Thursday, December 22, 2016

Viewpoint: Relief from a lifelong burden

'Why do I need food stamps? Why has poverty been a lifelong disruptor of my dreams and achievements? Because I was born a female.'
Mimi Yahn is a writer, researcher and social-justice activist currently dividing her time between Barre Town and Springfield.

TODAY, something odd happened. The significance of my trip to the grocery store sunk in, and the shock of it stunned me.

For the first time in my life, I used food stamps at a grocery store. And for the first time in my life, I bought food without worrying about the cost. It took a day to understand what I’d felt: the relief, the absence of anxiety, almost an elation, as I filled my basket, then handed the clerk my electronic benefit transfer card for the state’s 3SquaresVT program.

And I was shocked by the realization of the anxiety I’ve had my entire life around the simple, basic exercise of buying food.

The deep-down anxiety of being poor and not always knowing whether there’s enough money for food has been with me so long — from childhood — that it became no more noticeable, no more significant, than the air I breathe.

But today, fully realizing that relief, and fully comprehending that lifelong anxiety, brought me to tears.

* * *

THERE HAS always been a strong aversion to “handouts” in America, a belief that if those who can’t pull themselves up by their own bootstraps don’t deserve any help. Presumably, the second part of that belief is why our nation is so eager to give wealthy people and corporations a free ride, while those in dire need are left to die under bridges or in overcrowded homeless shelters.

I suppose some of that ethos has rubbed off on me because I’ve always had difficulty asking for help. But I’ve also always believed that our responsibility as humans is to care for one another. Love makes the world go ’round, and compassion makes it whole.

And why is it that I need food stamps? Why has poverty been a lifelong disruptor of my dreams and achievements?

Because I was born a female.

That’s the ugly, honest truth of it, a truth that is no less true today than it was for me growing up.

* * *

WHEN I WAS a student at Joan of Arc Junior High School half a century ago, I was told I could not learn woodworking or print shop — trades that pay far better than the typing and sewing skills I was taught instead.

But my school did not allow girls to take those classes.

The school did, however, allow the band teacher to sexually molest girls. And it did allow my eighth-grade math teacher to forbid girls from speaking in his class because, as he explained, we girls were too stupid to learn math, and he was quite upset that he had to put up with having girls in his class. By the time I reached high school, I’d been sexually assaulted quite a few times, once at knifepoint, but mostly the daily groping in the subways. By that time, I was half the person I was at the age of 7, before all the degradations took place, before the world began letting me know every day I was worth less, far less, than a boy.

By the time I reached high school, I was utterly fractured and utterly convinced that I was, as the world had informed me, not very smart and certainly not smart enough to even think about college, as if my mother could have ever afforded such a wild luxury.

* * *

AND SO I dropped out of high school and spent the next several decades working at jobs reserved for women: typist, telephone operator, secretary, waitress.

And because those jobs were reserved for women, they were low-paying, with little or no benefits, little or no security.

Women are, after all, the ideal disposable worker across the globe: In every nation on the planet, we are second-class citizens with little or no recourse to legal or political remedy.

We don’t even have the privilege of “mankind” recognizing the endemic epidemic of gender-specific violence against us as hate crimes whose primary purpose is to terrorize and subjugate us.

But like so many women, rather than giving up on giving back to a world that gives us so little, I devoted my life to volunteer work, to the unpaid labor of helping others and of working to build a better world.

I also spent the next several decades becoming a social scientist, teaching myself the skills and academic rigor required to become a researcher and to design studies that quantify social injustice — studies like my longitudinal survey tracking levels of hate speech and bias language on prime-time television.

And yes, I taught myself math, because how else can you quantify the world around you? And because I discovered that, as a female, I am quite good at math.

* * *

BECAUSE OF the professors I met who used my work in their classes, because of their urging and encouragement, I did finally face my fears and go back to school, first getting my GED at the age of 54, then my bachelor’s just two years ago. I hope to return to school and eventually get the Ph.D. that was denied me the day I was born a female.

By then, it will still be too late to have built up a lifetime of good earnings, of saving some of those good wages for my retirement, of equal pay for equal work, of open doors to any job I can learn and handle, of believing myself to be capable of my full potential because the world nurtured and valued me.

I consider myself lucky that, as a female, I don’t have the additional economic and emotional burden of single motherhood, stigmatized and impoverished by the honest, ugly truth of a society that despises females.

I do still have trouble asking for help from my friends. But from a society that has done more than its share to marginalize, deprive, and impoverish me solely because of my gender, I have no trouble whatsoever getting financial aid to ease the burden of poverty placed on me.

And to finally lift that anxiety that has been a constant, open wound fracturing my soul.

Originally published in the December, 21, 2016 print edition of The Commons, Brattleboro, VT.   The Commons is a project of Vermont Independent Media, a nonprofit source of news and media education in southern Vermont.    

Video: Homeless Tonight

Words & music by Mimi Yahn ©2008
Sung by Mimi Yahn, from the CD "Enemy of the State"


  1. As much as I'm sympathetic to the needs of the poor in America, I get a little tired of women assuming their lives are so much worse simply because they're women. I've LITERALLY nearly starved because the system of public assistance FAVORS women; good luck getting anything if you're a single man. In this age of feminism, men are STILL expected to work to support themselves, and don't get ANY sympathy when we don't. I was on food stamps once, when they were actual stamps, and EVERYBODY at the store could see it. I experienced the ugly stares and threats; my anxiety over food was replaced by the anxiety of being assaulted in the parking lot of the grocery store! Try living with that! I'm not saying that being a poor womam is easy, just that it's no better for us!

  2. 'Why do I need food stamps? Why has poverty been a lifelong disruptor of my dreams and achievements? Because I was born a female.'

    Really? For the past 50 plus years females have enjoyed special treatment giving you priority for jobs, education, government loans, mortgages, credit, health care, courts, promotion, military service and many other places in our society and you are complaining? Of course if you are a minority you have enjoyed even more priorities. If anyone has a right to complain it is the white male who has been discriminated against for the past fifty years and it still continues today.

  3. Typical liberal, EVERYTHING is someone else's fault. You know snowflake, you're not the only one in life that got dealt a short hand. Some of us sucked it up, studied, worked like a dog, sacrificed and saved to get ahead. I hate excuses and folks like you are a cancer to success. Merry Christmas.

  4. chuck gregory12/22/16, 1:00 PM

    As a single parent, I lived the life 95% of men in America only talk about. When Vermont passed the toughest parental support bill in America, a group of non-custodial fathers started a support group. I joined too, although I was a 100% custodial father, because I wanted to see what was on the other side of the fence.

    What was on the other side of the fence was a bunch of guys-- with only two exceptions-- RS and TM (now deceased), who wanted to keep things amicable with their ex-wives so that the kids wouldn't be as stressed out as most kids of divorce are. The rest of the group spent their time mostly whining about how their exes were living the high life on child support.

    Now, maternity is only one aspect of womanhood. I spent a quarter of a century working with a lot of other women, mothers or not, and had plenty of opportunity to see how they were taken advantage of in every imaginable situation from relationships to employment. Anybody who thinks women today have the same advantages as men doesn't know the score.

    As then-lawyer Jeannie Kiewel told the men's group when they complained about the existence of the Governor's Commission on Women, "The whole system is the Governor's Commission on Men."

    1. Chuck, you should have a sex change operation so you can really feel their pain. Liberal bleeding hearts like you are why our nation is in huge trouble. Denying the truth that white males have been actively discriminated against their whole adult lives is typical liberal nonsense. The thanks we got for being the most downtrodden now is the new liberal label citing white privilege as a reason to continue the discrimination. Most white males sucked it up and went through life without crying "Boo hoo, woe is me". I suggest the rest of you clowns get with the program, stop sniveling and blaming us for your own failures.

    2. At the risk of some personal embarassment, I'll tell you the story of my sister. At 17, she moved out of my parent's house, got pregnant, and got on welfare. She DID marry the guy who knocked her up, but he died of AIDS shooting heroin with the dirty needle she gave him. So, she started collecting Social Security Survivors Benefits on top of the AFDC, food stamps and Section 8 she was already getting. This wasn't enough to afford the sports car, expensive clothes, and her cocaine habit, so she started selling coke to pay for it. ALL THE WHILE COMPLAINING OF HOW HARD IT WAS TO BE A SINGLE MOTHER! (Her daughter is now 33, has two kids of her own, and has been on welfare since the day she was born.) My sisted just divorced her second husband (of 23 years) because "they didn't go out to the clubs enough," and is AGAIN ON WELFARE, and now collecting alimony! She's still drunk and stoned, driving a brand new car, living in a house her ex (a postal worker) paid for, AND STILL COMPLAINS ABOUT HOW HARD HER LIFE IS! WTF!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    3. Unfortunately all of the special treatments of the last 50 years for females created a welfare state for many instead of giving them a boost as these special favors were intended. The same thing has happened to many of the minorities that also have enjoyed a favored status. They now feel they are entitled to keep discriminating against white males while they rob them of their entitlement to fair and equal treatment. This experiment has failed miserably at the expense of white males. It has created a welfare state that has entrapped its beneficiaries instead of creating independence. Springfield is a prime example of how a system of welfare will eventually destroy society.

    4. I told this story to highlight one of the more extreme examples of welfare abuse. The aforementioned individuals DO see themselves as victims, and DO believe it is owed to them. Sadly, I have seen the EXACT same attitude from conservative business people, especially the Evangelicals. They believe that they are God's chosen few, and have a RIGHT to rule the world, and EVERYONE IN IT. The world is already theirs, and everything we have is a gift from them, including our paychecks! NOW THAT'S A SENSE OF ENTITLEMENT! What we have here in America today, are two groups of equally greedy, lazy, self-rightious individuals, competing with each other for domination. And who pays for it all? The people who worked, and invested in the system, expecting to benefit from that system. Simply put, the far right would work us to death and pay us nothing, the far left would work us to death, and live off of our taxes. It is long past time those of us who did the working, and the paying, to stand up and DEMAND that we be treated better, BY BOTH SIDES.

  5. 63 years ago I was born female too. My father died when I was 9. My mother raised my brothers and I alone on SSI and a part time job. I went to college on grants and loans. I worked as a nurse for over 30 years. I was a single mother of a son and I helped him through college. All this time I saved money in IRAs and 401k. I'm retired now and living comfortably. Yes, life can be tough on all of us. However, it is how we respond to those challenges that makes us who we are.

  6. What a winner. She is on food stamps because she won't get a job. Plenty of places that you can work your way up instead of having me buy YOUR food.

  7. Philip Caron12/23/16, 10:33 AM

    While I agree with some other posters that entitlement based on minority status instead of on merit is a distortion that causes more problems than it fixes, one cannot extend that to claim minorities are not still being treated badly in many contexts and situations. Racism, for example, is still a powerful negative force in this country, and it's not clear that law can correct that. Nor is prejudice only the province of white men; it's common to people in general. It's too bad individuals, on a case-by-case basis, won't choose to treat each other fairly regardless of race, gender, afterlife beliefs, and bedroom antics.

    1. Not to be too critical, but women are not minorites, they make up 52% of the population. White men are actually a minority. My biggest objection is not that women and minorities recieve govt. benefits; I actually believe in the social safety net. What infuriates me is that radical feminists like Mimi blame white men as a whole for EVERYTHING as a whole, and REFUSE to acknowlege that most white men get up, every day, and work REALLY CRAPPY JOBS, in order to support themselves and their families. If you have more traditional values, they will call you a mysoginist, a homophobe, Nazi scum, (as I was called by a radical feminist COLLEGE PROFESSOR I once had, NO KIDDING!) and many other things, just for politely disagreeing with them. This from the people who claim a love for tolerance and diversity. My extensive personal and professional experience with people like her has been universally bad; unless you cowtow to them and give them everything they want, you will be viciously attacked. To Mimi and her kind I say: Enough of the guilt trip already; I'm not the one who screwed you, and if you want anything from me, you'd damn well better ask nicely!

  8. chuck gregory12/23/16, 12:20 PM

    This is life, guys. You can spend it being just another crab in a basket, pulling down everybody who tries to break out, miserable yourself and hating those who are worse off than you are.

    Or you can accept that sooner or later you're going to die and decide what really is going to make your few hours on Earth worthwhile.

    Are you going to be satisfied with giving the finger to people whose lives are already worse than your own, or are you ready to show Death you made life worthwhile (if only for a brief time) for His future victims?

    And Merry Xmas to you.

    1. Crabs in a basket, Chuck? Really? They're being pulled down by people like you who rationalize their self-pity, and justify their sense of entitlement! YOU'RE THE KING CRAB! I rose up THROUGH their ranks; it took nearly all I had to keep THEM from pulling ME under! THAT'S an example of the "crabs in a basket analogy!" You should stay away from sociology, Chuck; you're not good at it, and I have a college degree in it!


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