*Names in this blog are changed for privacy reasons.
I looked up to him in college.
Heck, I still do.
His name is Daniel. And he was the one in my university newsroom that I always saw pass by in a hurry, camera bag slung over his shoulder, in a race to get to the story first. Or the one to sit outside temples or in freezing temperatures with giggling newly engaged couples to capture the perfect shot. My now husband and I were one of those couples. I’d see the pictures he took in the folds of the newspaper or even now hanging on our walls, and I always thought to myself that the phrase, “a picture is worth a thousand words” was invented by his lens.
I knew Daniel would go places in life with his creativity and his passion for capturing reality in a beautiful, raw way. And I still know he will. Even now, when he’s out of a job and feeling down on his luck in this rough economy. Even now, when he admits to having to live off of unemployment benefits right now to keep food on his plate.
Even now, I look up to him.
But then I got on Facebook today *which can sometimes be a REAL bad idea, if you know what I mean* and I saw some comments to a status he wrote about having to humble himself and accept government benefits. Some people began to call them handouts. Some people told him he should have more dignity. People mentioned that those who accept hand-outs are a leech on society. And some just made jokes about the situation.
My blood boiled as I read through these comments. And I wanted to write something in return. I wanted to write back to each and every person individually and tell them about Daniel. I wanted to show them all the pictures that Daniel has taken–one by one. Pictures taken by the very person they point fingers at and sneer at from their lofty pedestals–I want them to see the creative way he captures moments and the way in which he had worked for years and years for all he has in various positions. Daniel is not a leech to society.
I wanted to tell each of those people on that comment stream about my awesome dad–a man who faces cancer and can’t work anymore and therefore receives food stamps and unemployment benefits and is still drowning in mounds of freshly-inked hospital bills. I wanted everyone to know about his 25 years of working hard for our family as an ultrasound manufacturer, coming home late and leaving before the sun came up to make sure we had new school clothes every year and hot meals every night. My dad is not a leech on society.
I was tempted to comment about my situation from only a year ago. My husband and I were new to Washington after I graduated and a job was hard to come by. Although I have a Bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism, I also applied outside of my field–over 100 applications that fried my brain cells to fill out– everything from secretary work to flight attendant to restaurants around town. No callbacks. Since my husband was still in school (paid for by federal grants) and he didn’t have enough hours in the day to carry a job, we too had to rely on food stamps for a while until a news station in Seattle finally called me and answered my desperate prayers. It was a hard time where we honestly needed help–but never were we leeches.
To all those commenters I wanted to show them the essays and novels my dear friend Andrea has written–a friend of mine who graduated with a well-deserved English degree and has been struggling to find a career outside of her job in an Italian restaurant in New York City. I want them to read every word of her writing and hear her talk about her ambitions and what she does every day to chase them down. Andrea is not a leech to society.
But I’ll tell you what is.
The only leeches to society are the attitudes that drain the life from those who are merely clinging to the edges of their own lives–trying to get by. Trying to be seen again.
The leeches are the sneers and unkind looks from people in check-out stand lines to the single mother of three fumbling with coupons and her EBT card. Leeches take the form of pride and skepticism and lofty attitudes that say, “I’m above that” and suck confidence from everyone else. Leeches are the impulses that drive someone to share a viral (and unrelated) picture of an African-American woman holding a photoshopped sign that states she’s a mom to 13 sons instead of the original sign that said 3. On social media sites it implied that’s why she probably voted for Obama so she could have free handouts. Totally unrelated and completely unacceptable.
People aren’t leeches–people are people. But attitudes can be.
I understand that there are attitudes within those who receive assistance that are the opposite of what I’m talking about here–attitudes that are within people who don’t look for jobs but solely rely on what the government can give them. I’ve personally seen people who take advantage of government benefits by using the cash to get tattoos or steak dinners or to continue to live lives of irresponsibility. But I won’t say this is the majority.
I know there are people out there in cramped DSHS waiting rooms waiting for benefits to eat dinner that night or people standing in grocery lines with EBT cards who are just like Daniel. Or Andrea. Or even me, a year ago.
There are people out there who are legitimately trying to get back on their feet after a long battle with drugs or people who have lost spouses after having been a stay-at-home mom for a long time. There are future doctors and teachers sitting in classrooms all over the nation because of help they’ve been given.
This group includes mothers. Fathers. Students. Aspiring artists. Intelligent mathematicians. Twenty-somethings with bachelor’s degrees and fifty-somethings with masters. People trying to clean up their lives. Hard workers with two part-time jobs and plenty of mouths to feed. A leukemia patient.
These people are not leeches.
I’m tired of hearing the words “free-handouts” and I’m sick of the attitude that everyone who needs government benefits are somehow not trying. Our nation tends to be more sympathetic toward the impoverished within foreign countries, but when our own people need help we laugh. Or shun them. Or call them burdens on our “system”.
Sometimes people can make it just fine on their own–sometimes life works out. And that’s where we all hope to be at, of course.
But sometimes, people need help.
And all the time–they need your compassion.