A good friend of mine told me I need to tell my stories as I talk to people in this campaign. So I thought I would share this story.
A few years ago, I was working in a local elementary school providing mental health services. I had a client, an eight-year-old boy who was born to a mother with many challenges. They lived in extreme poverty and were often unable to afford to buy food. It was lunchtime on a cold winter day when I got a call to come down to his classroom. When I got there, he was upset – so upset that he was screaming and throwing things. He wouldn’t listen to his teacher. Meanwhile, the rest of his class had gone outside for recess.
I found him crying and yelling and not making any sense. He couldn’t get the words out to tell anyone what was wrong due to his sobbing and anger. I got him out of the classroom, intending to bring him to my office. Instead, he flopped down against the wall in the hallway. We sat next to each other with our backs against the wall. I helped calm him down, and waited for him to be able to tell me what was wrong.
After some time, he was able to tell me – but he was still very emotional, and his story came out between his sobs. His class was headed out for recess, and his favorite part of the day was going outside to jump on a flying saucer and slide down the hill in the snow. When he went to get dressed to go out, he discovered that his snow pants were missing. One of the rules of the school says that for a child to go out in the snow, they have to be wearing snow pants.
Snow pants seem like a simple thing – why should a child lose control over missing recess for one day? But there was more to it than that. This little boy knew the reality of his financial situation at home, that his family was poor. He knew that no new snow pants would be coming, there was no money to replace them. He knew that he would be stuck inside for the rest of the winter while everyone else got to go play. When he told his mother and her boyfriend, they would become extremely angry with him, and would probably physically abuse him.
As part of my job, it’s my responsibility to teach children how to recognize and manage their emotions. But even if he calmed down and accepted the loss of the snow pants, he would still be alone – the child in poverty who was now different from everyone else, unable to have fun at recess. The problem isn’t the little boy, it’s the snow pants. So I talked to the staff at the school. They asked what to do.
I said, “Buy him some snow pants.”
They asked, “That’s it?”
I nodded. “That’s it. Get him some snow pants and the problem’s solved.”
So they did. And the next day, he went outside and joined his friends on the hill in his new snow pants – and there were no more significant problems with his behavior.
Sometimes the solutions are simple – they’re right in front of our noses. Sometimes a small change can make a huge difference in someone’s life. Things can be like this in the Legislature, too. People working together to make the smallest of changes can have a huge impact on people’s lives. It’s our responsibility to make sure that we make the right changes – that we extend a hand to help, not to harm. We must never punish people for the simple problem of being poor. This little boy is not just his mother’s responsibility – he is the responsibility of all of us. Together, we can help him, and others like him.
And with that, a thought. Imagine if we acted sooner to help a single mother. Imagine if she was working a job, making ends meet, but living paycheck to paycheck like so many of us do. Her car breaks down. The next thing she knows, she’s missed a few days of work, gets fired, and now she’s collecting benefits. It isn’t enough to survive on, so the car never gets fixed — she’s stuck. This happens all the time, it isn’t a rare thing.
What if, instead of waiting for that, we had a grant system available to fix the car? Sure, it may cost $500-$1,000 to do it, but it would keep her working for the cost of a couple months of benefits. This is a fiscally responsible solution that keeps her off the TANF rolls while allowing her to maintain her dignity. Most everyone wants to work; it makes people feel good about themselves to contribute their share.
This is the sort of thing we need to do — address the molehills before they become mountains.