What I’m Pondering This Father’s Day: Memoirs by Some Notable Black Authors

June 17, 2017

Last year long about this time, I read a tribute by Walter Moseley to his father Leroy. His dad, Walter says, taught him “to bob and weave in life and art,” which, if understand it, means to agilely protect himself.

The lessons were Leroy’s own stories about growing up poor and oppressed in harshly racist Louisiana, learning to do various sorts of paying work and to protect himself after he fled to New York City — this after his mother died, his father left and the relatives he resorted to wouldn’t care for him.

Leroy wanted to write pulp fiction, but realized that it was impossible for an impoverished man in the Deep South to become any sort of writer then. “Hardly easier now,” Walter interjects.

Leroy headed west and settled in Los Angeles, having realized that more of his draft-age friends died in Houston than in the Second World War. He became a “fiercely loving father, ” prepared all his kids’ meals, but left Walter free to choose whatever he wanted to do when he grew up.

So Walter decided to be an artist –“someone who makes something from nothing.” That, in his case, would be something from the “stuff” of Leroy’s stories — “of pedestrian, tragic life.”

A telling snippet follows. Leroy decides to go to an all-white café. He orders a tuna melt, gets served and exclaims in his later telling, “Man, that tuna melt felt like freedom.”

Then the man next to him drops dead.  “I realized right then and there,” he said, “that, freedom aside, no man, no matter who he is, can escape his death.”

Yet that wasn’t his “ultimate gift,” though the insight surely became part of it. The gift itself, imparted through a wave and smile as he was dying, was “an indomitable spirit and the talent of taking the beauty and refusing the rest.”

It’s nice to reflect again on how Walter learned to “attend to ordinary suffering, to the love that persists in its midst … and the attendant grim humor.”

He wasn’t rejecting anger. Nor lessons like the talk black parents feel they must have with their sons. But what I’ve heard and read suggests that those are more consumed by continuing anger at violence against blacks, though not to the exclusion of helping their kids avoid it.

And in some cases, they’re messages to us, like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s potent book-length letter to his son.

I’m brooding on blacks’ memoirs of their youthful days with their fathers in part because we’re about to celebrate Father’s Day — officially at least. But I’m also working my way through Gregory Williams’ Life on the Color Line.

The line is one Williams discovered — that he looked white and thought he was, partly because his black father passed as Italian until chronic financial, booze-fueled recklessness brought him to seek housing with his unmistakably black mother.

Things go generally from bad to worse, so far as his father is concerned — and ultimately his brother, who rebels against his father’s demands and related, though unexpressed needs, e.g. making sure he’d gotten to the home his mother had exiled him to before passing out in the street.

Greg responds instead by giving his all to qualifying for a college education — and the financial assistance he’d need, of course. We know he succeeded. We know that, in some perplexing manner, his relationship with his father, as processed through this memoir had something to do with it.

We — daughters, as well as sons, on the white side of the line as well as over into the colored—know how life with our fathers (or without) helped shape the way we are today.

I still recall especially fraught and endearing moments with my father, who died many years ago. I convert them into unspoken words — from raw memory to memoir snippets.

No art nourished that way. But probably political leanings, since I recoiled at my father’s bootstrapping conservatism, even when he couldn’t bring himself to vote for Republicans any more.


My Blog Turns Eight, Looks Back to Its Birth and Forward

December 6, 2016

Today is my blog’s eighth birthday. I’m amazed that something I started in a fit of pique has lasted so long and become so valued part of my life.

People sometimes ask me how the blog began. So first about that fit of pique.

My late husband and I had a joke about one of our temperamental differences—or rather, a way I’d joke about myself. I’d say, “Jesse, you know I’m the soul of patience, but …”

If I hadn’t become impatient, I wouldn’t have started this blog — or at least, not when and with so relatively little forethought. The leader of a local (now defunct) virtual community agreed to publish posts I’d written to gain more grassroots support for policy decisions an organization I volunteered for was advocating.

But the person who administered the blog took her own sweet time to publish them — no matter how time sensitive. So one day, when another deadline had passed, I said to myself, “Well [expletive deleted], I’ll start my own blog.”

I knew from the get-go that the blog had to do more than replicate action alerts. And I wanted it to do more anyway. I didn’t know quite what, but as title suggests, I carved out broad swathe of territory.

Like many children, the blog has had growing pains, as long-time followers may have noticed. My posts were originally short and easy to write because I generally borrowed from a single source to gin up support for (or against) a single issue.

Over time, I’ve tried to provide more information because that’s what I myself want when I read a post, news article or column about a policy issue. I’ve tried to include links to original sources—again, because that’s what I want.

And I’ve tried, when possible, to show the nexus between developments at the federal level and my local level, the District of Columbia. The challenge in part is that developments at either level link to others — and they to others.

How do I — or anyone for that matter — who chooses to look at poverty in America through a policy lens resist simplistic (if heartfelt) rhetoric or deep dives into the weeds that obscure the main issue? Still haven’t come up with an answer that snaps into place whenever I start drafting.

Well, so much for the strictly me. Here, very briefly, is what I see when I look back to my first posts — and forward to likely fodder in the upcoming year.

The Great Recession had just set in when I started blogging. The District, like all states, faced a pressing problem because tax revenues were dropping and needs for safety net services rising. And like all states, but one, it had to keep its budget balanced every year.

So the District decided, among other things, to eliminate a small pending increase in cash benefits for families in its Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. That occasioned my very first post.

The District only recently put a multi-year increase in place. So full benefits are now somewhat higher than they would have been, if the DC Council had done nothing further.

But, in the meantime, the Council, with the former mayor’s hearty approval, set a rigid 60 month lifetime limit on TANF eligibility. So what’s better for some very poor District families is offset by what’s worse for thousands of others.

Another early post flagged the likely impact of the Great Recession on the national poverty rate and summarized a handful of remedies the federal government could put in place.

We all assumed — rightly — that Obama and the Democratic majorities in Congress would swiftly agree on a legislative package to jump start the economy and expand the federally-funded safety net — in itself, an economy booster.

So we had hope and reasons to believe we’d soon see positive changes. And we did — not only in temporary stimulus measures, but in new and improved programs we thought we could count on for the long-term and rules for existing programs that would benefit lower-income people.

Well, the Great Recession is behind us, though we still have more poor people than we did before it began—largely because we’ve got more people living in the U.S now. We’d have about 38.1 million more in poverty were it not for Social Security and our major safety net programs.

District policymakers apparently will do something to extend TANF benefits for at least some families headed by parents who can’t conceivably earn enough to pay for basic needs — and perhaps for all children who’d otherwise be plunged into dire poverty.

They’re intent on making more housing affordable for the lowest-income residents. They’re making progress toward providing homeless families with smaller, more habitable shelters—and enabling more to remain safely housed.

They’re providing shelter year round for those who can’t, rather than leaving them to fend for themselves unless they have a legal right to shelter because they might otherwise freeze to death.

Not saying all is well, but we have sound reasons for hope insofar as our local officials have the freedom and resources to effect progressive change.

What then to say about prospects for low-income people nationwide? We’ve got a host of predictions — some reflecting proposals likely to become blueprints for legislation, others based on pronouncements and past actions by Trump’s top-level nominees.

I can’t help feeling that we’ll watch the safety net unravel, while knowing it needs strengthening. Can’t help feeling we’ll see other programs that also serve basic human needs undermined — or altogether eliminated.

Neither the District nor any state or other local government can compensate for the multi-pronged attack we’ve good reason to expect — even for just the prospective federal funding losses.

I tell myself to absorb the spirit of the many organizations that have already proved they’re ready to keep fighting on behalf of the disadvantaged people in our country. They’re working together, as they often do, to educate us with less expertise and to help us join the fight in effective ways.

But right now, I’m profoundly disheartened. Yet I know that silence implies consent. So I’ll blog on in hopes of a cheerier future blog birthday.


On Snow, Charitable Giving and Need

February 4, 2016

Can’t altogether put the big snowstorm behind me. For one thing, the city left the hard-packed drift behind my car. But that’s not what I want to write about. On the contrary. It’s why I wasn’t snowed in and anxious as all get-out.

Even before the snow stopped, I could open my front door, where it tends to pile up, and walk safely to my gate. One of my neighbors shoveled my steps and front walk twice during the storm and again the following day. Cleared the sidewalk in front too.

His wife had made a first pass at the walk as night fell — and snow swirled. She’d called in the morning to find out if I needed anything and again the next day. I mentioned my worries about a power outage.

Well, I should come over to their house, since they’d have a fire going. And power loss or no, would I like to join them for dinner?

Now, these are people I don’t know well — just neighbors whom I chat with when we chance to see one another. But they went out of their way to care for my most critical need — and to let me know they cared.

So did total strangers.

When the snow finally stopped and the sun came out, I decided I should start unburying my car. I knew I didn’t have to strength to do it all at once. (It was barely distinguishable from the drafts fore and aft.) So I planned to do it in stages.

Three young men in a truck pulled over and asked whether I’d like help. I told them I couldn’t pay them unless they’d accept a check. (I’d realized only after the storm started that my provisioning had omitted a trip to the ATM.)

No check wanted. They just pulled out their shovels and dug for awhile — enough so I could get into the car and out of my parking space should I dare to drive. (I didn’t.)

But I returned to the car task the following day. Up walked another young man. Could he help? He didn’t want to be paid, he assured me.

And he would have gone on digging even longer than he did if I hadn’t said we should call it quits — this so I could retreat to the house and get blood flowing in my fingers.

Reflecting on my snow days experience, I’m struck — and moved — by how charitable these people were. That’s the word that pops to mind when I retell the story to myself.

We’re accustomed to seeing it in the phrase “charitable giving” or its kindred “charitable gift.” These , of course, refer to donations of money or things of value to organizations that, in this country, have registered with the Internal Revenue Service as 501(3)(c)s.

But the word came into our language, through French, from the Latin caritas. Long before it migrated, it had come to mean selfless love for one’s fellow beings — the feeling that inspires caring acts, including giving alms to the poor.

But the love, not the donations was what qualified charity as a Christian virtue — in some Biblical texts and later teachings the greatest.

I’m not trying to convert my snow story into a sermon. I do, however, think there’s a lesson about giving and need.

We see people in need every day — and know about many more through our media sources, advertisements and the solicitations we receive, especially toward the end of each tax year.

Some of us may give money directly to people who ask for it as we pass them by on the street. I doubt many of us give to everyone who asks, though I’ve only my own conduct and what I see as evidence.

We who’ve got the wherewithal tend to respond to the needs of those we only read or hear about by charitable giving in the usual sense. But we, the American public, split when it comes to public policies. If we didn’t, we’d have a quite different set — and different elected officials making them.

Consider, for example, SNAP (the food stamp program). It’s supposed to address needs for food that poor and near-poor people can’t otherwise afford.

But as you read this, more than a million people are near to losing their SNAP benefits because they’re able-bodied, have no dependents living with them and can’t meet the work requirements Congress imposed when it ended welfare as we knew it. “Can’t” is the proper word here, given the barriers they face.

Conservatives like work requirements. And we don’t see much pushback from progressives — at least, not as a matter of principle. Trouble is poor people need cash or near-cash assistance to survive.

Now I’m not ready to argue that we should give free food, housing and the like to work-able people who purportedly laze about in comfortable hammocks.

But who believes that any able-bodied (and minded) adult without dependents would choose not to work at least half-time or participate in a job training program because s/he could get some free food — less than $2.00 per meal, on average?

We’ve got a modern-day version of the old distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor. Those who don’t work or prepare for work in some specified way can’t have their basic needs met — unless they’re too young, too old or too severely disabled.

Few basic needs met for the too young, however, unless their state exempts them from the five-year, lifetime limit on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits. Most states don’t.

Returning — thought I never would, didn’t you? — to me and the snow days. No one who helped me had decided I was a worthy sort. No one tried to ascertain whether I’d put my back into shoveling out.

They simply felt a charitable calling. Surely we could have more of that in our public policies without jeopardizing the work ethic of our poor fellow creatures.


Brooding on My Blog’s Seventh Birthday

December 7, 2015

Yesterday was my blog’s seventh birthday. The occasion always prompts reflections, some of which I’ve shared.

I’ve spoken in the past about how things were when I launched the blog, compared to how they were when the birthday rolled round. I’ve spoken about the value of the blog as a source of discipline for learning and of relationships with advocates who inspire me — and readers who keep me going.

What’s top of mind today — and has been for awhile — grows out of the scope I carved out for the blog, but only gradually got a purchase on.

The scope is very — or one might say self-indulgently — broad, as the blog’s name indicates. It essentially licenses posts on any nexus between public policies and poverty, though as a practical matter, I’ve confined myself to the American scene.

I’ve stretched the scope as I’ve come to understand how our official poverty measure fails to do justice to the extent of economic hardship in our country.

Some of our major federal policies recognize this and so set income eligibility maximums above the federal poverty line — a simplified version of the thresholds the Census Bureau uses for the official measure.

At the same time, those income eligibility maximums vary a lot from state to state insofar as federal programs grant states flexibility.

We also see marked variations when we look at how states invest their own tax revenues in programs that provide a safety net and others that can help low-income people achieve a modicum of financial security.

States have always faced the challenges these choices reflect. They surely face them now, as they have ever since the Budget Control Act capped federal spending on non-defense programs that depend on annual appropriations.

The fact that the recent budget deal temporarily lifts the caps doesn’t relieve them from the challenges because the non-defense part of the budget includes a very wide range of programs.

Congressional appropriations committees have divvied up the new, higher spending level now. And at least on the House side, Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education — a major source of funds for programs that benefit low-income people — reportedly won’t get its fair share.

Highly doubtful that the Transportation-Housing and Urban Development budget will fully undo the damages to the federal housing voucher program or the capital fund that local agencies use to keep public housing units habitable.

Meanwhile, Congress will clearly do nothing now about a long-neglected piece of the federal budget that’s not subject to annual appropriations — the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant.

It’s not only the federal government’s major share of funding for states’ TANF programs. It also determines how much of their own funds they must spend to get that share.

And as I’ve written (perhaps too often), it’s never gotten a penny more than it did the year that TANF ended welfare as we knew it. This means it’s now worth about a third less in real dollars.

Which brings me to the other nexus I’ve tried to deal with, but mostly one nibble at a time. That’s the nexus between federal policies — budgets included — and related state and local policies. These too include budgets, but not budgets only.

I’ve referred to states’ TANF policies — mainly the very low cash benefits they provide. And I’ve taken a poke from time to time at some states’ Medicaid eligibility policies.

I’ve also cited states’ varying responses to federal policy choices that can enable them to enroll more low-income people in SNAP (the food stamp program) — and qualify some of them for higher benefits.

I’ve noted disparities in minimum wages, as some states raise their minimums above the federal, while others either preserve the link or have no minimum of their own at all. I haven’t noted, but probably should have how much those higher minimums vary.

These and other such differences have made me increasingly conscious of what I think of as geographic inequality. We read a lot about income inequality — and about how children’s future financial prospects hinge so much on whom they’re born to.

But how low-income people, including children fare depends a whole lot on where they live. Part of that, of course, is that some local economies offer better opportunities than others. But a major part stems from policy choices.

I know I’m not saying anything new or original here. Only taking this occasion to say how the more I learn, the more I’m disturbed by how unfair our federal-state-local system is to so many poor and near-poor people who’ve got little, if any choice of where they live.

Not saying I’d like to see all policies determined by our federal government — surely not the one we have now. Low-income people have it bad enough already. I shudder to think how much worse off the geographically fortunate would be if left to the tender mercies of the majorities in Congress.

Won’t think because I can’t bear to what would happen to all struggling people if the next election not only sustains those majorities, but puts a like-minded candidate — or a loose cannon — in the White House.

What would a ninth birthday post look like then?