An “Athens Voice” comment in the June 7 issue of The Athens NEWS took a shot at the free-lunch program in public schools: “I’m still aghast that the schools FEED students. I grew up dirt poor, with no indoor plumbing or running water, but my mom still managed to send me to school with a sandwich in a paper bag. But kids have to get free food from the schools? Do parents do ANYTHING anymore, or are they too absorbed with their smartphones?!”

When I read this comment, I couldn’t help but grit my teeth, as I was one of those kids who would not have eaten lunch if it weren’t for the free-lunch program. The fact is, no one should have to grow up without running water in one of the richest nations on the planet. Another truth, however, is the fact that often people in poverty have to make difficult choices (i.e., feed my children or pay my water bill). I can’t speak to the commenter’s childhood, but I wonder what decisions that person’s mother had to make to feed him or her. I know my mom had to make some pretty tough ones.

My mother worked hard. In fact, all she did was work and (hardly) sleep to pay bills and buy food so that she and her three children could survive. Several times we were basically homeless and would have lived on the street if it hadn’t been for loving friends and family members who shared their homes.

If it weren’t for the generous friends and family who lent clothes, shoes, food and shelter on occasion, many turned-out-OK situations throughout my childhood and young-adult life would have been much worse. I am thankful every day to every person who helped us out, but not everyone has even what I had.

Some folks can’t afford shoes and have no hand-me-downs to wear. Some can’t pay their rent and don’t have a grandmother or a friend to stay with; folks who don’t have a car and can’t get anywhere close to a job, particularly in this region where public transportation is limited or nonexistent. There are people who work more than 40 hours a week just to afford rent and utility bills, for whom grocery shopping would be impossible without government assistance.

Yet others, far more blessed in life, feel they have enough knowledge and experience to criticize families who rely on much-needed government assistance. My sincere question is: why?

I recently heard someone make the bold assertion that people who care about recycling should pay for it if it’s important to them, whether they make “$10,000 a year or $100,000 a year.”

People who make blanket statements about other people in poverty, assuming that people who have it hard should just work harder to make ends meet, have an inflexible mindset that relies on personal experience and idealism, rather than a willingness to expand that knowledge to others. This particular person said that paying for recycling was not necessarily easy for her, but she does it. I’m happy for her, but I’d be surprised if that person knows (or, possibly, remembers) what it’s really like to live on so little as $10,000 a year. 

I reached out to Jack Frech, a former social worker who served as the director of the Athens County Department of Job and Family Services for more than 30 years, to get a better picture. Frech has seen and worked with people who have nothing or close to nothing, and he’s also heard criticisms much like those mentioned above.

“We tend to dehumanize poor people and the way that they are treated in virtually all aspects,” he said, adding that it’s not just in this area but throughout the state and across the country. “It prevents us from looking at the real situation that folks are in,” said Frech, who is now retired from ACJ&FS but remains active in advocating for people in poverty.

What’s ironic is that we live in a region with a significantly high poverty rate – about 30 percent of the people in Athens County were living in poverty in 2016, according to a report by the Athens Foundation, and the U.S. Census Bureau confirms a similar number for 2017. Still, perceptions of people who receive government assistance are no better here than anywhere else.

Poverty is treated as a character flaw, Frech said. “Even the people who are poor feel the need to point out that they’re not as bad as their neighbor, who also needs cash assistance,” he said, blaming social attitudes and opinions that are reinforced at every level in society.

People love to look for reasons to explain poverty, to place blame on those who are suffering rather than a system that doesn’t work for everyone every time. “Most of the situations” that place people in poverty are circumstantial, Frech said, not a matter of choice. “The reality is our jobs don’t pay living wages… People get hurt, people lose their job.” 

In other words, stuff happens.

“Most poor people who can work are working,” Frech said, and the “vast, vast majority” of folks receiving assistance are disabled. “If somebody is disabled... we still don’t give them enough money to live on,” he said: just $800 a month.

People in poverty “make choices between bad choices, and we wait for them to make a bad choice,” Frech said. If someone smokes cigarettes or buys beer, “we say, ‘well they can’t afford those things,’” Frech said, adding that nobody can really afford to do things that are detrimental to their health. “Everyday vices that other people have” are treated with exception when poor people have them, Frech said.

Instead of helping people, “we’d rather see them go hungry,” Frech said, “and we do.”

Ohio is sitting on more than $500 million meant for welfare programs, government officials confirmed in a report by The Nation earlier this year. Frech said when he last checked the government records, the number had risen closer to $600 million.

“People who are poor, they spend every penny that they have on necessities,” Frech said. Because of the negative attitudes toward welfare programs, thousands of families in Ohio have been kicked off, many of who are left with nothing. “These families are out there; they don’t have money for anything,” Frech said. “... Many of these folks only have food stamps,” but EBT can’t pay the rent.

Frech said “we need to be more compassionate.” I would go one step further. We need to see people as human, recognizing that “human” does not mean “just like me.” 

No matter their economic status, race, religion or political tilt, most people consider themselves “normal.” In normalizing our own experiences, however, we may unintentionally deem everything outside of that experience “abnormal” or “wrong.”

Everybody is born into certain circumstances. Despite the American dream of equal opportunity and the promise that those who work hard will achieve success, those inherited circumstances and countless other unforeseen factors have a significant influence on the way an individual’s life plays out. For some, “hard work” means something completely different than for others when it comes to escaping poverty.

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