Tuesday, December 3, 2013

American Winter

(This is my 900th post. Yay me!)

At the risk of spoiling all of the holiday revelry for just a moment . . . 

I am fortunate. I have a family, a job, a home, a car, and a college education. I have a 401k account. I suppose I am firmly middle class and yet, I think all it would take is one medical crisis or a more-than-very-brief period of unemployment and our little family would be in big trouble.

I was pondering this weighty thought last night as I watched the HBO documentary "American Winter."  It was a sobering experience. If you have an opportunity to see the film, I highly recommend it (it is currently on HBO on Demand and was just released on DVD as well).  American Winter profiles a handful of American families struggling with poverty.  Their stories are heartbreaking. These are people who desperately want jobs and often cannot find them. Or, the jobs available to them offer such low pay that they must still visit a food pantry just to get by.  They must explain to their children why their electricity has been turned off, why water no longer flows from the spigot. One boy tells his mother, "I'm fine, Mom. I don't need a hot meal." Another child cries because she knows it is her own medical issue that has kept her mother from working. Medical bills climb so high that even knocking a dent in them starts to seem almost laughable.

The film does an excellent job of dispelling stereotypes. For starters, most of the families profiled are as white as Wonder Bread (I know many like to believe that people of color are the ones draining resources). Far from lazy, one woman spends her days hauling around scrap metal and selling plasma just to make a few extra dollars. A man named John makes it clear that he will do ANY job, any job at all.  He is not holding out for a CEO position.

I must confess that I had to confront a couple of my own prejudices as I watched.  For example, my brain started to form the thought, "How can someone so poor afford so many tattoos?"  I had to cut myself off to keep from going down that path. Because you know what? It's none of my business. Just because someone else is struggling does not give me some sort of license to weigh in on how they spend what money they do have. It's too easy to jump to conclusions.  Many low-income families are also significantly overweight. Some might wonder how such families could claim to be poor when clearly they have enough to eat. Well, the situation is more complicated than that. Low income neighborhoods rarely have nice grocery stores. Instead, they are dotted with fast food restaurants. Bad-for-you food is cheaper than good-for-you food. It's simple math.

American Winter also points out that attitudes towards poor people have changed dramatically over the years. Those who rely on welfare and other social programs are treated with disdain.We are so sure that these folks are abusing the system that we pressure our politicians to pull the plug on all of it. The distribution of wealth in our country grows more unbalanced by the minute.The families portrayed in the film are not looking to be wealthy.  They would be happy just to have the basics.

Last week my daughter asked me what the phrase "walk a mile in my shoes" means. Maybe more people should ask what that means.

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