Sunday, October 17, 2010

Far To The Horizon

Barbara Billingsly died at the age of 94 yesterday. She was June Cleaver on the 1950's show "Leave It To Beaver". June Cleaver was an icon for White women of the time and also the standard by which women were judged. Up with the sun, making pancakes and bacon, rousting her children around to get them to school, taking care of her husband's needs (whatever that meant) and in general doing something known as "keeping house". One assumes that meant cooking, baking, vacuuming, cleaning windows and making beds and doing stacks of laundry from a washer that was located in her own home. I'm pretty sure June had her own car so she could shop at the local market and I'm also sure she did her own canning and didn't use boxes of anything for cooking.

There's something else, though. A few important things to remember about the Cleaver family.

1. They were prosperous. There was never a conversation about lack of money. The children always had nice clothes and June and Ward dressed well too.
2. June didn't work outside of the home, though I'd bet that she theoretically volunteered some of her time to charities.
3. June and Ward were obviously well educated, and their children had easy access to adequate schooling.
4. None of the main characters was an alcoholic, nobody fucked around and nobody hit anyone.
5. Dirt didn't exist.
6. You never see a hair out of place on June's head. Man, that must've been difficult. Jerry Mathers remarked that while Billingsly was a wonderfully talented actress and quite talented, she was often stifled on the set due to the bounds of her character. Oh the irony...

I get the feeling that this family didn't really exist, even in the 1950's, a time when we as a nation were dong fairly well. The middle class was growing and segregation was never addressed on television. Gays and lesbians were left out as well, though we know that more than hetero White people existed in the 50's. This show merely attempted cultural replication- a reaffirmation that everything was ok and that all problems could be solved with a father/son talk in half an hour.

If you fast forward to the 80's, you have a new iconic family: the Cosby's. Now that's a family I wanted to be part of. They had music, their own rooms, secrets, educated parents and kids who did sometimes stupid things and were loved anyway. Claire Huxtable was the head mom of five lively kids. She was worked full time and was somehow a good lawyer, mom, wife and friend. I bet she had a housekeeper. The best part for me was watching Cosby as Cliff Huxtable because he showed me what a normal dad could be like- listening to his kids and taking time for them but also being funny and strict and authoritative rather than authoritarian. And he was really, really funny. Their kids didn't seem a burden but rather a joy (despite Cliff's repeated insistence that all children eventually move out and stay out). That's the family I hoped would exist in real life.

Fast forward to today. We've got "Family Guy", "South Park" and "King of the Hill", and, and, and well, that's about it. Some animated cartoons portraying exactly what not to do- kids with dangerous attitudes and parents who are disconnected and self-absorbed. In fact, our entire nation seems self-absorbed. And I think it's safe to say that our definition of family in 2010 has changed and needs to be somehow acknowledged. More than that, I think that the way we think of an American woman's place in society needs to come back into proportion.

Oklahoma pretends that it's not been hit by the recession. This article in the Oklahoman- a newspaper repeatedly voted worst paper in the U.S.- reports that food stamp recipients rose for a record 30th month in a row in Oklahoma. Yes, even Oklahoma has felt a recession. And we're one of the poor states. Must be part of that trickle-down effect.

Why do we need a new perspective? Because the other day someone posted on Facebook that he was tired of all the jobless welfare mom's sucking off of society. Once I recovered from the shock, I took time to think about this from a perspective that isn't my own. I don't blame him-he works hard for his living and has to pay an enormous tax bill for being middle class. And it's true that some people take advantage of a system that is intended to help people who need it. And when I consider this carefully, this person would probably help someone in need. He's an Okie; that's how we do.

But I don't think that the problem merits such vehemence across the American conscience. We have this image perpetuated of some poor woman- Black, White, whatever, with bad teeth and bad English with four or five children stuck to her hip with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth standing in line at a grocery store in a mink coat, purchasing a cartful of choice cuts of meat with food stamps. Then the same woman trades the leftovers for a 50% markdown of cash so she can buy alcohol, cigarettes and meth. Then she neglects their children and lives in an opium den (ok, trailer park) and either she or her kids or both go to jail in an endless cycle.

Let's get a grip and discuss a real societal ill, mmkay? Let's talk about corporate greed politicians in people's pockets and the astronomical damage to our environment, our economy and the American ways of life. In a minute...

First, let's talk about single moms and single dads. We'll start with my mom.

My mom was pregnant with her fourth child in 1972 when her husband was killed. She was a hosuewife, an acceptable and expected occupation at that time. She moved back to her hometown where her family helped her some for a couple of years. She married off and on and always worked a job or two to help make ends meet. In her first marriage, she was home with the kids. By the time I was growing up, she worked at home and at a part time job. When necessary (especially between marriages) it was two or three part time jobs. Full time wasn't an option because then the employer would have to pay benefits like health insurance. She made less than 10k per year. I remember being an 8 year old latchkey kid. Our income qualified us for food stamps and government health care. We did not apply because my mother was too proud to take what she considered a handout. I didn't go to a dentist until I was in 10th grade. I cracked my pelvis in sixth grade when I was sledding and never even went to the doctor because my mother couldn't afford xrays. I spent several painful months recuperating. She did accept the Social Security income from my dad's passing. I remember distinctly how much it was and that the check came on the first of every month.

I wish my mom had gone on Welfare. I wish the stigma wasn't so prevalent.

I wish society would seek to understand the underlying causes for the need and use of Welfare. I wish we Americans understood poverty as a class issue and not just an economic one.

Think of it- you're a single woman and you get pregnant. The father might stay around and help, at least for awhile, or he might take off. Society doesn't judge him for that; they judge the woman. If she has an abortion she doesn't tell anyone and suffers that pain alone or with one good friend. Incidentally, it's now more difficult than ever in Oklahoma to obtain an abortion. This is why I go to protests.

Or maybe she grows up hearing that abstinence is best and therefore gets married at 18 and divorced at 23 with two children. Her ex may or may not help out. Either way, the daily energy devoted to taking care of the household falls mostly on her shoulders. If you're a single dad, just reverse the roles. Single dads get to be heroes for stepping up and being parents in this situation; it's just expected of women. I know and like several single dads. They're doing what they should but they don't think what they do is extraordinary. In fact, they have to fight twice as hard for custody if that's an issue.

Regardless of the cause, a woman, especially one without an advanced education, will have a hard time making it with children. She's relegated oftentimes to section 8 housing in bad neighborhoods. Childcare while she works her just-above-minimum-wage (so the employer can assuage their conscience while taking advantage of this plentiful workforce) job is equal to or even more expensive than what she makes if she puts her kids in regular day care. Private day care is better; if she takes the government subsidized option, the quality of care is likely to decline and her children will be more likely to need Head Start programs. A shoe-string budget doesn't have room for cars to break down and for expenses like braces and contact lenses. If that car does break down, she must fix it herself, rely on relatives or make friends with those who live close by so that they can form a network to get everyone where they need to be when they need to be there. One thing I have noticed between poverty class and middle class is this: If you're poor and your car breaks, you just knock on your neighbor's door. They will do their best to get you where you're going, to fix the problem or give you a ride. If you're middle class, you're socially inhibited from asking because you're expected to do everything for yourself. Self sufficiency, bootstraps and all of that rot. This was the weirdest transition for me, to not be asked for help or to not be able to rely on the people around me if I need something. It was my grandparent's greatest concern when I bought a house- that I make friends with the neighbors. In return, the woman in question can cook, do laundry or offer home made confections to thank the person who helped her. This is especially great for single men who don't often get home cooked meals.

So she pays all of the bills and once a month gets to go out with her friends. And people criticize her for that because she's not at home playing educational reading games to her kids 24/7 on her off time. Or maybe for three weeks of the month her kids eat macaroni and cheese so on the first she buys meat or takes them to a restaurant that isn't McDonald's. Her teeth may not be great, her accent might be off and maybe eventually she figures out that the only way she can make it is to quit that job and go on Welfare full time. At least she gets to be at home with her kids. And society judges her and punishes her and blames her for all societal ills. For me, my choice is to continue to support and change the amount and type of assistance offered. You can't just offer money (and I know it's not the only type of assistance) or token housing that's often dangerous and unreliable for heat or electricity. There must be a path, a way out; some sort of light and hope for a better life.

Incidentally, I know exactly TWO middle class families with a stay-at-home mom. One family has one child and they're doing alright. The other family has four children and they struggle every month to make sure ends meet.

And on to my secret confession of the day. I'd love to be a mom. I would. Couldn't imagine a higher calling than to populate the earth with little mini-me's, out there reading poetry and using words as leverage for change and acceptance and a world where we stop polluting the shit out of the environment. But I can't. At this point I'd be a single mom. And because I would want to put myself into that endeavor 100% and I can't afford to be a stay-at-home mom. Even if I were married or if I had a life partner, I'd still have to work and take my focus off of home life. And that's just not fair to anyone, including me. I'm busy enough as it is- a full time job and a 144 mile commute every day, plus two graduate courses AND general exams coming up tomorrow. No wonder we're a tired and heavily medicated nation.

The United States is the most overworked society in the world. Moms from two-parent households are more likely to work full time, shoulder the majority of the housework and parenting and must still conform to standards of health and beauty. I can't imagine how a single mom or a single dad must do it. How she or he must sacrifice and when those sacrifices aren't made for a day or two, how much guilt that would bring on.

The U.S. Social Security Administration defines social welfare expenditures as the cost of "cash benefits, services, and the administration of public programs that directly benefit individuals and families." This broad definition includes expenditures for social security (Old-Age, Survivor's, Disability, and Health Insurance, or OASDHI), health and medical programs, education, housing, veterans' programs, and public aid programs.

Let's talk about some real problems. Problems not concerned with individuals who take advantage of a system. Problems that create the environment where we need so much from such a system. I'm not sure how much the nation spends on Welfare programs for single parents. You can find out more here, but that includes all social programs. I do know that in one year, we spent $40 billion on private contractors for the war effort. I know that corporations regularly and repeatedly rape the middle class and exploit the poverty class. I want to know why those people are hailed as captains of industry while stealing billions and single moms are ridiculed and crucified without so much as anyone asking that population what they want, what they're doing or if they have hopes and dreams of their own.

Barbara Billingsly died and may she rest in peace. She sounded like a nice lady.
Perhaps now is the time to move on. Please, America, stop this bit of strange thinking. It makes me tired. Stop hating women. And Oklahoma, do me a personal favor and cut down on the female incarceration rate. We're 300% over the rest of the nation and are #1 in the world in percentage of women locked up. And what the fuck is with private prisons anyway... ah but that's a rant for another day.

At some point soon and hopefully in my lifetime, we're going to have to change our entrenched conservative thinking. We're going to have to change with the times and adapt or else risk the waning of our sun in the sky. I'd like to see a world where Welfare is used for what it's intended to do- to help people when they need it. Look far to the horizon and fix the root cause; then the rest shall fall into place.


  1. Blaming welfare recipients became popular under Reagan. It continued under Bush, Clinton, and Bush redux. Gingrich really hammered the concept into the heads of the taxpayers.

    Starting some time in the 70s, the median wage stopped rising. To compensate, most households became two-earner households. When that no longer worked, people worked longer hours. When that stopped working, they tapped the equity in their homes to compensate for the lack of income. The collapse of the housing market killed that and left a lot of people in foreclosure.

    Families have become disconnected because they are too tired from working so much. Nobody has the energy despite consuming caffeine with abandon. Because mom and dad are so busy, they make sure their kids are equally busy so they don't really have to deal with them. Mom doesn't have the time or energy to cook meals so people live on convenience foods and fast food. The loss of the middle class is partly the cause of the obesity epidemic.

    You are right that poor people tend to help each other and the middle class tends to be every man/woman for him/herself. I saw that same attitude when I was in college. Helping someone might result in hurting yourself so to hell with everyone. It is the middle class and those who like to believe they are middle class who complain about the welfare recipients, but see nothing wrong with corporate welfare. I say it all sucks, but I'd rather someone's belly be full and they have a roof over their head than have them rioting in the streets and taking things by force.

  2. I for one agree with this. I come from a rather blessed family. I've never had to want for anything, it was always handed to me on a golden plate adorned with fake happiness. However, I never became the spoiled, rotten child that you see so much of on TV now days. My mother instilled in me a hard work ethic. To find what I want, and work for it accordingly. I think because of that work ethic, I can see so much more amidst my families wealth persay.
    Today, I'm a 20 something who work's for the Federal Government. Honestly, we spend way to much. My agency will stay anonymous, but I see millions slide across my desk everyday.
    And When I think of all the mothers, grandparents, and families out there that are BARELY making it, I should not be make the salary that I am today.
    I guess that's why my heart is so soft to give it away. To help those in need, and hope to the Lord above that it is feeding a hungry stomach, and an empty soul.

    That's my take on things....anyway, good post Mindie. Really enjoyed it.
    Your student forever,

  3. I don't have a comment on the content of your post, aside from publicly acknowledging my solidarity with your position.

    Mostly I wanted to comment to thank you for the beauty and humanity I always find when I read your blog. You help me want to be a better person, and I tell everyone I can to come read you.

    I miss getting to see you @ Gittinger. Maybe we can have coffee and chat some time?

  4. I'm loving your post! I totally agree with you across the board here. Cosby is an amazing dad... But I always wanted my family to be disfunctional like the Griffin's too. >.<

    Again, thank you for your enlightening pros. I miss ya'll very much!