Tag Archives: family

Happy Tax Day!

I’m keeping it short this year and, thanks to my oldest son, sweet.

Sometimes, maybe we just need to see things through the eyes of a 7-year-old.

In this case, a 7-year-old who was standing in the toy aisle with his hard-earned allowance, contemplating how much he had to spend.

He had already noted that the trademarked Legos cost more than the ‘regular’ sets because, as he pointed out, “they have to split the profits three ways: George Lucas, Lego, and Target.”

Yes, son. You’re right.

Now, he was adding up the prices on the smaller sets he had selected. The total came to about $16, and he had $20 to spend.

His younger brother tried to add a Lego minifigure ($2.99) to the pile, but Sam stopped him.

“Ben,” he said, “We have to leave enough to pay taxes.”

When a 5-year-old’s protest started, Sam responded, “Who do you think pays for the sidewalk you ride your scooter down? Or the library where you check out those Captain Underpants books? We all do.”

True that, second-grade wisdom.

True that.

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Pulling back the curtain–technology for budget knowledge

My 7-year-old son has been testing out these interactive federal budget games for me over the past few weeks, especially the Budget Hero, which is quite cool, really.

And I’m intrigued by the increasing availability, born of the attention and vigorous debate around the federal budget, of multimedia content with which to engage our thinking (including that of my students!) around budget decisions, like this video.

What I find encouraging about these kinds of tools is their ability to bridge a particular challenge–making the federal budget (in its massive scale and far-reaching scope) accessible to Americans, without simplifying it to the level of a household budget, which is inherently distorting and, I think, somewhat destructive.

To get off the sidelines and really engage with these essential budget questions, we need to increase our understanding about the trade-offs involved and find ways to wrap our collective heads around the tough sacrifices inherent in the process of resource allocation.

But we need to do it on real terms, not those that would pretend that the U.S. government should operate as a family would, or that the stakes are comparable.

While an online game–or a documentary–can’t approximate the experience of really holding the nation’s fiscal future in one’s hands, if Sam’s enthusiastic ‘refreshing’ of his game, to start over when he doesn’t like the way it ended up, is any indication, they may be helpful tools for bringing our knowledge up to a point where we’re able to have real conversations.

Have you discovered, and tried, any budget tools like these? Do you have any favorites? What functionality do you think would improve these experiences? What role can you imagine for this technology, in our national deliberation of the budget?

Not a fortress mom

Photo credit, alex ranaldi, via Flickr, Creative Commons license

Photo credit, alex ranaldi, via Flickr, Creative Commons license

I am not a ‘fortress mom’.

I mean, yes, I try to feed my kids healthy food, even though I can’t keep up with which plastics that I’m supposed to be worried about.

And I spend time working with Sam’s teacher and helping him pursue his education–we definitely fall into that category of upper-middle class parents using our resources for our children’s educational benefit.

What I mean is that I don’t consider it my job, or even desirable, to try to keep danger and threat and harm away from my children through sheer force of my will, or an abundance of cautious planning.

I’m not interested in trying to put up walls to keep out the world.

And I refuse to spend my energy policing their every move.

Instead, I feel called, as a parent and, I think, as a social worker, to care for my children–and, by extension–all children, through changing the systems that affect the world in which my children will grow up.

It is so tempting to revert to the individual sphere to cope with our fears and concerns, since, even on the household level, they are plenty overwhelming.

But I believe in the quote that is the header on this blog, that “The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.”

It’s not that I don’t care–obviously, I hope–about my children’s well-being.

It’s just that I’m not too interested in trying to squeeze what I can for them, if that leaves less for everyone else, or in retreating inward as a way of protection, because it’s really not.

This ‘environment’ that parents are so concerned about–the influences on our children, the pressures, the pollution–isn’t some personified enemy to be vanquished or, at least, contained.

Instead, of course, it’s multiple and overlapping systems that can and must be manipulated to bring better outcomes.

The societal problems that I worry about for my kids:

  • Raising daughters in a gendered world, still rife with sexual violence, pay inequality, and unmanageable expectations of body image
  • The inability of public education to adequately meet the needs, most days, of an extremely bright child with simultaneous sensory concerns
  • The difficulty of navigating our food system for health and wholeness and the inundation of distorted messages about food and nutrition
  • Violence that stems in large part from marginalization and growing inequality and the intrusion of the same into our most sacred spheres

are not my problems, but, instead, our collective challenges, to confront…together.

I’m not spending much time helping my kids cope with injustices we should not tolerate.

I’m not taking on the stresses that come from prescribing individual lifestyle changes as the ‘cure’ for societal malaise.

As a family, we’re looking outward, as much as we can, and teaching the kids that it’s okay to question why structures are the way they are, and why outcomes are so often unequal.

I’m advocating for more funding and stronger supports for public schools, better nutrition in the lunchroom, a fairer criminal justice system, immigration laws that make sense for our future and affirm our shared past, and gender equity enshrined in laws and seared into our hearts.

And I’m showing the kids how we do this work together, rather than seal ourselves off.

Because there’s no wall high enough to keep out the world.

Even if I was trying to build it.

Mothering and poverty and solidarity

One of the projects that has somewhat consumed me over the past several months is an analysis of the policy changes made–unilaterally, I might add–by the Department of Children and Families in Kansas, in the areas of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) and childcare assistance, in particular.

Poverty, especially among women with children, is not new. A newspaper story from 1870 in New York (1870!) describes a woman who lost her job because she didn’t have childcare (in Framing Class). We should have figured this out by now.

Instead, doomed to repeat our history, Kansas is really distinguishing itself in the area of welfare ‘reform’.

Among the policy change highlights over the past few years of economic support policies in the state (I have to pull myself back from using sarcastic quotations in multiple places in each sentence here):

  • The most restrictive ‘child-under’ exemption in the country, requiring mothers to return to work only two months after giving birth
  • Childcare ineligibility for any parent working less than 28 hours/week, forcing many moms to turn down job offers, because they can’t report to work without financial support to pay for childcare
  • A sort of preemptive job search requirement, insisting on at least 20 hours per week of job search activity and at least 20 contacts with potential employers, before TANF applicants can even receive benefits (often, over a period of 7 weeks)
  • Significant increases in sanctions, including lifelong, whole-family bars for any fraud (meaning that a child could be denied benefits because, say, her mom’s boyfriend was found to have committed fraud when part of another family, even years before)
  • Recalculation of families’ incomes, resulting in the denial of SNAP benefits to thousands of Kansas citizen children (you’ve heard about this one before)
  • Return of federal grant dollars for SNAP outreach, because (seriously, they said this) the state isn’t ‘in the business of recruiting’ people to be on welfare
  • Institution of a 48-month time limit for TANF
  • Redesign of the Kansas Vision (SNAP) card, to be bright red and labeled “Food Assistance”

Significantly, few of these policy changes can be explained purely in economic terms. As I’ll outline more tomorrow, Kansas has TANF dollars left over and, indeed, some of these policies result in fewer federal dollars flowing into the state.

Instead, these policies are mostly about cutting poor mothers and children loose, insisting that they go it alone, in reckless denial of the very real consequences for children when their families lack the support they need to cope with economic and social realities. We’re approving only about 25% of TANF applications today, compared to almost 50% a few years ago.

I have no idea what a parent who is denied TANF does to survive.

There are tangible policy changes (including, in some cases, restorations) that would make a difference in these families’ lives, helping these mostly single mothers to provide for their children’s needs the way that they want–and we need–to.

I am glad that United Community Services, who commissioned this report, similarly to their investigation of the changes that resulted from the transition from Aid to Families with Dependent Children to TANF in 1996, gave me the chance to be part of the investigation, analysis, and dissemination of these findings.

But, here, I’m reacting not as an analyst, and not even as an advocate, but as a mom.

Because, while people often shake their heads when they find out that I have four children and multiple jobs, wondering aloud how I do it, the truth is that I have it really easy.

I don’t want to contemplate–because I can imagine–what it feels like to not have enough food for your children, or to worry that you’ll lose your housing, or, probably worst of all, to walk away leaving them in an unsafe place so that you can work.

I would bear the stigma of asking for benefits, willingly, just like so many low-income moms do, because our kids deserve help. I would bang my head against the constraints of a system that wasn’t designed to really work for me, because no pain could equal that of having to deny my children what they really need.

I feel, then, a solidarity with moms in poverty, albeit one limited by the obvious socioeconomic chasm that divides us.

I have never once envied the mom buying groceries with food stamps in front of me, as though she has something that should be mine. I have never once wondered why the mom with a young baby isn’t rushing back to her minimum wage job, because that sounds so obviously unappealing. I have never once thought that the proper ‘lesson’ to teach poor children is that they will pay if we don’t approve of their parents’ behavior.

What we have in common is a commitment to our children, no matter what.

And that’s who reacts, when I see charts like these:

caseload reductionCaseload reduction in Kansas’ TANF program: Translation–we’re kicking people off and denying others the chance to even get on

TANF to poverty ratioTANF-to-poverty ratio: Translation–fewer and fewer poor people can count on income supports

The mom in me.

Equal doesn’t always mean equal.

balance2

One of my favorite things about my kids–and I truly think mine are better about this than most–is their intuitive understanding of what each needs, and their recognition that Mommy’s job is to try to do that, instead of making sure that everyone gets exactly the same.

This does not apply to Sprite or ice cream, it must be said.

But, when it comes to the most precious commodity in our house, Mommy’s time, they are very gracious about how a sibling might need more, or different, attention from Mommy at a particular time.

They see this as fair.

Because ‘equal’ doesn’t always have to mean the same.

And, sometimes, the same wouldn’t be equal at all.

That means that no one really bats an eye when Ben gets to go to Wendy’s with just Mom a couple of times a month. They know that my sensitive and quieter youngest son needs that 1:1 time, and that that is a comforting place for him to connect with me.

The twins have long understood that Sam will get to go places and do things they don’t, not just because he’s older, but because he is interested in things that they just are not. And that Evie needs extra help, as the youngest, and also extra forgiveness, as she learns.

If only our public policy structures got this as well.

I think about my kids every time I hear someone complaining about how people get XYZ public benefit. I want to say, ‘but you don’t really want that, do you? I mean, you don’t want to be in their shoes, so that you could get it. Do you?’

My kids will be ineligible for means-tested financial aid because we make too much money.

And the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that they will be at a distinct advantage precisely because they come to post-secondary education equipped with these resources.

There are other examples–Affirmative Action, certainly, but also provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and other accommodations for those with disabilities.

When we reduce ‘equality’ to a base understanding of sheer numerical or even face-valid ‘identicality’, we miss the far more important question about whether a given policy or program is delivering to each an equal measure of opportunity, an equal chance at getting his/her needs met.

What my kids are essentially saying, with actions that speak much more clearly than I can here, is this: Why would I begrudge someone else the assistance they need, just because I don’t get it, even if I wouldn’t wish to need it, if I am getting what I need?

Exactly.

I know it sounds simplistic, but I can’t help but think that, if we weren’t so concerned with what others are getting, and with these false metrics of what ‘equal’ should look like, we would have a better chance at building a policy system that can deliver what we each need.

Even if that doesn’t seem ‘equal’.

Ask my kids.

Inequality, fairness, and governing like my kids

I just finished reading Joseph Stiglitz’s The Price of Inequality.

A little light holiday reading, you know.

And so I’ve been thinking, even more than usual, about inequality: what causes it, how it’s manifest, why it matters.

And I’ve also been thinking about my kids, because, well, they are fairly obsessed with fairness.

So this week, I have three posts about Stiglitz’s book, but also about inequality in the U.S. today, through the eyes of my favorite philosophers.

I think they have quite a bit to teach us about equality. I’d love to hear what you think, even if you have the liability of being well older than 7.

Kids’ Inequality Lesson #1: If you want people to be pro-fairness, distance matters.

My kids are infinitely more concerned with justice for those who are not strangers. It’s almost like, sometimes, those they don’t know don’t completely exist; certainly, they are not of nearly as great import as those they consider ‘friends’. Another book I read recently, So Rich, So Poor, makes the point that current U.S. policies are ‘adding bricks to the wall of separation’, and we need to care about this. It matters that inequality today results in rich and poor children going to different schools, rich and poor families living in different communities, rich and poor Americans interfacing with different health care systems and transportation systems and food systems. Watch what happens when my 5-year-olds hear about something they perceive as unfair happening to a friend’s sister or a kid on their soccer team, and you’ll see why, if we want people to support redistribution, we need to actively create fewer strangers.

Kids’ Inequality Lesson #2: Inequality is worth getting super mad about. Super mad.

Stiglitz asks why the response to the gap between the American Dream and reality isn’t outright revolt. And I think that’s a really good question. Other nations, and ours in other times, have seen much more pushback against policies that intensify inequality. Some cultural and political systems create a space for much greater unrest, even in the face of perceived lesser slights. My kids get this. They know that the only appropriate reaction when you have been truly, justifiably wronged, is to completely lose it. The world needs to feel pain for what they are doing to you. And nothing changes without people getting uncomfortable.

Kids’ Inequality Lesson #3: The source of inequality is at the top.

My kids waste very little time messing around with the little players in an unfair situation. They know that Mom is the ultimate referee and arbiter of justice, so they go straight to the top for redress of their grievances. We spend far too much energy, I think, examining symptoms or corollaries of injustice, instead of looking at root causes. And there is a high price for this misdirected emphasis, since we cannot expect the ‘architects of inequality’ to rewire a system that’s working for them, without pressure to do so. When something unfair is happening, we need to put pressure–real pressure–on those with the power to do something about it. And that’s only me when what’s at stake is who got how much Halloween candy in her lunch.

Kids’ Inequality Lesson #4: Inequality hurts.

The whole “what does it matter how much others have, if you have enough?” argument absolutely DOES NOT work on my kids. They are completely, even physically, incapable of enjoying their ice cream if their brother got more. Their souls are wounded and they cannot deal. And, it turns out, we’re all like that. Inequality takes a real toll on our psychological well-being, even absent absolute deprivation. It messes with our minds and distorts our values. We can’t get over it, when we have so much less. And we may even be harmed when we’re the ones who came out ahead, because inequality is associated with insecurity, even for today’s winners. It’s hard to enjoy your ice cream when someone’s looking over your shoulder.


I have one more kids’ inequality lesson for tomorrow, but it needs its own full treatment. What other inequality insights can you share–kid-generated or otherwise?

Coming out of our bunkers

Sometimes my students say things in class that just make me love them so much.

I try not to gush, because that’s a little strange; I mean, I cheerlead my own kids A LOT (“It’s a beautiful day to be these kids’ mom”, sung to the tune of the Mr. Rogers theme song, is one of my calling cards), but my students and I have a little different of a relationship.

But when they are so enthusiastic about policy practice, or so angry about an injustice they’ve witnessed at practicum, or just so curious about why things are the way they are, well, I just bubble over with affection for them.

And when they are so earnest and transparent and vulnerable, it touches my heart.

So this post is offered in that spirit, not in condemnation of the student who shared this reaction, nor, indeed, of the many who didn’t voice a similar response even if they feel it.

But in love and shared commitment to find ways to seek solace in coming together, rather than in hiding out.

It happened early in this fall semester, when I asked students to share their experiences trying to navigate information about policies and policy changes affecting their practices and their clients, and one student, somewhat hesitantly at first, shared that she really avoids paying attention to ‘anything political’, not because she doesn’t think it’s important, or doesn’t see the connection, but, really, because it just hurts too much.

She called it ‘self-preservation’ and said that, because she feels so emotionally overextended in her direct service provision, the only way that she can handle the emotional fallout of being a social worker is to focus narrowly on the immediate realm of her ‘control’ (even she acknowledged this control is elusive), closing her eyes to the world beyond her agency.

And, you know, I sort of get that.

My moments of greatest helplessness come when facing questions from my oldest son about why policies are the way they are–Why would Syria’s president hurt his own people and no one stops him? Why do so many states still ban gay marriage? Why would poor children lose preschool when the government shuts down (but Congress still gets paid)? Why is a teen mom separated from her baby so that her foster family can afford to take care of her, with the right level of reimbursement? Why do immigrants have to wait in Mexico for 10 years before they can be reunited with their families? Why?

Sometimes, when my mind is filled with regrets for the way that I spoke to his brother and mental to-do lists for work, I wish that he wouldn’t ask, “What happened in the world today, Mom, while I was at school?” Because it seems easier just to focus on dinner and our day and these four walls.

But his face, and his eagerness, and his whys, are my most poignant reminders of what’s at stake, and why hiding in a bunker isn’t safe for any of us.

Not when the world needs us out there.

So my response to my student was, in many respects, speaking to myself.

We talked about how joining with others to tackle root causes can combat burnout, and about humans’ greater ability to deal with that for which we feel prepared, rather than what blindsides us.

We talked about power, and vacuums, and about our responsibility to be at that metaphorical table when decisions are being made.

And we talked about Sam.

And about how, sometimes, when it seems like too much and I wish for the temporary solace of ignorance, I think about his wonderings.

And I take comfort in, at least, being able to tell him that I was paying attention. And that we tried. Together.

As we greet the new year, here’s to opening the door to the world, pulling the covers down, and facing our battles.