Thursday, July 29, 2004

I Was Once A Card Carrying Democrat

Part III - A Hand Up, Not A Hand Out

Am I my brother's keeper?

Yes, I am.

But, my brother is some times hard headed and will not listen.  Will not be saved.  Notice I don't say "cannot be saved".  Sometimes it is not a matter of "can" so much as "will".  I know this may sound hard hearted, but the reality is that man was given "free will".  Whether you believe that in a religious context or simply that man (huMAN kind) has a brain and uses it or abuses it at will, is up to you. 

Every day we make decisions.  Every day somebody's decision can turn out good.  Every day somebody's decision will turn out bad.  Sometimes, no matter how much you exhort somebody to do something different, make a different decision, they will continue on their set course, never minding that you warn them of the consequences or offered to help them do something different.  Sometimes this leads them to a path of self destruction.

It is like that saying:  You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink.

There was never more truer words written.

I remember when Clinton started instituting welfare reform.  I can still hear the wailing and nashing of teeth.  He actually expected people to get out and go to work.  Welfare rolls would only pay for up to three children in the home.  After that, you had to figure out how to make it yourself.  That was a new spin.  I was all for it.  A hand up and not a hand out.

You would have thought that we had rolled back the clock to the era of the Irish potato famine where the landlords came around with the police and threw the family out of their little shanty onto the street.  People were insisting that this would cause a grand new scale of poverty in the United States.  And this was the Democrats fronting the bill.  Not the horrible Republicans, insuring the great divide between the haves and the have nots.  Widening the "wealth gap."

Didn't happen.  There was a little shuffling around and some scrambling by some folks.  There was no great crisis.  Unemployment and poverty virtually froze.

However, this was also during the time that budget reform was being pushed with a vengeance.  "A balanced budget" was the cry.  Anybody know what happened when the government announced that they had resolved the deficit?  Announced a surplus?  The economy started sliding down.  Down!  A balanced budget didn't instill confidence.  Companies were riding high on the crest of an economic boom.  And then...BOOM!  Down it went.  Creditors started calling in loans.  Refused additional credit or to renegotiate terms on out standing debts.  People started scrambling for cash.  The layoffs really began in 1999.  Don't let anyone fool you about "Bush ruining the economy".  It was well on it's way when he took office.  September 11 just brought it to it's head and left the government scrambling to pull us back from the brink.

I think that is what is referred to as "penny wise and pound foolish". 

Once again, I digress.

More about me.  I hope you don't mind.

When I left high school, I went to work at Mrs. Winners Chicken as a cashier.  After working there for a year, the company wanted to send me to managers training.  I didn't know what I wanted to do about college.  I had dreamed of being a lawyer.  A big corporate lawyer.  That's where the money was.  But I didn't have any idea about finances, student loans, etc.  I had missed out on some scholarships because I didn't know how important it was to start at the beginning of your senior year to sign up.  Something else I didn't know.  Even though I graduated in the top 10% of my class, I only had one half scholarship to go to school in Texas.  My parents didn't want me to go that far away.  They wanted me to go to community college first.  They couldn't afford to help me if I went.  I guess, in retrospect, I was a little afraid of leaving my comfort zone.

Obviously, I got over that.  But, I digress...

My Dad worked with somebody whose wife worked at a home healthcare company.  He talked his friend into getting his wife to give me a reference even though they only met me once at a policeman's barbecue. 

That was my first hand up.  She did and I got the job.  I remember I was making $5.50/hour and thought I was making it BIG!  LOL

After that, I worked like a dog.  I wanted to prove something.  While I worked at that company, I made a phone acquaintance of a girl my age in New Jersey, working for the same company.  She told me they had an opening there.  She gave me a reference and pretty soon I had the job.  I had to tell my folks I was leaving.  That was one of the hardest things I ever had to do.  My middle brother had just graduated from high school and had signed up to go to the Air Force.  He was leaving the same time I was.  Empty nest syndrome, big time, even though my youngest brother was still at home.

Looking back now, I want to tell my family "thank you".  If they hadn't encouraged me to do my best, be independent, I would never have done it.  Leaving made me the person that I am today.  It was hard.  Sometimes I wanted to just go home, but I knew I couldn't.  Not because of my parents.  Actually, they offered to send me a bus ticket or some money to come home more times than I can count.  But I knew I had to make it or who would I be?

I'll make the intervening years short for you.  I moved out there and had an instant roommate.  Not the girl that I had talked to over the phone.  She knew somebody that knew somebody whose roommate had left them high and dry.  So I packed my few belongings into my little red Fiero and drove across country.  You know the Fieros?  No trunk to speak of.  The engine was in the rear.  I had some clothes, an alarm clock, my sketching materials and a guitar. 

Now while I write this, I can't decide if I was excessively brave or incredibly insane. 

That was my next hand up.  For a little while at least.

I lived with that room mate for 2 years.  Let's just say that she was crazy and leave it at that.  LOL  Actually, it started out ok.  It was just the last 6 months of our living together that took a turn for the worse.  Suffice it to say that she met somebody who was into drugs.  She started using.  Lost three jobs in three months.  Couldn't pay the rent.  I came home one day and the electricity was off.  It was in her name and she insisted on collecting the money and "paying the bills".  Unfortunately, the only bill that was getting paid regularly was the guy around the corner with a little something extra in his pocket.

I had to pay the rent for three months in a row by myself.  I was no where near in the financial condition I am today.  There went the car payments.  Guess what next?  Knock, knock...repo man calling.  There went the car.  So, the day I came home and the electricity was off, I knew it was time to leave.  Another friend was sharing a row home with a single mom.  Not far away.  Three bedrooms.  She offered for me to come and live with them while I figured out what to do.  My parents...Come home.  We'll pay your way.  Nope.  Not happening.  I was not coming home a failure.

I lived with those ladies for two years.  Next hand up.

My friend worked at a company that was hiring.  More money.  Gave me a reference.  Next hand up.

Eventually, the lady with the house was getting married, so me and the other woman decided to get an apartment.  On our own.  It was the first time either of us went out and did it on our own.  Our credit sucked so we had to give an extra down payment.  But it was glorious.  We moved in the rain.  I mean torrential down pour.  We borrowed a truck from the company we worked for.  I had a beat Buick stationwagon circa 1978.  White and loud.  We called it the dragon wagon.  Bought it for a hundred bucks.  None of our "friends" showed up to help.  I was dating a guy then.  He was supposed to help, too.  Didn't show up.  It was raining.  Guess what happened?

So long.  Farewell.  Awiedersein, Adieu.  Another story.

We had no furniture to speak of.  Just some beds and dressers and some dishes, pots and pans that we had bought.  Cheap from KMart.  After we got it all moved in, we had our TV circa 1982 (ie, no remote) sitting on our cooler.  We spread a sheet out on the floor and ate Chinese food.   Popped a bottle of Dom Perignon.  Yep.  Dom Perignon.  A friend of ours worked wholesale  liquor and we splurged the $60 to get it.  As the saying goes, those were the best of times...

Apartment was furnished a la futons with beer boxes covered with table clothes.  Bring back college memories for anyone?  It was just like that.  Eventually, we got it furnished, but it was home.

My next hands up were the people I worked with.  I had some really excellent managers that were willing to mentor me.  Let me do whatever I could or would.  I had some crappy ones, too.  But that's another story. 

I remember one boss very well.  He once said to me, "You know, you don't want to be an asshole, but sometimes, people make you be an asshole."

I never forgot those words.  Words to live by.  They actually helped me out a time or two when I didn't want to do something that I knew would make someone else mad.  Particularly in work.  I have found that there is another truism:  give somebody an inch and they will take a mile.  That's when the "you don't want to be an asshole, but sometimes people make you be an asshole" kicks in.

After living in Philly for 9 years, most of my friends had gotten married.  I had moved up the food chain a bit.  I lived a good life.  Not rich in money, but rich in friends and experiences.  My friends and I would do "joint vacations" where we all put money in and rented a house at the beach.  Ten women in a beach house.  Scary and fun all at the same time. 

But, I was missing something.  Everyone was going off and doing their thing.  One day, I got a call.  My dad was very sick.  My last roommate had gotten married and I was alone in the apartment.  The lease was up.  I had hit a plateau at my job.  I didn't know what to do.  Some friends of mine helped me pack everything into storage.  Another friend let me stay on her couch for awhile.  Next hand up.

Let me add that, after 9 years in Philly, I still felt a bit like the country girl in the big city.  It didn't fit.

I moved home.  Packed all my stuff in a u haul and drove across country.  Again.  My Dad and stepmom let me stay at their place.  For several years.  It was good for me financially.  I got my credit straightened out.  Paid my bills off.  My Dad was urging me to buy a house.  Don't end up like he was, renting forever and a day.  So, I started saving.  I put money in a 401k for the first time in my life.

Let me say that it is not easy being a 30 something woman living with your parents.  Dating was a disaster.  My Dad acted like I was 16 again.  It was hard to swallow occasionally.  I know he was just worried for me in this day and age, but it is very hard to start a relationship with somebody when the first thing that happens when they come to pick you up is that your Dad is sitting in the living room, waiting, too.  No matter what I tried, he was always waiting.  And he would grill the guy like he was a mass murderer and we just didn't know it!

Laugh.  Go on.  It's funny now, but there were plenty of times when I wanted the floor to open up and swallow me.  Plenty.

During this time, I should add, I was still a Democrat.  I still believed that people needed help and the government should do it.  I still believe that there are things that the government does today that are very helpful.  But I also believe today that there things that the government perpetuates.  Keeps going.  Doesn't solve.  That's for a little later.

Suffice it to say, in 2000, I voted for Al Gore.  I was still living at home.  I had money to spend.  The taxes didn't bother me.  Well, a little, but only in the "I am a single woman paying 30% of my money out, where does it go?" mode.  I hadn't really gotten around to investigating yet.

I got another hand up when I met somebody that knew somebody that was hiring.  Within 6 weeks of returning, I had a job.  And another mentor.  A great boss.  She taught me a lot about managing people.  She didn't let me drown.  She was one that helped me get where I am today.  I can't thank her enough.  Still in contact today.  Networking, the good ol' girl way.

It was 2001.  I was starting my house search.  That's when I found out about the reality of home ownership.  Mortgages.  Interest rates.  Points.  PMI.  Home owners insurance.  I mean, things you never thought of as a single person living the high life.  Taxes.  Property taxes.  Man did I learn about property taxes.  When I started learning about property taxes and property values, that was the first inkling.  Hold on.  Wait a minute.  What was I paying taxes for?  You want how much for this house?  The property taxes are what?  Look at this area.  What exactly do my property taxes go for?

Yikes!  It was almost enough to make you run back home to Mom and Dad and never venture out again.  But, I perservered.  Kept looking.  I got pre-approved.  It wasn't much.  That was the other inkling.  I had good credit.  Decent money.  But I was a single white woman.  The pre-approval was for a conventional loan.  The interest rate was going to be appx. 9.5%.  This was pre-9/11.  I was wondering if I would ever find a house in my price range that was in a decent area, had decent property taxes, decent property value and wasn't in desperate need of repair.

In the midst of all of this searching, the big thing happened.  September 11, 2001.  I won't go into how that changed me, too much.  I have other posts about the really deep thinking about the world.  Suffice it to say, it was the second eye opener.  There was something more in the world than my nice little life.  Something bigger was happening in the world and I had missed it.  Suddenly, my nice life was in danger.  Suddenly, I realized that there were people that didn't have my life.  Not those people.  I knew about those people in our country.  I didn't know about the other ones.  The ones that hated me.  Wanted me gone.  My family, gone.  That's how I took it, too.

On September 12, 2001, the President spoke from ground zero as people chanted: USA!  USA!  USA!  "I hear you!  Your country hears you!  And the people that knocked down these buildings are going to hear from you, too!" 


I got a hand up in a way that no one should ever ask for.  Because of this tragedy, the government lowered the federal interest rate.  At the same time, I got a new realestate agent.  He told me about a program, which I will now give space to:

Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now

Something the liberals got right.  Something, if the government was really serious about giving people a hand up, they would make sure happened for many people.

If you are a first time home buyer and you have limited resources, particularly if you have credit problems, this group is for you.  You can go to the site and read what they are about.

From this group, I took classes on all the things that I talked about.  Taxes, property values, inspections, home owners insurance, etc, etc, etc.  For those with bad credit, this is not a credit re-organization group.  What they do is teach you, TEACH YOU, about finances and budgeting.  They help you figure out how to save, pay your debts.  At the end, when you are ready to buy, a counselor sets up meetings with a bank and sits with you while you fill out the paperwork.  But you have to have the will.  This is no free ride.  Fully 3/4 of the people that attended these courses with me, did not complete the task.  They missed their hand up.

One other thing...They have agreements with banks that they cannot lend to you above the prime lending rate just because you do not fit the mold of married, middle class, white and excellent credit.  The banks cannot charge you PMI. 

This was my next hand up.  Non-profit.  I mean NON-PROFIT, group.  I paid $40 for classes.  Two classes, eight hours each.  At the end of which, I was the recipient of their largesse.

Thank you ACORN.

I was re-approved at a lower rate and more money.  Lower payments, too.  About three months later, I bought my first home.  My dream home. 

Sometimes, I feel a little guilty.  I got my dream in some part because of someone else's tragedy.  Our nations tragedy.  In some ways, it makes it all that much more special to me. 

But, there it is.  I got here, not on hand outs, but on hands up. 

This is my message to people everywhere.  You don't have to stay where you are.  You can be something, do something, anything if you want it bad enough.  There's a song that was popular once:

I get knocked down, but I get up again, I won't ever let it keep me down
I get knocked down, but I get up again, I won't ever let it keep me down

I know, somebody wants to tell me that I got lucky.  There are people out there that don't have the support network that I had.  But that's the point.  Hand outs don't make people change.  It's the chance and the will to do something, that make it different.  It's the people along the way that are willing to give us that chance, the circumstances.  If we will only take it.

I know there are other people out there, they have three kids, were laid off, lost their home, don't have family to fall back on.  People with mental illnesses, physical illnesses.  Elderly with no family.  I could go on.

For those people, the hope of tomorrow must be the first thing that is instilled.  That hope is not bought with a government subsidy check.  It comes from you and me.  You don't always have to reach for your wallet to help someone.  Reach out your hand.

Am I preaching?  You bet.  There is nothing like the converted to tell it like it is.  Pound the pulpit.  Sing with the choir.

Doesn't seem hard enough for you?  I was 1200 miles away from home.  Didn't know a soul.  I lost my electricity.  I had no money.  I cried.  I lost my apartment.  I had no money.  I cried.  They took my car.  I had no money.  I cried.  There were plenty of times I wanted to throw in the towel.  Just go home.  Curl up in the fetal position and let the world have it's way.  But I didn't. 

You don't have to either.


Robert said...



If you remove the incentive to work honestly, people will not work honestly.

Pat in NC said...

Kat, I agree with your point of giving a hand rather than a handout. I have done both. The hand outs were a mistake because more was always expected, debts not paid due to endless excuses. When I helped someone to achieve their personal goals along with their effort, I was richly rewarded to see them succeed and developed long term friendships. I am proud of you for what you have become and hope life just gets better and better for you.Lesson 1--only lead thirsty horses
Lesson 2--give some people an inch, and they will
think they are rulers.

Kat said...

Robert...thanks. You summed up what I believe and something Pat said on an earlier post: You can have your dream if you work for it.

I am sure, somewhere out there, there are more inspiring stories. People that have gone from absolute poverty to making it big. Making it better. Those that don't forget where they come from and try very hard to help those that have not made it. Need a mentor to show them how to achieve the dream.

That's what is needed. Mentors. The world is a hard place sometimes. Sometimes, you can get lost. Go down a dead end. Some people just need to have someone take them by the hand and lead them back to the right path. If they want it, they make it back.

Some people, no matter how hard you tug and pull, will resist and continue down the path.

My current boss and I did a presentation at one of our branches. "Who Moved The Cheese". Have you ever heard of it? It's a book and it talks about how things change and how people re-act to the change. It uses mice and cheese in maze. The mice that recognize they can't sit around and do nothing, waiting for the cheese to come back, that go in search of and find the new cheese the earliest. Then there are the mice that "Hem and haw". Finally, the one mouse that is heming and hawing starts off, but the one stays behind. The one that finally moves to find the cheese, makes it. The other one that stays behind is lost.

That's how I see people. Some will go after the cheese. Some will hesitate. Some will never make it.

That is the difference in this world. No program operated by any government agency can change that. But, we must keep trying, because it is sometimes hard to figure out which one might be willing to go after the cheese and which one will be lost.

Kat said... my little microcosm of the world, I have had the same experiences. There were people that I gave and gave to that never changed a day. Never did anything but ask for more.

There were people that I have helped. Stayed on my couch when they were down. Gave them a reference. Mentored them at work. Some of them are the best of friends now.

And it was the thirsty ones that wanted it the most, that were helped. Maybe they would have figured it out on their own. Maybe not. I have lost one or two along the way. When I see them occasionally, something inside me wants to still help them. But I have learned that the best help is not money so much as an ear and an idea and hope.

I really laughed at that last one: give them an inch and they think they are the ruler.

That is so true, too.