lifetime and many more to come, I had little choice but to follow if I wanted to save my marriage. I tried to integrate into the alternative community, but Caroline had already started executing her plan. She began by isolating me, then by gas-lighting me first as a wife, then as a mother, then as a person. Once she had me believing that I was possibly crazy, it was easy for her to convince everyone in our community that I was dangerously unhinged.
By the time of my accident, my reputation was ruined. My family had me pegged as a godless sexual reprobate. I lost all support from family and friends when they heard that my first husband and I were trying a polyamorous relationship.
Just to complete the conservative stereotype, I was by all social standards lazy. I never paid attention, had difficulty keeping a job or even a clean house. Later, I would be diagnosed with ADD and narcolepsy and treatment would change my life. But on that day I applied for welfare, I looked exactly like a conservative caricature of the kind of woman who would destroy America.
All of these things combined meant that my car accident was ruinous on every level. I had no savings, and no health insurance. I realized I had no one to help when I came home from the hospital. And for that matter, I would have no home to return to. While I was undergoing rehabilitation, I would be evicted from my apartment. I wondered what would happen to all of the things that my children loved.
So by the time that social worker showed up in my hospital room, I knew that I was in deep trouble, teetering on the edge of an abyss. She was kind and positive, assuring me that she would help me put the pieces of my life back together. I didn’t feel worthy of the help, and I told her so.
She looked at me with kind eyes and said, “We do not help those in need because we hope to make them better people. We do it because it makes us better people. If we let people go without healthcare and food and a place to live, it would diminish us as an entire society.”
In the right’s version of these scenarios, I would have used the state’s largess to sit on my butt and watch television. And truthfully, I did for a few months while I went through physical and occupational therapy. But then with the help of a feminist group, I received counseling, a new wardrobe, and training for a new profession. Within six months I was back at work, and within a year I was fully self-sustaining.
Like most people who use welfare, I used it to get through a crisis, and then I went back to working and caring for my family. It did not make me feel entitled or ruin my work ethic. In fact, the help that I had been given made me feel obligated to repay my debt, to work harder so that others who fall into such desperate circumstances will have a social safety net.
Yes, I was a lazy, immoral single mom, and our social safety net saved my life. Without state help, I would have been disabled, homeless, and without adequate nutrition. I might have lasted a month at most before succumbing to infection, exposure, or violence.
Even if we all agree that it was my fault that I landed in a position where I had nothing and no one, were my crimes worthy of death?
When Conservatives say that the poor are lazy and therefore undeserving of having their basic needs met, I wonder if they realize that laziness has never been a capital crime in our country. And I want them to look me in the eye and tell me that society would be better today had it let me die, or made me do incredibly desperate things to survive in such a horrible situation.
The few thousand dollars the state invested in me has been repaid many times over. But even if I were the exception, and most welfare recipients never repaid our faith in them, our investment in their lives would still be more than worthwhile. When we pay for the poor to eat, to have a roof to sleep under, and for their medical care, we affirm their worth as human beings, and our worth by extension. We are better people when we care for those who do not have the resources to care for themselves.
As Franklin Roosevelt said and is engraved on his memorial, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide for those who have too little.” And I would add that our dignity as a nation cannot exceed the dignity of those in poverty, especially the single mothers that we want to blame for all that ails us.
Lynn Beisner writes about family, social justice issues, and the craziness of daily life. Her work can be found on Role Reboot, Alternet, and on her blog: Two Parts Smart-Ass; One Part Wisdom. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.