Get A(nother) Job!
–Part 1 of a 3 Part Series–
Mary and her husband married young. They were idealistic and certain that their love could carry them through just about anything. They were fresh out of high school and were suddenly setting up house and playing grown up. At first things went well. They needed so little to be happy. They had a small apartment. They had a beaten up old car they shared. And they both had full-time jobs in the fast food industry. Together their income got them through month-to-month.
Mary’s first pregnancy was planned. They were anxious to start a family, but they had not considered the enormous cost that accompanied pregnancy and childbirth. Mary was six months pregnant when her doctor ordered her to bed rest. Her manager informed her she could take a leave of absence, but wouldn’t be guaranteed to get her job back after the baby was born.
So Mary and her husband, three months away from the birth of their first child, found themselves thrust head-first into poverty. His fast food job would not pay the bills and she could no longer offer her financial support. So, Mary’s husband found a second job. This is how they got through the first pregnancy.
The second pregnancy was unplanned and unexpected. And it was devastating to Mary and her husband. They had been thrust into deep financial debt with the first preganancy. How could they afford any more? And to make matters worse, there was no way they could continue to live in their little apartment with two chilren. The landlord had been hesitant to allow them to stay with one infant–no way would he permit them to stay with two. Now they had the difficult task of trying to find a new home with their over-extended credit and low income.
But they struggled through. Mary’s husband found a job at a big-box retail store which paid a little over the minimum wage he was currently earning and was able to maintain his second (part-time) job at the fast food place. They were just barely getting by, but they were survivng.
For the first few years of their marriage, Mary and her husband were always focused entirely on survival–but a reprieve finally came when the two children were finally old enough to be in school. The very day her youngest started in Headstart and her oldest began Kindergarten, Mary returned to work. It was only a part-time job, and it only paid minimum wage, but it meant her husband could finally quit his second job and they could finally focus on being a family.
And then came the cut in food stamps.
Mary and her husband had come to rely upon food stamps to help them get through the month. But with the reduction in their monthly assistance, they now needed to turn to a food pantry to get the help they would need to stretch their resources to the end of the month.
It was at the food pantry that Mary learned about a church who ran a Secret Santa program for low-income children. Essentially, their goal was to help working class parents provide Christmas for their children.
Up until this point, Mary and her husband had always skimped on Christmas. The children were so young that their main excitement came from finding brightly wrapped presents under the tree and knowing Santa Claus had visited them. But Mary feared that now that the children were in a position to compare with other kids, they would beleive Santa was short-changing them. She wanted them to know that they were every bit as loved as their classmates. And so she quickly signed up for the program.
She arrived at her appointment early, eager to get her children added to the list. A volunteer greeted her and invited her into a children’s classroom where they would conduct a “screening interview”.
By this point, Mary had become accustomed to these sorts of interviews. Her journey through the public assistance system had prepared her well for beauracratic red-tape.
Everything started out pretty standard–the volunteer wanted to know how many adults were in the household, how many children would need support and their ages. She wanted to know what other sorts of assistance they received and if they were being helped by any other churches. And then came the question that is always asked: “What is your annual household income?”
Had Mary been less honest, she could have reported a smaller income than she did, since she had only been at work for less than three months and had not yet filed a tax return on herself. But she chose to be honest. She answered, “Right around $22,000”.
“And why don’t you work?” the volunteer asked, assuming the income must represent a single source.
“I do work,” Mary responded, but was interrupted before she could continue.
“Does your husband?”
“Yes,” Mary said, “We both do. He works full-time and I work part-time.”
“Why don’t you get a full-time job?” the volunteer demanded.
“I can’t,” Mary stuttered, “I can’t start before 8:00 because I have to get the kids on the school bus. And I would have to be off by 2:30 so that I can get home and get the kids off the bus. They’re too young to be released without an adult there to pick them up. And the youngest only goes to school four days a week…”
“But you could get a second job,” the volunteer sneered, without even looking at Mary, “In the evening after your husband gets home.”
“When would we ever see each other?” Mary said, near tears, remembering those first few years when she and her husband rarely saw one another while he worked and toiled to make ends meet and she cared for the children and struggled to maintain a home on next to nothing.
“We all make sacrifices,” the volunteer said as she scribbled a note on the intervew paper.
In the end, Mary had her children enrolled in the program. She left knowing that her children would be able to make a wish list for Santa and would more than likely have their desires met. But Mary left dehumanized, filled with shame and guilt, and hurting in a brand new way.