Falling Down the Economic Ladder

"We can really do something with kids like you."

That's what a YMCA staffperson told my teenaged brother. My brother, sister and I were working at the Y through a summer jobs program for low income youth. It's hard to describe how ridiculous this statement was. Not only did we apparently need fixing, but the person saying so was a heavily made up, 50-something aerobics instructor who seemed convinced that dressing 25 made her so.

Such was our new life. A few years earlier, we didn't qualify as "low income." My parents were still married, and our family of five did fine on my dad's income from the kind of blue collar, union job that's hard to find these days. But my mother needed to leave my father after years of him being violent. She'd stayed longer than she wanted to, as she didn't know how she was going to support us. She took the plunge and started cleaning houses and offices six days a week – all with a bad back and no health insurance or paid time off. No matter how hard she worked, it was never enough, even with a modest house payment. So once our home became a safe place, it was one we barely could hold onto.

We cut back on every conceivable expense, then got food stamps, help from the Heat Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) and occasional grocery donations from church. We hated every moment of it, feeling ashamed of needing help, but we had no choice.

Yet for this aerobics instructor, and many people like her, we were broke because we were doing something wrong.

The Job Training Partnership Act program reached the same conclusion. My brother, sister and I spent four summers in JTPA jobs. Once a summer all participants had to go to a training, usually including "humorous" skits, telling us to show up for work, be on time, dress appropriately and work hard. I can't argue with the messages, and some kids in our program needed to hear them. But not all of us did, and we had a site supervisor to handle problems on a case-by-case basis. Instead, I got to sit through skits that left me feeling humiliated.

No one questioned my work ethic until we escaped family violence. What a weird tradeoff.

I've long since learned how typical that scenario is. Many people love that old trope about teaching a man to fish, instead of giving him fish. But not enough people ask if his fishing skills are the problem.

An emergency rental assistance program in Washington, DC requires recipients to come in for trainings in budgeting. That could be helpful, but again, it depends. Spending yourself into a hole is one thing. Being behind on rent from a long illness is quite another.

A local family shelter found that a handful of residents didn't know how to clean their apartments, so all residents got trained in it. I kept wondering what that felt like for those who didn't need it.

Ironically, well-intended training programs can be a burden, especially for the working poor. Accessing benefits often means missing work to spend countless hours in waiting rooms. Add some trainings, and you may be missing even more work and wages.

I realize that poverty is far from simple, and that personal responsibility can play a role, as can a changing job market which demands new skills. But still, sometimes people get sick, get laid off or lose a spouse. So why do we treat all people who need help as if they have the same needs? And how much money are we wasting this way? When do people need skills training, and when do they just need money to get them through a crisis? How much are training programs driven by need and how much by the deep seated American belief that poverty means you just aren't trying hard enough?

I can already hear the criticism that if you're poor and get help, that you have no right to complain about anything. Well, let me put it this way. Conservatives tend to call the poor lazy. Liberals are more likely to assume they're inept. Either way, getting through poverty with your dignity intact is far from easy.

When Our Supporters Surprise Us: What We Can Learn from the Marriage Equality Campaigns

"What do you think I fought for at Omaha Beach?" 
World War II veteran Philip Spooner was quoting himself during recent testimony before the Maine Judiciary Committee. He was recalling his answer to a woman's query at the polls on Election Day. She asked if he believed in equality for gay and lesbian people. In his powerful statement (here on YouTube.com), Mr. Spooner talks about how he believed he was defending freedom and equality during the war. He also speaks of how he and his wife raised four sons, one of whom is gay, never thinking that one would be denied the opportunities of the other three.

Mr. Spooner might be considered unusual in his commitment to equal rights for gays and lesbians, being an elderly VFW member and Republican. But that's where those of us working on issues considered "liberal" or "progressive" often make a mistake. We forget that few people fit neatly into liberal and conservative boxes.

Like Mr. Spooner, my 90 year old grandmother strongly supports gay rights, and did so well before she knew one of her grandchildren was gay. She's also a lifelong Catholic who supports the full spectrum of reproductive rights, including abortion, because she remembers how hard it was before women had the access to reproductive care we do now.

As the demographic research of the advertising world has spilled over into nonprofit issue campaigns, I fear that we sometimes lazily conflate "likely" with "always." I have liberal friends here in Washington who get tired of people being shocked that they are from conservative states like Mississippi or Kentucky. No state is monolithic, as many people discovered when Proposition 8 passed in California. Famous for its liberal areas, the state has sharply conservative ones as well.

Planning campaigns with target audiences determined by geography, party affiliation, age, race and gender can help decide where and how to spend our resources. But let's make sure that we are working from knowledge, not assumptions. We can't convince people to support our causes if we don't talk with them, and we need to reach the people who do agree but have never been asked to take action.

Mr. Spooner is far from the only person in Maine who supports equality despite not fitting into the liberal box. Protect Maine Equality has been running terrific ads demonstrating the support for their cause, as in this ad with a Catholic mom who's proud of her son, son-in-law and grandson.

What do you think? Where do we get it right, and how can we do better?