Erin Stillson - Raise Up

Blog post by Erin Stillson - a member of Rights & Democracy VT, a new resident of Richmond, VT a mother of two and a tireless activist for social justice.

To explain why I support the Rights And Democracy movement is best done by explaining why the issues are important to me.

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I had been raised in a restrictive religion, which sheltered me greatly and taught me to be afraid of the world around me. I became aware that I was wasting my life and one day I packed a duffel bag and left home.

I moved to a nearby city for about a year but realized this was still playing it safe, so when I was given an option to transfer to New York City I took it.  After weeks of feeling sick and always tired, I found out I was pregnant. I worked on %100 commission, so not being able to converse intelligently with someone meant I couldn’t sell anything.  I didn’t have any money, even though I was working sometimes 90 hours a week. I savored a box of saltines once a week, and would scrape pennies together for an apple almost every day. After weeks making only a few dollars a day, I had not been able to pay rent, and was living on the goodwill of my landlord. I was so tired I would fall asleep at stop signs, and accepted it was no longer safe to drive, so let one of my friends use my car until I could drive again… the engine seized on the highway within three weeks.  This was about the time I was told to leave my housing, and I ended up homeless without a car and pregnant.  I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to find a place to live before my child was born.

I looked for a job, but looked very pregnant at six months along, and I saw the many faces fall when they looked at my swollen belly and told me they weren’t hiring.  We tried to save money on the $240 my boyfriend was making a week but it was very difficult and slow going.  I was having trouble getting medical assistance, DHHS told me I could only receive assistance if I checked into a shelter, which seemed ridiculous. Finally he got a better job, and it was exciting to be able to afford things like food and heat, and I eagerly opened bills for the satisfaction of paying them. We were approved for credit cards and I kept a few on hand in case of emergencies.  The security I had thought I was building for my daughter was an illusion, something I found out when I unraveled a story about the credit card bill I received in the mail.  He had maxed out the credit cards at work and grabbed cash from the drawers, which I found out was being used to fund the cocaine and alcohol addiction I didn’t know existed.  He claimed he didn’t do it, but he quit the job that day.  I knew I couldn’t trust him, but wanted to get a job I could support our child on my own before I left him.  I got a part time job working at a pre-school so I could send my daughter for free, $200 a week wasn’t a lot, but I slowly started putting aside my money in an account he didn’t know about. One night there was a knock on the door, and the man standing there told me he was there to repossess my car. Instead of paying that bill he had spent the money. I went to my bank a few days later to check my separate account to find it was nearly empty. He had found my debit card and spent almost all of the money I had saved.

When I realized that he was more of a liability than help,  I found a 1 bedroom with a loft in Nashua for $550 a month, I knew it was the best offer I was going to get, even though it was almost 3/4 of my income.  I took the apartment and moved in, Lilli and I had our first taste of freedom.  Buying food was a weekly concern, so I applied for food assistance and was able to get it.  Within a few months the food stamps were terminated without warning, and I had to reapply.  This process repeated every few months, and because of the processing time would mean weeks of no assistance at all until the paperwork would clear again.  Having very little money coming in and no child support, paying for groceries became impossible if I was going to keep up with my other bills.  The electric and heating bill was through the roof, and when I asked for a payment plan they said the bills were too high at that point, it was all or nothing.  I applied for fuel assistance but the deadline had passed. Within a few weeks we had no hot water, heat or electricity.  Life became primitive, with daily expenses even greater because I wasn’t able to cook. I was working 3 jobs to make my way out of debt but no matter how I tried it never seemed enough to dig myself out of the hole I had landed myself in.  One day my daughter got sick and unable to go to school, so I called work to ask if I could have the day off because she was sick.  They told me “you can, but you know we are cutting back, and I can’t guarantee you will have a job to come to tomorrow if you call out tonight.” I called her father to ask for help, explaining I would lose my job if I didn’t go, but he told me I was on my own.  Needless to say, I stayed home with my daughter and lost my job the next week. I  was unable to pay rent that month, my living situation was now hanging on the brink of nonexistence, once again. I put all my things in storage and moved out.

This  is a fairly typical story of an adventurous optimist who had the best of intentions, never shied away from hard work, and struggled for 10 years just to provide a living for her family.  There were many more years of struggling on minimum wage, with the constant threat of job loss for a sick day, wishing I had the luxury of living paycheck to paycheck,  I couldn’t buy what I needed for the week on what I made, but none more hopeless then these years mentioned. If I had been paid a living wage or been allowed a sick day, it might have been enough to save myself years of humiliation and debt, saved my debtors thousands in unpaid services, and certainly saved the state the time and money they used to assist me with food stamps for so many years off and on.  The message that is sent to someone who works hard but is still not able to provide for her child, is that she does not deserve it.  It is humiliating to ask for help and admit you are not capable of providing a basic human need for your own child. A common feeling about financial assistance is that ‘we should not be giving handouts…  that giving someone something they need to survive will only perpetuate a system of dependence, and these people need to pull themselves up and figure it out on their own.’  Yet, if hard work was all that it took to be self-sufficient, there would be hardly anyone who did need the assistance in the first place.  The wages that people are expected to ‘pull themselves up’ on are unrealistic and completely disproportionate to the actual cost of living today.

A single mother is not given any extra support in the likely event that her child gets sick, she will need either affordable and safe childcare or an excused and paid sick day.  Instead, she is left to fend for herself, with no responsibility on the father to miss work to help with childcare, and threatened with job loss for caring for her child.  I took great effort to do it all for myself, and pride in the ability to do so when I could.  I made a series of decisions that led me to this eventuality, so I created my own problems, had I chosen different paths, I might have done a lot better for myself.  However, if hard work resulted in equal and fair pay or if I were able to take a sick day without losing my job, I would have not gotten behind and overwhelmed those responsibilities.  Very few would ask for help if they were able to provide on their own, with the pride they are entitled to and to suggest otherwise is narrow-minded and cruel.  The system, as it stands, is rigged to have the lowest class struggle and fail.  Once you lose your footing, you are dragged into the undertow, and just when you think you’ve reached the surface of the water to catch your breath, on comes another wave to pull and push you back down again. If we had a living wage of $15 an hour,  paying bills and buying food wouldn’t be a luxury, it would be a given.

This is why we need to Raise up; It’s not just for single mothers and fathers and poor families trying to provide for their children, but for the pride of our country as a whole.  Nelson Mandela once said “A Nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but it’s lowest ones”  What pride is there to be had in our country if we aid the top %1 but step on the throats of the millions living in poverty?  The government has no incentive to cut off their corporate funneled greed if we do not demand justice.  When we have been beat down by the system for so long, we forget that we are not alone, and we can have a voice that makes a difference. If we raise together,  we leave no one standing alone.

To join the movement, got to http://www.radvt.org/raise_up_vt

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