On Thursday, October 18, 2018, twenty Lehigh Valley residents came together to address the painful stigmas surrounding welfare in the U.S. This free public event was part of an ongoing discussion series hosted by Tackling T.I.N.A., an organization that aims to broaden the local community’s understanding of economic justice. The discussion series serves as a place where community members can imagine more equitable alternatives to the current economic system and build a sense of community around issues that matter locally.
Given the difficult and often personal content of our discussion topics, these events typically contain a high degree of self-reflection and revelatory storytelling. October’s discussion took this practice to a whole other level as the group moved seamlessly between our reading of Andrea Louise Campbell’s Trapped in America’s Safety Net and our own experiences with the welfare system.
Then, suddenly, something happened.
The discussion shifted from an intellectual exercise to a deeply moving community experience where we felt—rather than understood—the injustice of the welfare system. We confronted the crippling paradoxes of welfare policy together. We asked why our nation provides so little to the most vulnerable and yet so much to the corporate elite who take home millions in tax benefits; why those who qualify for aid rarely claim the full extent of their benefits; why the image of “deserving” and “undeserving” poor has become the de facto language of welfare politics. And, finally, we asked why public narratives of poverty are so terribly cruel that even those who pull themselves out of the welfare system carry a sense of shame with them for the rest of their lives.
But mostly we talked about the need for empathetic communities.
bell hooks talks a lot about love and communion as the basis of building community. Ever since our last discussion, I have been thinking seriously about what these theories look like in practice, and if Tackling T.I.N.A. can create such spaces in the Lehigh Valley—places where people can feel things together without judgment or contempt. I certainly didn’t expect as much openness as I saw on this taboo subject. Perhaps there’s some love in this willingness to share our personal experiences with others, to be vulnerable together. Perhaps this exchange of thoughts and feelings served as the practice of communion, participating—as we were—in a shared emotional experience.
Without love, there can be no real understanding and no real justice. Our discussion group recognized this fact over and over again in our 90 minutes together. We discovered that personal stories must be put front and center in the fight for welfare reform, that without faces and without identities, poor folks will never be able to earn the recognition they need to make lasting change. Voices matter. Stories matter. The myth of the bootstrap narrative must finally be put to rest to make room in the public consciousness for the multitude of real poverty narratives that this fantasy obscures. Our appetite for well-intentioned success narrative of those who escape the cycle of poverty must be tempered with the millions of stories of those who did not.
We cannot be duped into believing the welfare system is working because of a few exceptional cases. In Teaching to Transgress, hooks speaks at length about the importance of recognizing pain and working through that pain together as part of a community. But this can only be done if that pain is first expressed openly and honestly, which is something that cannot happen when a community is divided. Poverty is pain—lots of it—and personal narratives can make this reality visible to the many who cannot see through the misleading stereotypes and potent stigmas that surround the issue.
Andrea Louise Campbell tells her readers that “two-thirds of Americans live in a household where someone will enroll in a means-tested program between ages 18 and 64.” This statistic startles a population that prides itself on their self-sufficiency and independence. But it need not frighten us. Instead, let it serve as a reminder that we are not, and never have been, the rugged individualists we have so often imagined ourselves to be. We are a nation of families, neighbors, and friends. We are a nation of networks. We are a nation rooted in community upon community. We are never alone and we should not be expected to make it alone because no one ever has.
Life is marked by a profound interdependence. bell hooks recognizes this in her writing, and I recognized it a month ago as I listened to the stories of my neighbors, friends, and colleagues. hooks celebrates the promise of community and the liberating possibilities of love. And yet she also identifies the challenges that come along with building community: the struggles for voice and recognition; the countless obstacles that stand in the way of true mutuality; the inequality entwined in otherwise loving relationships. Given the immense challenges involved in creating a truly interdependent and loving community, it is no wonder we cling so tightly to the myth of independence. It would be painful to give it up.
But, just imagine the possibilities in letting go of that fantasy. Imagine saying yes to our common humanity, yes to uplifting relationships, yes to communion, yes to mutual regard and recognition. Imagine saying yes to love—yes to expansive, outward-facing, life-sustaining love. It is possible, and it begins with hearing what others are trying to tell you. So, please, listen carefully.
*Feature photo of Cafe the Lodge, where this discussion was held. Photo credits: James McAdams*