by Steve Clem on August 14, 2012

Have you ever gone without food for days? Not because you’re on some fasting diet, but because you have only a little food, no money to buy more, and two growing children who need it more than you do?

Have you ever worried about how your kids would do their homework if the electricity were turned off? Or hoped you’d be able to pay the bill before the electric company cut you off, so that the food you just bought for your kids didn’t spoil?

Have you ever had to swallow your pride and ask a non-profit organization to help you pay the deposit for a new apartment so your kids could have a roof over their heads, and so you didn’t lose your parental rights because you’re living on the street? Or have you ever had to push back paying your rent so you could have gasoline in your car, so you could make it to your job and avoid being fired, so you could pay your bills and feed your kids?

Or have you ever had to hide your car at a friend’s house until you got a paycheck, so you could avoid having it repossessed? Or gone nearly two years with no health benefits, because you couldn’t afford the COBRA payment from the job you lost nor a private health care plan? Have you then had to hope and pray every day that you didn’t have to go to the doctor for an ailment or injury?

I’ve done all of these things in the last four years. I’m not proud of it. And I sure as hell never thought I’d be in this position. At one point, not that long ago — just a little over six years ago, actually — I was living a charmed life, not unlike that of many of my friends. I lived in a $400,000 home with my wife and two kids, enjoyed a suburban lifestyle (as much as my free spirit was able to, anyway), and — outside of a rocky marriage — I was pretty much happy with my life.

I was the upper middle class. In the waning days of my marriage, I lived in a neighborhood surrounded by people who wanted lower taxes and who loathed anything to do with welfare or food stamps, because the people who relied on those things were obviously not working hard enough to better themselves. They expected people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. And at the time, I guess I was too naive to know how close I was to becoming the person whom my neighbors saw as the enemy, the sponge to their hard-earned liquidity.

And then the spiral happened. I won’t rehash my trip to hitting bottom, but I do want to point out that the political climate in this country has gotten more extreme in that six years. We’ve become a country of haves and have-nots, divided by class more and more as each day goes by. The middle class is disappearing faster than Congress’s approval rating.

And on a regular basis, via my online addiction to Facebook, I’m reminded of my situation through such posts as, “If you’re on welfare, you should be drug tested, because I’m drug tested to get my job. REPOST if you AGREE.” Or, “If you can afford cigarettes, beer, and a fancy car, you don’t need food stamps or an unemployment check.”

Or one that just last month appeared all over Facebook, seen in the image above, dubbed “The Five Best Sentences You’ll Ever Read.” I took personal offense to the image, as it not only stereotyped our safety-net recipients, but also demonized them as abusers of the system who steal from the prosperous. I had some tough words with friends, and I probably took it too personally. But you see, that’s the only way I can take it. Because I have been in those shoes.

I have no disdain for anyone who gains prosperity in life. I’d love it if everyone I knew had more money than they knew what to do with. But as our country struggles to recover from the worst economic time since the Great Depression, wealth is just not a reality for most of my friends. In fact, in the two and a half years since my store opened, every single one of my employees has struggled during the last few days of each pay period, sometimes literally having no money to spend. And most of them have two jobs.

What I do have disdain for is the demonization of poverty. Because poverty is not a stereotype. Poverty does not discriminate. Poverty will take down people with important job titles, people who drive fancy SUVs, people who live in large mansions, and even people who attend GOP fundraisers to support a Tea Party candidate. Poverty is something that can easily happen to anyone. I know this firsthand.

Ironically, many of the people who demonize those living in poverty also espouse their strong Christian faith. Last time I read the Bible, I don’t recall Jesus advocating turning your back on the poor or weary. Yet some wrap themselves in the scripture, the flag, and their stocks and bonds portfolio, and point their fingers at the poor, condemning them for their laziness, their selfishness, and their ability to steal money from others via our “socialist” government.

The hatred grows for the poor, yet when people have dared to take on the “one percent” through the Occupy Movement, the wealthy have portrayed these protesters as intolerant, violent youth who are too lazy to get jobs. This country is tearing itself apart at the seams with hatred. And make no mistake, it’s happening from both ends of the political and economic spectrum. But me — I’m down here, with the little guys, so that’s the perspective I can best relate to. I may have more easily related to those demonizing the poor back in 2005. But time has a way of changing things.

So of my friends, I ask just one thing: the next time you want to point the finger at those relying on the government for assistance, please find me and point that finger directly at me.

Please point at me, post your REPOST on my Facebook wall — whatever it takes. Because, my friends, I am the lower class.

* * * *

Steve Clem is a divorced dad, a recovering Republican, and a Prisoner in the Tundra. He is in The Guinness Book of World Records for being part of the largest Hokey Pokey of all time. He was the founding editor of the Iowa City weekly The ICON.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

randee August 14, 2012 at 5:23 pm

Iknow you know my response….crying too hard to write anything.


Betsy Carter August 15, 2012 at 1:39 am

WOW, Steve!
What a well written article, so honest and realistic. My heart goes out to you as you push forward- I had no idea about your life. I met you at Ryan and Mindy Wendt’s wedding; I did the flowers and I believe you helped with the vaases. I wish you the best and will be following your blog from here on!


Belinda Mendl August 15, 2012 at 4:59 am

beautifully written!! i, too, have been blessed with the “awakening” you describe… it’s a hard but valuable lesson, i am stronger because of it… just saying 🙂


Tom August 23, 2012 at 4:41 pm

Nicely done. Most folks don’t realize that they’re one car accident or one bad news diagnosis away from poverty. Then watch them scramble for the entitlements…been there, done that. Too bad it takes a life lesson for most people to see the light.


Greg Brill September 21, 2013 at 2:13 am

Couldn’t have said it any better!


Benjamin Le Vine May 17, 2014 at 3:38 am

Wow, Steve, I had no idea you were contributing to such a great blog until I saw your link to this article in the ECN. I applaud you for being open to changing the core of your political ideology. There are some who would live in denial rather than admit to themselves that their beliefs were not practical.

I live in Los Angeles, a large city, an expensive city where middle class entitlements like homeownership are no longer affordable to that vanishing middle class. I have a career that pays me a great rate, yet I am a freelancer as it’s the nature of the entertainment industry. Unfortunately, no matter how solid my work ethic, no matter how much I stand out from my peers as a great editor, no matter how much people enjoy my personality in the workplace, there will always be times when I can’t find work. This last year, I found myself unexpectedly unemployed the week after thanksgiving (the network decided to cut their season order down from 13 episodes to 10). Now, one thing I’ve learned in my 15 years as an editor is never find yourself unemployed in December unless you’re prepared financially to not work a day until new shows start their edits, usually that’s the first week of January. This year those new seasons (for whatever reason) didn’t start until late February/early March. Just about every editor I knew was struggling to find work the first two months of the new year.
I was struggling myself, trying to collect every penny I had lent to anyone. I would buy dog food first and have just enough for dry beans and rice for myself n I wish I could have qualified for EBT. I’m just now at the point where I’ve paid enough bills that the paycheck I received today won’t be immediately spent on past due bills. I understand, and I’m willing to risk that my tax money will finance a system abuser so long as it guarantees that someone won’t go to bed hungry.
The fact is, personal assistance programs don’t cost we taxpayers that much annually. Those drug testing programs that so many wish to implement to make certain that nobody on welfare ever has any fun are actually more expensive than the actual assistance. Florida tried this, they spent an insane amount of money only to receive an absolutely minute number of positive tests.

Ugh, the whole topic makes me so upset. Those who oppose welfare make it sound as though we’re handing out caviar, big screen tvs and an ounce of weed to anyone willing to jump the wall from Mexico. The media (which last I checked was ‘liberal’ isn’t that a laugh) and big strong men like Ann Coulter are turning the haves against the have-nots and sadly have them believing whatever nonsense will benefit their lobbyists and corporate sponsors. It needs to stop.


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