My life of entitlement.

Dear friends,

It’s campaign season and I bet if you’re like me, you’re worn out. Some of my friends on Facebook are still railing, but most are offering olive branches and pleas for civility. And no wonder. I chuckled when President Obama spoke at the Democratic National Convention and said “And if you’re sick of hearing me approve this message, believe me, so am I.”

I don’t want to rail today. And I’ve already suggested we ought to think more and talk less, so this post isn’t about that, either. Today, I want to share something more dear to me. You can call it what you want, but in the political arena, it would be called my life of entitlement.

By definition, an entitlement is a right to a guaranteed benefit. I’m not going to cover the many facets to this argument as it is being made in the media. If you’re upright and drawing breath these days, you’ve likely heard more than you want to on the subject. I just want to say I have been the beneficiary of a few entitlements in my lifetime, though I didn’t use that word. And, today, I still don’t. You see, I tend to think in terms of assistance or opportunity.

I grew up in a makeshift family in a barely-getting-by town on the edge of a last-resort state.  That is to say I know a little something about expediency and improvisation.  About flying by the seat of my pants.  About slapdash solutions and provisional plans and stopgap measures.

I am, you could say, a “native” of a land called Make-do.

I always wanted to live among the landed gentry – the folks whose multi-generational wealth affords a measure of social stability even if it doesn’t assure nobility. But birth is nature’s first great lotto and my number came up Okie.  And poor Okie at that.

Poor folks have poor ways, the old saying goes. It’s true, but don’t confuse poor with unresourceful. I’ve observed a lot of poor folks who can be ingenious when caught a day late and a dollar short.  My nephew once moved a cast-off sofa on the roof of a car with nothing more than salvaged weed-eater string to tie it down.  My mother once left an abusive husband while he was at work by making creative use of the utility deposits to fund her move.  I once pawned a ring to buy a plane ticket home.

Let me be clear:  making do isn’t the same as doing something half-assed, though I’ve done both.  Half-assed is about choice, and making do rarely is.  Half-assed is peanut butter on stale bread because you couldn’t care less about your meal.  Making do is a pot of vegetarian chili because the only items in your kitchen cabinet are some beans and a can of tomato paste.

Some people mistake the make-do folks for the half-assed kind, concluding that people with diminished circumstances must have created — even deserved — their predicaments.  You might not know I grew up in government-subsidized housing.  Yes, my mother was the property manager and, yes, it was the ‘70s, but I learned a few years ago that her monthly wage for that job was $500.  Ever try to support an elderly mother and three daughters on $500 a month, even with your housing provided?

Unfortunately, even more people find themselves in diminished circumstances than when I was growing up. You’ve likely seen the statistics and I don’t need to repeat them here. You either believe or you don’t that times are tough. And if you do believe many of our family, friends and neighbors are at a pinch-point, you probably have a few ideas about what we ought to do about it. (And my guess is you have more sophisticated and nuanced ideas about balancing opportunity with fiscal responsibility than we’re hearing on the campaign stump.)

So as you consider the options, and engage in debate, and think about what it means to be a citizen of our nation, I offer you my face as the poster girl for opportunity. As a girl who lived in government housing, ate my share of government cheese, and who qualified for a federal Pell grant that largely paid for my college education and helped me beat the average, I still like to think some government programs are worth the lives they improve.

You can call them entitlements — that free cheese and rice and macaroni I ate as a child, the Social Security benefit I received when my step-father died, the government-subsidized housing we lived in, the Pell grant that didn’t have to be repaid, the substantial Medicare payments my mother utilized in the last months of her life, the Veterans’ medical benefits my elderly father receives today, the state-subsidized college education my daughter is receiving, the National Forest my family hikes in when we visit our land in Colorado — but I don’t think they created in me the “cycle of dependency” we’re hearing about. Like everybody else I know, I go to work, pay my taxes, save for the future (admittedly not enough), give money when I can to charities I believe in, and endeavor to make my corner of the world a better place.

I’m able to do that, in part, because of my own initiative and hard work (and believe me I’ll take credit where credit is due). But I’m also able to be a contributing citizen because I got a little free food and subsidized housing when my family needed it, because I had help with my education and then leveraged it into a successful career, and because — and this part is important, so please pay attention — I got lucky. Lucky as in I managed to sidestep layoffs when others didn’t, my immediate family managed to avoid catastrophic illness or accident, and my husband and I had benefit of a small-but-tightknit family that shared meager resources whenever possible. (My mother loaned me her last $1000 for a down payment on my first home. Mr. Mom’s mother loaned him a small sum to start his business.)

That’s luck any way you measure it and a lot of folks don’t enjoy it. Or they get hit by the double-whammy of diminished resources AND bad luck. I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t want to help others. And I’d be disingenuous if I said there’s a “private solution” that’s a ready alternative to the government assistance I received. I never once thought of the help I received as an entitlement, as a guarantee. I guess I was naive (or maybe not old enough to be cynical yet), but I thought “we the people” were investing in me, giving me a shot, and I knew I’d better do something with it.

If you know a truly dependent person who’s bilking the system, okay. Or if you just flat out believe there’s no room in government for much more than national defense and the protection of a free market, okay. Vote your conscience.

Like you, I’m sick of the rhetoric. But I still believe in the collective power of government as a force for good and I still want to invest my tax dollars in programs that help people — people like the young person I was who needed it — whether we call it entitlements or opportunities or any other word you can think of that is born of hope, of concern for one another, of belief in the power of community.

With gratitude {for having been born and raised in a nation of opportunity and achieving a life that right now can be described as nothing short of privileged},

Joan, who has one last request on the topic, which is please, for the sake of America’s youth, let’s stop referring to the “entitlement mentality” of the Millennial Generation because I’m raising two of them and I work in close proximity to a large group of them and the generalization does not hold true

Note: Portions of this essay were previously published as a post titled “A modest thank you” on my former blog