Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Sliding Downward

When you walk into Lindsey's apartment, you smell the Lysol and room freshener. The carpet is steamed on a weekly basis. With the paintings on the wall, flowers on the coffee table and the oversize couch, there is a feeling of home about her place. It is easy to feel comfortable. Her two girls have rooms overflowing with stuff. Their closets are full of new and fashionable clothes. They are six and eight and have been familiar with the dictates of "fashion" for years.

The youngest is J's age and her current best buddy but the oldest adores her as well. J hangs out a a lot at Lindsey's and likewise Lindsey's girls come to my place frequently. J feasts on microwaved hush puppies and frozen pizza and her kids love my freshly cooked Indian style dinners. The contrast between our homes and our lives is glaring to say the least. Mine is minimalist in every way and hers is a study in material excess. Interestingly, the kids (both her and mine) are equally comfortable in both places.

Lindsey used to be social worker and made less that forty thousand a year. She would not be able to support her current lifestyle as a single parent with intermittent child support from her ex with that salary. Yet she lives in the moment like tomorrow does not exist. She has a drinking problem, is not motivated to find work because Medicaid is better than any medical insurance she could get from being employed.

She sems to have worked the math and it tells her it is better to live off her savings and depend on Medicaid and the occasional child support she does get because the cost of full time child care summer camp and all, balanced against employer sponsored insurance and the everything else that would take to support a full time job is just not sustainable on the money she would make from it.

At the going rate, she will come to a point when the savings have been depleted and go into credit card debt. Her lifestyle will need to be downgraded. She may need to move to a town and neighborhood where she could get by with less. The kids will be uprooted and replanted several times, each move involving compromises that they will find hard to make.

Getting to know Lindsey has been a great learning experience for me. She comes from an affluent background but lacks the education to get a job that will allow her to raise two children independently less give them the kind of life she had growing up. I can see how she would not want her daughters to miss out on anything that she had as a child - I do the same for J. It is possibly an universal parental desire to give their kids everything good they had.

I came to America when I became a single parent because I thought society here would be accepting of my condition and J would grow up feeling she was just like any other kid, that her family was not unusual in any way. The absence of a father in her life would never be a sticking point in her social interactions. All of that has happened for me and J.

Yet, for someone like Lindsey who has roots several generations old in this country, there is very little the system offers to ease her life as a single parent. It is as if a society where every other couple is likely to get divorced and turn into a potential single parent, the system turns a blind eye to their financial plight and is geared only to serve the interests of "regular" families with two incomes and a wide support net for themselves and their children.

Sure, she is no social pariah and has a vibrant social life but the threat of crippling poverty and even homelessness is very real. Unless she does something to transform her entire world view, her dependence on drink would only grow in direct proportion to her feeling of hopelessness about her situation.

Being a cultural outsider, I have no compelling need to fit in and I don't even try. I can afford to have a way of life that appears alien to people from her social milieu. It would just be considered an Indian thing at worst and a character quirk at best. Either way it would not stand in the way of my being accepted and being able to socialize.

Lindsey does not have the same luxury. She has to conform to the mores of her society to belong, just like in India I could not decide to live a life that had nothing in common with that of my friends and relatives and still hope they would include me in the fold. If I chose to turn into an outsider, I would be treated as one as well. That would defeat the whole intent and purpose of being in one's comfort zone, in one's home country and culture.

Maybe there are some life changing events that require people to transplant themselves geographically and culturally to be able to survive the aftermath. With her savings, Lindsey could probably move to Mexico and she would be able to live comfortably even with a low paying job. I can definitely picture her in India doing quite well financially.

I wonder if that may be the trend of the future - for people to become nomadic, moving to a country that is more affordable to live in when you no longer have the means to live the life you were used to in your home country. Cultures would confluence at unusual places to result in unexpected outcomes.The world would become everyone's oyster and maybe that is a good thing.

1 comment:

Saintly Sita said...

Hey HC,

Yep. I always thought that it strange that US policy-makers stubbornly continue to believe that they are living in the fifties, with cookie cutter mommies and daddys who have chilled martinis waiting for them at home. Its quite amazing that the US government would continue to cut down on welfare, given the reality of single parent families in the US.
I think its easier to live in India, where the government doesn't even pretend to be concerned about social security programmes.