Okay, I will raise my hand and tell you that I, too, am a member of the 47%. Also the 99%, while we are busy slicing the American populace into fragments and segments. I was on WIC and state health care before and after the birth of my son because I was in graduate school and not making enough money to afford health insurance for anyone in my household. It was a grim time, one episode in a long stretch that is so very common in this country for people who are trying their best but not getting paid quite enough to afford food, housing, and healthcare.
I wasn't very victim-y about it. I am not sure what you mean by "victim." When I think about that word, I think of someone who passively takes whatever injuries life is handing out. Maybe that victim woman would lay down on the pavement, squinting while gravel stuck to her skin from the cars passing by. Nope, I'm not a victim. I hollered. I bothered everyone I could. I also shopped around like a good believer in the power of "the market," and wouldn't you know it, there was no free market solution to the problem of a woman with a uterus and an infant. We were too expensive for the market to take care of us. So I had to go to the state welfare offices, which has remained the best healthcare experience ever in my life. I wrote a whole book about it, and I will send a copy to you if you like. Or maybe you should buy a copy via the free market.
But what I really want to tell you is that I was never a victim. Nope, I was a busy busy bee. Not only did I work my butt off as a new mom and a graduate student and a teaching assistant, I also took out zero loans because I was scared of debt. I didn't even rack up much credit card debt. Instead, I took on both a second, a third, and a fourth job. That's right: I was a proofreader for a medical supply company AND a freelance journalist for a regional magazine AND taught yet another adjunct class at a different university. I didn't have much time to savor my son's first year, but we who work hard have to make many, many sacrifices.
Since then, I have followed in my family members' footsteps. Many of us have been poor--too poor to have to pay income tax at the end of the year, but poor enough to have significant chunks taken out during each of our checks, amounts that are disproportionate to our income. My family members all work their butts off, and so do I.
But what I really want to do is to tell you a story from a time in my life when I was poor, and living in a poor neighborhood. I knew I was privileged because I had an education, even then. I knew I had options, and nothing taught me gratitude like seeing the privilege I had. That's a good lesson: to see your privilege. It tends to make a person less bitter and judgmental.
One day I was sitting on my porch trying to get my son to sleep for a nap. One of my neighbors--a woman named Crystal--was pushing a stroller down the street with her baby inside. She had tied a lawnmower handle to the stroller handle with a piece of plastic rope. She was pushing this contraption slowly down the pavement with quite a lot of clattering and noise.
"Do you need your lawn mowed?" she asked.
I said I didn't. The truth was that I didn't have anything to spare to give her, but we talked for a while. She told me about the tattoo on her calf and I showed her the tattoo on my shoulder. Her baby in the stroller kept dropping his bottle onto the asphalt, and either she or I would keep picking it up and handing it back to him. After a while she said she had to keep moving because it was hot, and because she had to find someone's lawn to mow.
Mitt, you cannot even imagine. You can't imagine what it was like to go to Crystal's house later, sneak up on her porch, and leave a package of diapers for her that were too small for my son. You can't imagine how ashamed this made Crystal, and how she knew it was me, and how she didn't roll her lawnmower contraption near my house anymore. You clearly don't know a thing about pride.
Everyone who drives down a highway or visits a post office or a library or a university in this country is a beneficiary of our shared trust, the resources we have pulled together like a big old barnraising to help make this country great in all the ways that aren't given enough credit by the people who claim to be the biggest patriots. We are not victims. We are just the ones who know that we need to help each other, because we don't have pockets of family wealth to sustain us. We need to help each other, because the seasons will turn as they do, and the next time around it will be us who needs the help. That's what it's like over here in the 47%.
All the best,
Sonya Huber is the author of two books of creative nonfiction, Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir (2010), finalist for the ForeWord Book of the Year, and Opa Nobody (2008), shortlisted for the Saroyan Prize. She has also written a textbook, The Backwards Research Guide for Writers: Using Your Life for Reflection, Connection, and Inspiration (2011). Her work has been published in literary journals and magazines including Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, Crab Orchard Review, Hotel Amerika, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and the Washington Post Magazine. She teaches in the Department of English at Fairfield University.