Friday, September 28, 2007

Bad Bitch

I love the work I do even if I do not always love my job. If it were all enjoyable and rewarding they wouldn’t have to pay you for doing it. As Director of Housing Services for a non-profit housing counseling agency, I have had a role in helping 685 people become homeowners. Most of these people were low income. The majority was African-American. Many were moving out of public housing. Many of them were single mothers. Most of them were the first in their family to ever achieve homeownership. Many of them had only worked sporadically until the advent of Welfare Reform.

These clients of mine attend a year-long program called Homebuyers Club. A Homebuyers Club is more than just a series of meetings teaching the fundamentals of purchasing a home. A meeting of a Homebuyers Club often resembles a revival meeting or AA meeting. Clients share their setbacks, their challenges, and celebrate their successes. Clients learn improved money-management skills and they learn how to repair and maintain their credit. They learn how to avoid being victims of unscrupulous people who prey on the financially less sophisticated. They open checking accounts and stop using check-cashing services. They learn that to get ahead you must learn delayed gratification. They budget and save money. Some of them work with us for three or four years before they are ready to purchase a home. They have to not only change their circumstances but also change their way of thinking and change their values.

These clients, when they purchase a home, do not get the exploding ARMs and sub prime loans one hears so much about, but get FHA fixed-rate loans. Most of them take advantage of down payment assistance programs such as the American Dream Down payment Assistance (ADDI) program or other assistance programs. The thing that contributes more to their success than the down payment assistance is that we help them believe that the American Dream is possible.

For most low-income people, homeownership is the key to building wealth and giving their children a better life than they had. Homeownership creates a sense of self-esteem in a person. It makes them more invested in their community. Studies show that in a comparison of renters to homeowners, holding the variable of income fixed, that children of homeowners have fewer pre-marital pregnancies, commit less crime and do better in school.

Unfortunately, not everyone who expresses an interest in our program makes it to home ownership. Many inquire but never follow through. Other try but drop out. Even those who drop out however may benefit. They may learn how to repair and protect their credit rating. They may benefit by leaning why a “whole life” insurance policy is not as good as a “term” policy. They may learn that an income tax “rapid refund” is a rip-off. So, even those who do not become homeowners may benefit from being in the program. Also, one never knows what seed may be planted that germinates years later. But you know that many other who you encounter don’t “get it”. They cannot be convinced they there is any reason to try to improve their life.

Last Saturday, I went to an event at a public housing project where we offered the clients a service we call a “Front Door”. This is a one-on-one counseling session where we review the client’s income, debt, and credit and if they chose to pursue homeownership we help them develop an “action plan”. One of my clients on Saturday was a young black girl in her early-twenties. She was the mother of three children, by three different fathers and was not receiving child support. Two of the fathers were incarcerated and one she did not where he was. She worked at a job that barely paid above minimum wage. She had never graduated from high school and did not have a GED.

She was wearing a low-cut V-neck dress. I can’t help myself; when a woman is showing cleavage, I look. Tattooed across her chest were the words “Bad Bitch”. I could not see the first “B” or the “h” but could read the words.

I wondered what would cause a young girl to so brand herself? Is it the total sense of helplessness? Is it the hip-hop culture? Was it done in a drug-induced state? Does it make her more attractive to men in her social circle? Did she ever have anyone in her life that said to her, “that is not a good idea”?

I had to tell her that her chance of achieving homeownership was very slim in her current financial circumstances. Her income was too low to qualify for even the most generous assistance programs. I suggested she join a companion program to our Homebuyers Club, called “Financial Fitness” where she could learn some improved money-management skills. I told her we offer the GED classes at our center and that if she would get her GED, she could find a better paying job and make more money, and then pursue homeownership. She said she would think about it.

There are plenty or resources to help a young lady like this. Our programs are not operating at capacity. We never have to turn anyone away. There are programs that help people get their GED, there are job-training programs, there are programs that teach grooming and “Dress of Success”. There is no shortage of programs offering support. But how do you reach people and make them believe that there is a better way to live?

Welfare reform has been a great success in ending the welfare enslavement of many Black Americans, but we need to do more. We should not be content that millions of Americans are trapped in despair and poverty. No young girl should grow up and assume that it is the norm to be an unwed mother who drops out of school by age sixteen. No young man should have to assume he will be in prison or dead by the time he is twenty.

How can they be made to believe that there can be a better way to live? I don’t know. I wish I did. But we should not give up. We need bold programs; not programs that make people dependent on a government handout, but programs that break the cycle of poverty. Perhaps we should pay a girl $5000 if she graduates from high school and is not an unwed mother. Maybe we should pay a young boy $5000 if he can graduate from high school and has never been arrested or gotten a girl pregnant. In the short run, it may cost more to help people break the bonds of poverty than to subsidize their poverty, but I think we should do it.

I will probably never hear from Bad Bitch.

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  1. Excellent commentary... a real shame that so few take the time to read it. Thanks for the invitation.

    I was in the USAF when they chose to integrate the services and as the base Classification and Assignment NCOIC, it became my task - and my joy, to work with the seven black non-coms who led the way on our base. It went without a hitch and the relationships we were encouraged to develop served to help the younger guys who would follow.

    I will never forget the first words of a Colonel who met with us to set the stage for our involvement. "I was priviledged to be born a white man...." and it echoed in our minds as we went out of our way to make certain our black brothers found comfort in their new assignments.

    Five of those guys remained my friends, long after I had left the service and I have had the additional priviledge to get to know much of their heritage, most of which is etched deep within my soul.

    I thought of this as I read of your encounter with the "black bitch" and I often wonder as to how many of us "white folks" have ever taken time to consider the heritage of our black neighbors. I know it was not easy for you to comprehend the act, but it would be even more difficult to grasp the collective pain that allowed her to etch such words on her body. It was not just her plight to have these words displayed, but it also reflected the consciousness of the black community as a whole. Yes, we have made many advancements in our efforts to bridge the "racial gap" but the scars of slavery and worse, the abuse heaped upon the "freed slaves", remains in the minds of many who are still confined to our ghettos.

    Sadly, too many of us - on the other side, think we have done everything we could to help them acheive economic equality - and "we" have certainly tried, but much more needs to be done to bring about change in our acceptance of people who readily appear to be - different.

    Proof of this rages - unabated on the streets, even to this very hour, in the racial attitudes we have demonstrated towards the so-called "illegal immigrants" in our midst. Yes, they violated the law in coming here, but at the core of our collective psyche, we resent them because they are - different.

    Helping the "tattoo'd lady" ought to be our responsibility, but at the heart of the matter, are those without the "courage" to brand themselves. And it is never going to be accomplished until we take hold of the thought behind those words I heard so many years ago, "I was priviledged to be born a white man...."

    Sherwood MacRae
    Cookeville, TN

  2. You may be insterested in the idea of "Care not Cash." In order to fight homelessness in San Francisco, the city (run almost exclusively by progressive dems such as myself) decided to provide homeless persons with care instead of handing out cash. For example, a person would receive a warm meal but not a $20 check - which he/she would most likely use to get intoxicated.

    A similar solution is needed for those at the bottom end of the economic starata.

    First, we must do as much as we can to level the playing field (everyone is entitled to the best educated & health care).

    Second, we must make sure that poor people are knowledgable of the programs available to them (how can they get their GED, where, etc...)

    Third, we must make sure that the people do not sabotage themselves. Paying teenage kids to finish high school may not to be such an outlandish idea. It's just crazy enough that it might work.