I have been unemployed for over a year. It hasn’t been because I haven’t tried all the best (and some of the not best) ways of obtaining a job. The economy sucks. And as a nonprofit professional, it is even worse! I have 3 children and an ex-husband who has been unemployed and doesn’t feel any obligation to pay any child support. So the past year has been a little rough. However, we are a lucky family because we have a very big and strong safety net. My father and brothers have told me from the beginning that they will provide as much financial support as we need. It is pretty extraordinary that they are so generous and I appreciate the profound difference this makes in our lives.
It is within this framework of support that we have experienced this past year. It has been challenging, but certainly not at the level that most low income families experience. As the school year approaches, the challenges that summer seems to eliminate come back fully into focus. This week, we had to begin navigating the system again as a low-income family, without anything nearly sufficient in terms of support or guidance. Just purchasing school books for the year is full of complicated requirements. We received no reminder that we needed to reapply for free books. So when I brought my two teens to the school for some scheduling issues, I happened to remember to go into the appropriate office and ask what we needed to do. My kids were supposed to buy books the next day, so we took the forms and worked on assembling the required documents. However, we were not able to finish everything that was needed by the end of the day. The next morning I went to school early to drop everything off. While there, I was told about documents they would need that were not listed on the form. So I went home and assembled those documents, some of which needed printing. Of course being a low-income family, technology is a struggle. Our five-year-old desktop computer can no longer print for some reason. (Who can afford tech support or a new computer?) And the laptop my brother bought me usually works, but this morning the printer was not responding at first. Eventually I got it to work, but it did take a long time. As I sat waiting for the school to approve our request for free books I was overwhelmed with frustration. Ultimately, they didn’t have enough time to approve our application before the bookstore closed. We have qualified for free books every year we have applied. I would guess with less income this year, we will qualify again. Of course, we didn’t know about it when my older son was in high school. They don’t really advertise. You just have to know to ask the right questions. Cool, right!?!?
I tell you all of this NOT because I want your pity. On the contrary. We as a family feel extraordinary gratitude for all we have. We know that we are doing so much better than most of the world and even much of the United States. My point is that, if it is this complicated, frustrating and time consuming for me, a woman with a master’s degree, no significant worries about keeping my house and feeding my kids, what must it be like for the truly low income families? What about homes where English is a second language? What about families where parents work two and three jobs and kids are attempting the task of applying for free books on their own? What about homes where there is a profoundly disabled or severely sick family member? How are they, with fewer tools, less support and far more desperate situations, supposed to navigate a system that is pushing me very quickly to the point of wanting to give up?
We, the low-income families in the United States, are already stressed and tired and overworked. Many of us are functioning with less sleep, less opportunity for stress relief, less support systems and with some real handicaps. Until my brother bought me a laptop computer, printing was a real challenge at my house. My kids would have to go to the public library and pay for copies or go to school early to print there. When my kids are required to do projects for school they do not have access to so many of the technological tools that many of their peers have. If asked to create a video of some sort, they are required to work within the constraints of what the school can provide.
Truthfully, much of this has been very positive for my kids. They have an appreciation for their lives and an understanding of the reality of socio-economic status in the world. They are pretty independent compared to others their age. But we are NOT the typical low-income family. I gotta believe we are really doing a profound disservice to the families who are more typical. But nobody is asking the right questions to find out how to make the system better. Nobody is trying to find out how to accommodate the lives of low-income families to bring those kids to the same starting point as the higher-level income families. Kids shouldn’t be penalized because their parents make less money. But that is EXACTLY what our system does right now. If you don’t think this is so, just consider the education and opportunities my children get compared to those in low-income communities. We are benefiting from living in a higher income community, which is just not available to so much of our population.
It is time for our schools, governments and entire communities to start talking with AND mostly LISTENING to our low income citizens and finding out what they might need to make life just a little bit easier…to allow their children to get the most out of their school years. Ultimately, the changes we make will benefit the entire country, as our children, all of them, will be better able to learn and ultimately better equipped to function in the community as adults.