I supervised six units of social workers. They all worked hard, or most of them did. They took women (or men) who receive Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF) and attemptd to find ways to help them become self-sufficient. I’ve learned these days that words are very important. People approve of words like “self-sufficient” and “personal responsibility.”
Many middle class Americans, some close to my own age, think these are magic words. If I tell one of the social workers to have a client sign a piece of paper that says she will not take drugs and she will be personally responsible for herself and her children, most people think it’s about darn time.
Of course, they don’t realized that signing the paper was the only way that woman could get her check from that worker. Pay the rent, sign the paper. Need toilet paper, sign the statement. Does she mean it? Who knows? We don’t make her read it out loud so we don’t even know if she can read. Maybe she’d like to do all those things on that piece of paper, but chances are she’s only thinking about getting out of that damn office and getting home. After all, they don’t pay for baby-sitters so her five year old is looking after her two year old while she’s signing her personal responsibility statement.
The letter also tells her what extra information is needed to complete her case and warns that if she’s late in gathering those things, her case will be denied.
The worker has dozens of other people to see. If our client provided all the things needed, it doesn’t mean she’ll get her benefits on time. She found a pay phone, pu in her two quarters and listened to the automated voice ramble off all the things that had no meaning to her. She finally pushes her worker’s extension. No one answers. It rings and rings but no one answers. She would call the supervisor but she has no more money.
After bumming her fourth quarter, she finally reached her worker. He told her he has ten more days to finish the case. She explained that children were hungry. He says that so are a bunch of other people.
She remembered that personal responsibility statement she was forced to sign. She wonderd if anyone made him sign one. But then, maybe that’s what personal responsibility means. After all, she’d never really seen it. Perhaps that word, personal, is what it’s all about.
My grandfather was a farmer. He loved the land. He would pick up a handful and let it run through his fingers. It made him smile. He said we never owned the land, we just borrowed it for a while. He treated it like a gift. I would tag along some days, especially during harvest.
It was 1956 and cotton was still picked by hand. I was just a little kid and I sat under the big wagon that carried the cotton from the fields to the cotton gin. Next to the wagon was a big tub of water. I remember it was hot that year, even for Texas. I can still her hearing the melody of Amazing Grace dueling with The Chicken Sack, making for a beautiful sound. I thought everyone knew about the blues.
The men and women who picked the cotton were all dark skinned. Granddaddy called them all by name. I tan quickly so I never wondered much about the difference in our skin. Not in 1956.
One hot day I sat under the wagon playing with my dolls and listening to the songs. One very tall lady came and sat down beside me. She took a checkered handkerchief and wiped her face. It was soaking wet. She poured some of the water on it and rubbed her face again. Then she smiled.
“Look out there at your grandfather.” She was talking to me so I did as she asked. There he was with his kaki shirt and overalls wearing his straw cowboy hat. He wore thick gloves just like the lady sitting beside me.
“Are you looking?” She asked.
“Yes, ma’am.” I was always polite to older people. That was understood.
“Well, baby, what do you see?”
This was hard. I knew she wanted some special answer but I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out what I was supposed to see.
“Granddaddy, picking cotton and putting it in his gunny sack.”
She smiled and patted my shoulder. “That’s exactly right. That’s what you see. That’s what I see too. Look at his shirt. What do you think about his shirt?”
Another hard question. “Well, it looks all wet.”
“Right again. You’re a real smart little girl. That’s sweat. See this old rag?” She held out the wet handkerchief.
“This old rag was wet with sweat, too. Just like your Granddaddy’s shirt. He was here when we drove up this morning and he’ll be here when we all go home. That’s why we work for him.”
She looked at me again. “You need to remember that. There’re six farms around here where we could work. All pay the same thing. We have to drive a little farther to get here but we come anyway.” She pointed at Granddaddy again. “In that cotton field, we’re all the same. We all work and we all sweat. In that field, it don’t make no difference what color your skin is, we all work. I guess we work just a little harder when we work for Mr. Dollar. He sweats, we sweat.”
Grandaddy’s been gone a long time now, but he taught me about personal responsibility. He showed me every day of his life. I knew what it meant before I could pronounce the words.
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