Tuesday, January 26, 2010
If you intended to murder an infant
(I can barely stand to read these words as I write them.)
Would you decide to plunge the infant into cold water, set him naked in front of an air conditioner and then hope for the best?
I'm writing, of course, about the dreadful death of a six week old baby in West Springfield's Clarion Motel in the first hours after midnight on Sunday.
According to MassLive, West Springfield police received a call from the infant's mother, 22 year old Erica Luce, requesting assistance, about 3 am. The baby was taken by ambulance to Baystate Medical Center where he was pronounced dead.
The mother told WWLP she had been visiting a next door neighbor while her three year old son and infant son slept, checking on them every fifteen minutes, but then she dropped off to sleep in her friend's room, awakening with a bad feeling. that she found her baby naked, wet and in front of the air conditioner.
So why am I writing this post? I'm writing this in part because of a conversation my daughter and I had yesterday afternoon about this baby's death.. I'd said that something about the situation just didn't feel right, but that I probably wouldn't write about it because I didn't know enough. She'd said, Why not? It doesn't stop you from writing about the cops when you think that something doesn't seem right. And she was completely on target.
A few weeks ago, I wrote the following: I know from experience how hard it can be to criticize one of "your own kind." You already know there's a set of stereotypes that will instantly kick into play and which will go far beyond the specific person to castigate an entire group. And you already know too much about how hard life can be for that kind of person, and that very few people who haven't lived that life will be capable of taking that into consideration.
Sure enough, much of the comments on the news story about this baby's death-- I don't even know the poor baby's name-- have been drawn from the stereotypes people have about welfare, single mothers and poverty.
So let me say some of what I know-- some from my own experience and some from years of observation-- no, that's not the right word, let's say thirty years of relationships with other poor, single mothers on welfare.
Tolstoy said that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way but I've found there's much that ties us together. So I will generalize, knowing there are exceptions, and also leaving out whole categories of families on welfare such as those for whom relying on public assistance comes after a long fall from the working or middle class (and yes, there are a lot of them). I am deliberately writing about the mothers on welfare that seem to most closely fit the stereotypes.
Almost every girl and young woman who has an unplanned pregnancy, or a pregnancy without a solid plan for the future, lacks a deep sense of self-worth. We think we know what we're doing but we don't. Still, most of us are ready to make the best of the situation, and most of us have grand plans for our children's lives, and how they'll be different from our own.
But it's hard, harder than we'd ever guess. It shouldn't be impossible to raise children well in a single parent household and mostly the problem comes down to money. The level of economic insecurity that comes with living on welfare is almost impossible to conceive-- housing always at risk, utility shut-offs looming, the constant and energy-sapping tension that comes from not knowing the face of the next disaster waiting around the corner.
Having more children usually makes things much worse. But a second pregnancy comes along because we think we've found a relationship that will last until our children are grown up and can fend for themselves. And nine times out of ten, we're wrong.
So getting a good job and getting off welfare is what makes the most sense, right? But here's what I've seen in the last thirty years and every reader knows this is true: there are just fewer and fewer good jobs out there. As a young mother, I worked in two factories; they are long closed. I worked in two bookstores; now we don't have a single bookstore in the city. I have aunts that worked at Forbes & Wallace selling gloves and hats and actually retired from there.
Still, the vast majority of mothers on welfare will eventually enter the workforce. Welfare reform has "worked," if you want to call it that. In 1997 Massachusetts had a 3.2% unemployment rate and a welfare caseload of 80,000; the monthly cash assistance for a family of three was $579. Now, in January 2010, we have an unemployment rate of 9.4% (or 17.2%, if you go by the "underemployment" rate) a welfare caseload of 50,500 families; the monthly cash assistance for a family of three is $618! (That's less than a 7% increase in 13 years.) Where is everyone, you might ask, if they're not on welfare and not working? But maybe you really don't want to know about the kind of life that goes with the poverty they're experiencing.
Some mothers find alternatives to welfare because they have a child with a disability. The vast majority of these disabilities are real but there are also those parents will grasp at any straw to find a way to have income. Maybe they're pushed by their kid's school into complicity with pathologizing their children. Maybe they willingly and with relief accept some explanation for their children's behavior because without that explanation, they feel like failures even more than they do already.
Getting an education can really help a single mom leave welfare-- but childcare is hard to come by, transportation costs money, and a sick kid can throw everything into chaos. And there still have to be jobs available at the end of the process. Just how many cosmetologists do we need, anyway?.
There is no room here to make a summary of all the other ills that can affect poor families, and many of those ills, like domestic violence and addiction, cut across all class lines. It's just if you're a poor single mom, it's like being hit when you're already down.
I can hear the voices now: Throw them off! Make them self-reliant! But we're not exactly talking about the pioneer days, with wagon trains, homesteading and subsistence farming. We have to fit into the structure that already exists.
Some will call my attempt to place welfare moms in a larger context the same as making excuses for them. I would never deny the power of an individual to change her whole family's life for the better, because it happens every day.But why do we have to build our lives in the heart of a hurricane?
Photos from Gabba Gabba Hey!'s photostream at Flickr.,House Of Sims' photostream