Thursday, September 26, 2013

Using dollars to make sense

Because I was an American Teen Parent I lived my life out of sync with a majority of Americans my age. I gave birth to my son at 15 before I was married at 21; I went to college at 28 not 18; I chose a career at age 40, not 20; and now, I am retiring at age 55 instead of age 65. All of these milestones are markers of "progress" to those of us born and raised in the United States (US). I won't go into my lecture on the multicultural reality of the US, but if I line my milestones up against the milestones of a “typical” American female of my age, socio-economic group and ethnicity, I look like a real slow learner.

Teen parents are often characterized as intellectually slow, as well as, promiscuous, misdirected, troubled, erratic, irrational, and unable to see or understand "the big picture" or the consequences of our actions. I have to grant validity to that last one. Much work has been done on mapping emotional maturation as it links to chemical changes our brains make at certain points in our chronological aging process (see anything written by Antonio Demasio). In hindsight, I can truly say that I never saw it coming; the chaos my pregnancy caused my family. That could be attributed to a lack of maturity and/or foresight, but it could also be linked to the fact that my family life was already pretty chaotic. Maybe I just saw more of the same.

So, how do I make dollars make sense of my lack of synchronicity with the majority? I don’t. Well, I don’t anymore. Until well into my 30’s I was running full tilt to reach the crest of Life’s Bell Curve. I wanted so badly to be typical that all of my decisions were directed toward that goal. I worked my tail end off thinking that making a certain amount of money each year would catapult me over the out-of-sync years. As you have gleaned from previous posts, that did not happen. When I finally had the job that provided the salary that I “knew” would close my social growth gap, guess what? It didn’t. Thanks to great genes, I had the appearance of being typical but my journey through life up to that point was still very different, if no longer completely out of sync, from my contemporaries.

Because I am a nerd and an English teacher, and because I think of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as a box of Legos made out of words, I looked up the word “sense” to make sure it was the word that would most accurately convey my thinking. The word itself comes from old French and Latin words that indicate the ability to both perceive and feel something. I found this wonderfully synchronous because I am devoting the next 20 years or so to understanding, how these two words work in Teacher Preparation Programs at American colleges and universities. So, the fine line that separates the two fascinates me.

Perceive and feel describe very different activities in the brain. Both are activated, set into motion, in response to the world around us, how we see (or not), hear (or not), touch (or not), taste (or not), and smell (or not, which research is now telling us is more closely related to taste than many of us were aware, so I am not sure where we stand on naming taste as one of the five senses. It may get booted off the list before I finish writing this post just as Pluto just one day stopped being a planet). My thinking is that the ways in which we make sense out of all of the information the world and her inhabitants have to offer is directly linked to the kind of world within which we live. Simply put, dollars influence the kind of world that surrounds us and defines the stimuli available to us. Please go back to my first posting wherein I provide statistical data regarding the ages and socio-economic status of teen parents in America, for data supporting this statement. Or, you can go to South Philly and ask them if North Philly is in the same world.

My dollars brought me St.Anne's Maternity Hospital for Unwed Mothers in Southeast Los Angeles, in the early 1970's. Or rather, the state of California's dollars brought me to Los Angeles on a hot, uncharacteristically sticky, spring day in May, where the state paid for my upkeep until I birthed the baby I would give to the state for adoption, but I broke the contract.

My son was about a month old when I received the bill for the cost of the two months I had spent in St. Anne’s. This was quite a shock. Government representatives and the nuns at St. Anne’s had assured me that I would never be coerced into giving my baby away. Even if it was the “right” thing to do and would be in the best interest of all concerned. A month or so after I made the decision to keep my baby, I was informed by letter that because I had not held up my end of the bargain. I had to repay the dollars spent for my upkeep while at St Anne’s. I called this payment, due on a monthly basis, "repo money." When my son's colic was about to kill me from lack of sleep, fear, anxiety and just plain irritation, I would coo softly to him, "If you don't stop crying I am not going to make your repo payment this month." I always made the payment. For the state of California, it made sense to invest in my baby, but not in me.

I took a little look-see at what made sense for the state of California at the beginning of the most recent economic crisis. I found that Medicare B coverage was discontinued altogether, so it seems that taking care of the elderly did not make sense to the State of California, but the "Department of Social Services [saw just a] decrease of $9.9 million resulting from the federally approved extension of enhanced funding for the Foster Care and Adoption Assistance programs” (p.21). It seems that supporting the source from which future generations spring made sense not only the State of California but to the federal government, as well. Spending their (our) dollars made sense to them because the elderly were no longer viable producers of future generations (at least the women weren’t) but the majority of non-white babies being produced could be repurposed into financially, if not ethnically, viable middle and upper middle class citizens. This last sentence calls in all sorts of arguments that I cannot entertain here, but please feel free to post a response and we can continue this discussion, there.

Back to making dollars make sense in my asynchronous world; as a teen parent, I often shopped at stores that used my dollars to support activities I, personally did not support. I was always curious about what certain companies did with all that money and one day I just made a list of the 3 or 4 companies I could not avoid using like Gas stations and Electric companies; grocery stores and pharmacies, and clothing stores. Bearing in mind that this was back in the plastic age before common folk had computers, I spent a day in the public library looking at old newspapers to see if there were any articles naming these companies as supporters of things like handgun sales, chemical warfare, or deforestation. At 17 these were ideas were words I could recognize by sight but concepts that I knew very little about, so as I researched the companies, I learned a lot about those particular issues. Also, at the same time, my son was having a blast with the Children’s Librarian who was doing some kind of puppet show.

It was at that point that I came to understand that not only did I need to earn that golden salary but also I had to learn where to spend it. In the meanwhile I became as socially and environmentally conscious as my meager welfare or crappy job checks allowed.

As teen parents we frequently shop at stores that are not interested in or share our values. I wanted to use my dollars, or in some cases the State’s dollars (tax payers’ dollars) to not only improve my own standard of living but to help bring about a shift in global thinking. Was this the crusade of one lone and very poor voice? No. It is my opinion that people who have lived their lives out of sync with the norm; people whose values may be very different than what they think their dollar can currently provide them; people who made different choices and in so doing created "family values" that include families of teen parents who love and support their sibling, son, daughter, cousin, or aunt, who lived her life out-of-sync with the typical, those people must use their dollars to make sense out of their worlds. They do not have to be my values, but they should be the values that they believe will support them in the present and their children in the future, and maybe lend a hand to Grandma who’s Medicare B got cut.

I had forgotten about my early efforts at financial environmentalism until about a week ago when I stumbled upon a website called The Grommet. This website is built on the idea of putting your dollars where your values are. I am quoting now from the "Learn More" page on The Grommet website. They write, "Citizen Commerce is about using our collective power to buy products from companies that reflect our values." I so get this.

The state of California has spent billions of dollars housing and feeding women and girls whose babies could go into typical middle/upper middle class homes, not because the state was worried that the child might be raised in poverty but because typical people with typical mainstream values have a greater likelihood of raising children who live their lives “in sync” with those typical middle to upper middle class values. They tend to graduate high school and go to college before getting married and having babies. There are always exceptions. When people like me, teen parents from economically challenged backgrounds or atypical families, provide typical folks with babies to raise as typical people, theoretically, more typical mainstream citizens result. The State of California invests its money in humans who, ideally, will guarantee that there will be a next generation of middle/upper middle class families who will own the state's businesses and vote for the state's leaders.

Teen parents are a risky investment being all promiscuous and misguided and all (this is sarcasm), but our children are not. The way I see it, if Teen Parents become more aware of how and where they spend their money, or the State’s money, the more knowledgeable they become. Knowledge, as every After School Special tells us, is power. The more powerful they become the more say they have over their own lives and the lives of their children. Make no mistake this works the other way round. If Teen Parents are giving their money to drug dealers and liquor stores they are also using their dollars to support their own values, but it so much harder to make sense out of dollars when you are high. That is a lesson for parents of any age.