No one exactly said, “Let them eat cake,” but the recent government shutdown felt that way.
Four in ten Americans can’t meet an unexpected $400 expense, we’re often told. In my experience, the number is probably higher, and people are too embarrassed to say so. In my younger years, I was one of those people. The experience of being poor was deeply educational, much more than I ever realized at the time. After growing up among thrifty middle class people, I had to be on my own to learn the soul-gnawing stress of not being able to pay the bills. I had to learn the daily panic of driving an unreliable car because it was all I could afford.
I was so bad at managing the small amount of money I did have that – true confession — I landed on the list of people barred from having a checking account. When I moved to a new city, I sat in the bank, crossing my fingers until they told me I could open an account.
And still, I was the kind of poor where I could fall back on my parents in a true emergency.
And still, I was the kind of poor where I had a college education.
And still, I was the kind of poor where white skin is still an advantage.
It was a privileged kind of poverty, where I didn’t expect it to last forever, and I had people in my circles who had money, if there was an emergency.
This year, the minds behind the shutdown seemed to forget that not everyone has a cushion, or family and friends with money. The burden on the lowest paid government and contract workers made me mad every day, knowing how corrosive financial stress is. Money stress is always spiritual stress. Landlords, grocery stores, credit cards and day care centers aren’t in the business of letting people slide, and people on the edge of financial stability may have stretched their slim margins already. Federal employees are promised back pay, but contract workers won’t receive even that. I always pictured contract workers as well-trained computer professionals, working for the Defense Department, but in reality they are “among the lowest paid federal employees, earning between $450 and $650 per week, union leaders tell The Washington Post. They’re often the cooks, the guards, the janitors, and other support workers at federal buildings. Many of them cashed in sick days to generate some income during the shutdown.”
The things that were a lesson for me are an ongoing, dispiriting reality for many people, now made even worse by the shutdown. The same is true for waitresses and bartenders who serve federal employees, along with their babysitters and Lyft drivers. The casualness of the shutdown missed the financial and emotional toll it took. That kind of casual disregard pops up every time someone has to pay for a field trip, or “senior class fees,” or finds payroll delayed for no reason. The stresses are everywhere.
Small amounts of money make a huge difference. People often call my church office, requesting fairly tiny amounts of money to keep the water on, the heat on or to keep a child in a good day care center. Remembering the stress of being poor, I’m inclined to say yes, and I know it’s a position of amazing privilege to be the one deciding, instead of the one asking.
I’m hoping that I don’t ever forget.
Mary Austin is the pastor of Westminster Church of Detroit, a diverse Presbyterian Church. She is the author of Meeting God at the Mall. The photo is from Wikimedia Commons. http://www.hd.org/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33984.
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