It was something I first noticed after Katrina. I hadn’t ever given much thought to it before then. I had the general opinion that when a person received charity or assistance, they should be grateful, but I hadn’t really thought about what that meant.
Katrina made me consider that. It was in my own backyard (so to speak, I live in the Metro Atlanta area), and I was housing my own good friend who had been made homeless by the storm that took so much. As we worked at helping her build her life again, I watched her process the loss. I supported her and loved on her, and did what I could. That’s what you do.
Meanwhile, I also watched the larger picture as areas all over the SouthEast took in people. I was dumbfounded by the anger people felt at those who came to live with them. I was seeing news story after news story talking about how people weren’t “grateful enough.” There were cities who wanted to take back the helping hand that they had put out because they judged that those receiving that hand were not acting in a way that they judged to be consistent with the amount of charity they had given, didn’t purchase the things that the charity-givers deemed reasonable for people “in their situation.”
Now, this isn’t about Katrina, nor the diaspora that happened afterward. So, let’s lay that to the side. But it did open my eyes. See, all I could think was, these people lost their homes. They lost their mother’s homes. Their grandmother’s. Many go back much further. Generation upon generation. They lost jobs, they lost touch with friends. People died. They lost their possessions. The city and culture they loved and grew up with was now out of reach for many of them.
And they were told “be grateful.” You’ve got a place to live. Clothes that we have handed down to you. Some furniture. Now be grateful!
But how do you present that kind of gratefulness? How can you live your life and rebuild it different than you’ve ever known when you’re busy bowing and scraping to properly give all the thank yous?
Then the purchases. The infamous Red Cross Cards. Up to $2000 if I recall correctly. Every time someone took one of those cards out their purchase was scrutinized by all around them. “Do you really need that to rebuild a life?” But damn. You tell me. If you had to rebuild your whole life on $2000, what would you buy? For real?
My own friend purchased shoes that could weather storms well and a computer. Both of these made an awful lot of sense, but both seemed extravagant and unnecessary to those unfamiliar of her way of surviving. Some people bought televisions. It didn’t occur to anyone that their families had no friends in these new environments, an television was a cheap and easy way to fill some of that void until their lives filled up again. Instead, the charity-watchers just clucked their teeths and talked about how they wished they had $2000 to just “waste.”
Again, though, this isn’t about Katrina or the people who survived it.
This is about charity, and how we hold out a hand to give while holding judgement with our eyes. We see people buying food with WIC vouchers, and mentally calculate the nutritional value of their cart. We see people using EBT cards, and scrutinize their purchases. We look at the clothes they’re wearing. The transportation they use. The phones in their pockets. We have a tally of every little thing and the balance has to fall just right. “Do they really need that?” becomes a constant question. “If I needed help so badly that I was getting WIC or EBT, I would have sold that…”
We think these things without knowing any context, but more importantly, without thinking that maybe it isn’t even our right to know that context. This kind of scrutiny would appall us if thrown on ourselves, but somehow it’s okay to cast it when someone is receiving help. Never mind that they have already been scrutinized thoroughly by the agencies through which they received this help. We’re just sure that we have information that those agencies don’t. Positive that in our 5 minute encounter, we got more context than the records and papers filled out, files submitted.
And maybe it’s just pure jealousy. “Why do I have to work so hard and scrape by when they just get it for free?” That same jealousy that made people angry at $2000 Red Cross cards given so people had a chance of recovering some semblance of a life. Which is? Ridiculous. You go ahead and try to replace your whole life on $2000. It can’t be done. All you can do is piecemeal bits and pieces. Which is what everyone is doing in poverty – making a life out of bits and pieces.
So don’t lose your head over the buy one get one root beer deal at the woman in front of you who’s using a WIC voucher for the rest of her order. She’s just trying to have a little something nice. And definitely don’t get mad when she gets out of her Mercedes at the WIC office. It’s the only car she has that works, it’s paid in full, and it was bought before all this happened to her.