Friday, September 21, 2012

Olivia Ghafoerkhan's Voice

Dear Mitt,

I honestly wasn’t that bothered by your reference to those people, those 47%.  What got to me was your comment that you “can’t teach them personal responsibility”.  Really, Mitt?  What qualifies you to teach me about personal responsibility?

And who am I?  I’m a poor white trash kid from North Florida who grew up in a single wide trailer on an acre of land we rented for $75 a month.  Who am I?  I’m a kid who ate free school lunches and breakfasts, who felt the deepest bitterest disappointment when my bus was late in the morning because it meant I wouldn’t have breakfast that day.  I’m the kid who foraged in the woods for blackberries and acorns during the summer.  My first job was at 14, I got paid $30 a week to watch two kids after school by a single mom.  At 16 I moved on to the glorious job of waiting tables at a greasy smoke-filled Waffle House, where I’d occasionally worked overnights even though it was against child labor laws.  Why?  Not for the measly $2.16 an hour…no, because for every shift I worked I got a free meal.  I worked through college, sometimes with two and at one time three part time jobs.  I shared a crappy apartment in a bad area with three other girls…a two bedroom one bath apartment.  I spent $20 a week on groceries and I had Pell grants and student loans.

So what makes you more personally responsible than me?  You didn’t work through college, you lived off investments your dad made.  College is competitive, and while my class mates didn’t work and I did, I still had to find the same amount of time to study and read.  After I got married, my husband and I shared a car, and I’d read my class material during my mile long walk home, and on the city bus from work to class.  And even though both my husband and I were working, we were on food stamps for a time.  When did you get your first job, Mitt?  What makes your dependency on your father’s investments so different from my dependency on food stamps and Pell grants?  At least I had a job.

And now?  Now I’m living a comfortable, middle class life in Northern Virginia.  Like your wife, Ann, I’m a stay at home mom.  I’m also a writer.  But unlike Ann, I still babysit and I also work an overnight job to make ends meet, because as I’m sure you’ve heard before it’s hard to make ends meet on the lower end of the middle class income bracket.

But I’d gladly pay more taxes.  Why?  Because I recognize the vital role these programs played in getting me out of poverty, of making the American dream achievable.  The American dream, that anyone from anywhere can make a life for themselves in the new world of America is what brought immigrants flocking to our shores, it’s what has made American industry and innovation famous worldwide.  But the price tag on that American Dream has skyrocketed along with inflation and the cost of healthcare.  Lincoln was a man who grew up in a rough log cabin with one window, a man with very little formal education.  Now we have two law school graduates, Ivy league school grads at that, running for president.  Now the best way to ensure success is a college education.

My high school had a one third dropout rate, and the principal did not care.  She started the freshman assembly with her infamous speech of “look to your left, look to your right…one of you will not graduate.”  That day I sat between my two best friends.  Both of them dropped out.  Both of them were set up to fail.

If you and Ryan had paid attention in that basic psychology class that’s required in high school, you would have been introduced to the concept of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  A person’s basics needs have to be met before they can strive for any higher aspirations.  Research supports this, showing that hungry kids struggle to learn.  Other studies have linked hunger with adolescent violence.  Would I have graduated from high school without the school lunch program?  I don’t know.  But I know that I would not be where I am today without the assistance I’ve gotten from the government.  The same is true of my husband, whose mother moved here from another country with three young children in search of that American dream for her kids.  She only had a few years of formal education, but now all three of her kids have college degrees, one of whom has two Masters and is now a teacher.

Is that one of the reason you and Ryan are so against these government programs?  They’ve been called failed, but how can a school lunch program fail if it is in fact feeding school children, helping them learn?  Is the thought of these people rising up out of the ghetto and challenging the all-white all-wealthy world of you and your supporters that terrifying to you?  Because, after all, as we learn from Maslow, if they are struggling to find their next meal, they won’t be thinking of higher ideals like elections and voting.  Or is it more crude than that?  Is it as simple as holding on to those few extra tax dollars?

The other thing these people need is hope.  They need someone to believe in them.  That hope came to me in 1997 when I joined the LDS, or Mormon, church.  In the Young Women’s program of the church I learned about Individual Worth, that I am a divine daughter of a Heavenly Father and that I have infinite worth.  Today my children sing “I am a Child of God.”  Do you believe that, Mitt?  Do you believe in the Individual Worth of each member of that 47%?

I’m willing to pay more in taxes for hungry school kids, for Pell grants, for Medicaid, for food stamps.  I am not willing to pay more in taxes so you can pay less.  That is taking personal responsibility, Mitt.  Paying taxes, supporting programs that lift people out of poverty and allow them to pursue the American dream.  Because your world, your wealth, is made possible because of that same dream.

You were right.  You can’t teach those people, those 47%, about personal responsibility because you do not know about personal responsibility.  You do not understand what it means to be the working poor, you don’t understand how America works.  You don’t understand that a poor white trash kid in North Florida whose clothes don’t fit and who gets government help can grow up and move up and become more than who she was at birth.  And that by helping kids like that and adults like that, by lifting them out of poverty through these government programs, enabling them to get more education and through that better paying jobs, it is helping all of America.

And that is why I’m voting for Barack Obama.

-- Olivia Ghafoerkhan 

Olivia Ghafoerkhan is a stay-at-home mother in northern Virginia.  She is currently working on a book about hunger in America that has gained the support of the Capital Area Food Bank.