23 October 2013

Mary Ellen from Germantown, MD  

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My father worked two jobs his entire life, both in service to the United States. My mother is self-employed and works as a schoolteacher. Let me qualify this post by saying that we have never needed, nor have we accepted, any form of welfare or any of its sister programs.

Does that make my family qualitatively "better" than those families who do accept welfare payments? I knew quite a few of these folks growing up. Certainly, from a quantitative standpoint, we have more money than those families. But how do you judge a family? How do you "rank" a person? And when it comes right down to it, what right do you have to do so?

Mary Ellen is something of a conundrum in the modern sense. She is a 34 year old professional with a hard-working husband and no children (yet). She works in the service industry during the day, while her husband manages a large-scale farming company (their actual identities and the extent of their occupations are being hidden upon request).

They do exceedingly well for themselves, and they take great pride in the American flag that flies in their front yard. Mary Ellen volunteers her time to welcome troops home from Baltimore-Washington International Airport. They both donate a sizable percentage of their take-home pay to The Fisher House, the USO, and local SPCA and children's charities, including buying enough baked goods from the nearby school to single-handedly fund the middle school's spring field trip.

But to really get to know Mary Ellen, you have to know where she came from. And when you do, you realize how remarkable it is that she is able to drive a shiny Nissan Altima to a good-paying job every day.

Mary Ellen is the third-oldest of seven children. Her family spent their lives in rural West Virginia.

Their lives, however, consisted of the most abject, back-breaking poverty you can imagine.

"My parents weren't interested in parenting. My father worked logging--when he could hold a job--and my mother sat around the house all day long. When he wasn't working or ignoring my mother, my father was obsessing over making moonshine. I never really knew who he was."

Mary Ellen's father died in a drunk driving accident when she was eight years old. Nobody stepped in to take his place.

"There was just a void. My mother couldn't fill it. We lived off of welfare. Welfare bought us clothes, school supplies, and food. But mostly it bought her prescription drugs."

Mary Ellen's mother suffered from severe addiction to painkillers. Although it's probably more accurate to say that Mary Ellen and her siblings suffered the most.

"She was never really 'there.' She would cook for us sometimes, but the food always tasted nasty. She would burn things and then let them sit in the sink, which was also disgusting. My brothers and sisters and I took to cooking and cleaning for ourselves at a very young age. We had to do this on the sly, of course, because she would scream and scream if she knew we were doing this. I think she eventually became convinced that she was wealthy and had a maid."

Welfare was a way of life for Mary Ellen. "It got to the point where Mom wouldn't even want to leave the house. So we kids knew when the check would come in and we taught ourselves how to drive and went out to get the staples, the essentials."

As soon as she could start working, she did. Mary Ellen first started babysitting when she was 14, and held down a job as a waitress and assistant librarian by the time she was 16 years old.

"It was a way to get out of the house, and it was exhilarating. I know it sounds terrible but I'm afraid if my father was around, I would have been forced to sit at home. I probably would still be in West Virginia right now."

The rest of her brothers and sisters aren't so lucky. Of the seven, Mary Ellen is the only one to have escaped the welfare circle. Two of her brothers died like their father--in senseless drunk-driving accidents where they were the culprit. A sister died giving birth. Of the two brothers and one sister she has left, Mary Ellen is more reserved, "I don't know where they are. I'm pretty sure my sister is in West Virginia. My oldest brother, the last I heard, was living in Los Angeles. I'm pretty sure he's homeless. My kid brother is...you know, I don't know. I haven't heard from him in six or seven years."

It turns out that working in the library was one of the best things that ever happened to Mary Ellen. "I read. What else could I do? It was an escape. I read nearly all the books on that shelf. I might not have had one, but Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway were like the fathers I never had."

She went to college to be a writer. "I didn't know anything about college, so I read about that, too. The guidance counselor didn't really think I had a prayer. I had my college mail sent to the high school because I was afraid of what my mother would say, and I think I was embarrassed, too. But the day that acceptance letter came in was pure bliss."

She never did become a writer--"although I learned some pretty darn good calligraphy!"--but she did continue to read and explore. She met her husband, John, got married and eventually settled in to the job she has today.

"I love it. I feel like I'm doing some good for people."

Our roots say a lot about us, but they don't define us. Mary Ellen excelled in spite of her difficult upbringing. And that should give all people hope.

Today, Mary Ellen is an avid Tea Party supporter. "This nation needs to get back to the fundamentals. We were founded by people who were willing to work hard and not accept handouts. The welfare state has killed the American Dream."

When I asked Mary Ellen whether Welfare was worth the positive aspect it provided to needy families, she tersely replied, "No. Welfare needs to be replaced. The needy can be helped by charity. Welfare encourages dependency, and we can't afford millions of people who are dependent on government anymore."

Mary Ellen has overcome so much in her life, and for that I am grateful. I wish that everyone in America could be fortunate enough to have her success.

It is easy to leave our past in the rear-view mirror. Take a look at a similar story from one of Congress' own, Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Ryan and his family benefited from Social Security payments when he was a young man after his father's untimely passing. Today, Ryan is a leading proponent of gutting Social Security and those very payments.

There is a difference between need and a free ride. For the majority of individuals living off of Welfare or similar payments, following the rules and attempting to scratch out some kind of existence with their lot, life is not all roses. The real and unnecessary harm those of us who are well-off can do to them, through drug testing and other various forms of public humiliation, is a classless way to highlight class barriers.

In a big country with good people and the best of intentions, the good that we do will inevitably be taken advantage of by the weak and the desperate. Judgment, however, is a slippery slope.

Take a Polaroid--or iPhone picture, or whatever--of America right now; of all the families, of all the men, women, and children living here right now. How many Mary Ellens and Paul Ryans are there out there that we don't know about? When we humiliate their potential and their worth, what damage are we really doing to the future of America?

For a nation founded on Judeo-Christian values, the notion that "he without sin" should "cast the first stone" is lacking in our politics and treatment of one another. I don't condone the abuse of good-faith government programs, but I cannot stomach the wanton disrespect of an entire class of American citizens. There is a better way.

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