Monday, August 31, 2009

Social contract

My brother lives a derailed life--derailed by his own hand, though I suppose you could trace it all back to some dysfunctions he suffered as a child. Dyslexia. Encopresis. I think people have suffered worse and still lived an honorable life. But we are not all the same.

Now he has five children, a trail of crimes he's never been nailed for, and a broken marriage. And so he has betaken himself and his children next door to my parents' house, and there they have been since June. His children are waiting on the road now for the school bus; they've been registered for schools--fantastic schools in a community my brother will never, ever be able to afford to live in off the sweat of his brow; they can only attend these schools if somebody else sustains them. Despite the story he's told my folks, all signs are that this is a visit without end.

There are a lot of things that confound and anger me about this whole scene, but there's one piece in particular that I'll share. Years ago, when I was unemployed and then underemployed and scrambling to keep things going, there were things I simply could not bring myself to do. It was a point of pride--a point of shame. I accepted unemployment payments as long as I was allowed (though that first call killed me); I'd paid into it, and so many of my former colleagues were in the same boat, so it became a sort of new normal for our times. What I couldn't do, though, was ask the local YMCA to let us in for free. I wouldn't tell the schools that I couldn't afford to buy the supplies, or send the checks for the field trips, or pay for school lunches. I wouldn't file for food stamps or Medicaid. I wouldn't. I would not allow my children to be raised up on charity. Our circumstances were temporary, and I would not formalize a temporary circumstance. To be precise, I was too proud to give anyone the opportunity to look at us through different eyes. Do you know what I mean?

It also meant that, for a period of time, none of us had health insurance. I paid for any care out of pocket. Looking back, that's the only choice I regret; that was a risky choice. A stupid choice.

My brother has embraced all of the benefits offered to people with no income. His children went to the YMCA camp for free all summer--swam and did crafts and played with other children. They had had their teeth repaired, their eyes checked and glasses acquired, their orthodontia covered--all courtesy of you and me. Their food is paid for by you and me. My yougest niece will attend the same preschool Liam attended--only I worked overtime stocking shelves at Borders to pay for it, but my brother will do nothing and my niece will attend for free.

So there's the knee-jerk pissed-off-ness about the sheer inequity of circumstance, though I know I could have dove into the pool of freebies just like anybody else with a hard-luck tale to tell.
My brother is the welfare mother. He has no shame--indeed, he has a sense of entitlement. And all the stories I ever told myself about the welfare mother--institutional racism, the long-term disabled, generational poverty, etc.--don't apply to my brother. Which makes me question everything about my position on social programs. My loser brother could turn me into a fricking Republican.

Not really.

The conflicting part is that my nieces and nephews are faring far better with a parent who embraces poverty than my own children fared with a mother who wouldn't go near it. And if you think about it, which set of kids really felt poor when they were poor? Not his.


Liam broke his wrist on Saturday; a pile of shit on top of a display fell on him when we were school shopping at Staples. My brother, it occurs to me, would sue the store.

Off to the orthopedic guy.


Grumpy Old Man said...

You sound pretty conservative for a liberal. Or commendably independent, at least.

"Poverty" is a tricky. We were all poor when we were students and just out of school, but we had prospects, family ties, skills, and ambition. Economically, we were poor, but not with the problems of the truly poor, like bro.

As for the wrist, he store buys insurance for these things, which you pay for whenever you buy stuff--it's build into the price. The store should be aware of back-to-school visits by kids, and keep the place safe. They will settle with you if you're not greedy; you've been paying for their insurance all along. (So saith the tort lawyer).

Grumpy Old Man said...

"the store"
"built into"

I have a guardian angel. I need a guardian copy editor.

Annie said...

"My loser brother could turn me into a fricking Republican."

scared me for a minute.

sttropezbutler said...

RQM and I were chatting today on Skype and we talked about you! Hope Liam is feeling better now and that you are doing just fine my dear.