I am the daughter of a single mother, a mother who raised me and my sister with the help of food stamps, visits to the local food pantry and government-subsidized housing. I’m the daughter, that is, of the sort of mother now at the center of a burgeoning national debate about universal basic income. Does such a mother — and it is almost always a question of mothers — deserve, say, $1,000 a month from the government or candidate Andrew Yang, no strings attached? Can we trust her with such a sum? Won’t she just use it to buy cigarettes and vodka?
It’s true my mother might have bought a few cigarettes — though she rarely drank, she did smoke. What I remember most though is watching her scratch figures on a back page of her calendar, playing that month’s cat-and-mouse game of paying the bills. As a teenager, I didn’t know the details of our financial situation, but I knew it wasn’t good. It had never been good. Toward the end of every month, my mother never failed to say, “I’m broke.”
She’d been born a farm girl and throughout her life retained a solid, Midwestern work ethic, even if farm chores didn’t exactly thrill her. Her younger brother was the one who got sent to college, while she had to make do with high school. At 18, she married my dad: a nice Catholic boy who turned out to be an abusive drunk.
Giving birth to me gave her the courage to finally divorce him, after which she struggled through seven years of making ends meet only to get pregnant again. Another mouth to feed actually meant hope for a while: She went back to school, got a two-year degree in accounting. When the economy went sour, however, even her new degree couldn’t keep her from getting laid off.
If you’re wondering whether $1,000 more a month (approximately $450 in 1987, when I was in high school) would have made an appreciable difference in our lives, I can tell you the answer is yes. Why? Because after years of trying and failing to get ahead, my scrupulously honest mother did something I’m sure she never thought she’d do: took a job working for cash in a blue-collar tavern owned by an old friend, income she didn’t report to the unemployment office.
Mom had done the math; she knew the calculus. There was no other way at that point she could do more than just get by. No other way to stop saying, “I’m broke.” I seem to recall she made about $60 a shift bartending, something she usually did on Sundays. Until the Sunday two men came into the bar, stole what money there was in the register and strangled her to death.
The irony of my mother’s murder was that it accomplished what she could not: First, it pulled my sister and me firmly into the middle class. We went to live with our uncle and his family, the younger brother who’d gone to college and had a good-earning job. Second, and more important, after my mother’s mother, our grandmother from the farm, died, we each got half of a modest inheritance.
I graduated from college — as my mother had been determined I would — yet more than my education, the thing that helped me escape the poverty that might otherwise have been my destiny was that inheritance, her inheritance. It was the money. That money helped pay for school (I never had a student loan), freed me to study abroad (learning French made writing my first book possible) and made the down payments on my first several houses. A little money can make a big difference.
I understand the fear that poor people will abuse anything given to them. Or the feeling that they shouldn’t be given things, and the corollary to that, that they don’t deserve much. That they are somehow to blame for their impossible situations. I might think that way too had I not lived it. Had I not grown up watching my mother and the many, too many, other mothers that filled our apartment complex fighting just to give themselves and their kids some place decent and safe to live, to put food on the table. Fighting, that is, to get out.
My mother didn’t make it. But with a little trust — and with some money — maybe there are others who will.
Kathe Lison, author of “The Whole Fromage,” is at work on a memoir about how renovating an 1880s adobe helped her recover from her mother’s death.