Columns 2006

My personal war on poverty

I like to think of myself as a normally upbeat person.  Every time I say this to anyone who knows me, I am greeted by hysterical laughter followed by the words, “Oh, I’m sorry. You were serious, weren’t you?”

I say there is ample reason in this life to occasionally be less than upbeat about the ways of the world.  I’m not referring to the war in Iraq, the war on terror, the war on drugs or the war on family values.  I’m referring to a war much closer to my heart – my daily war on poverty in my life.

There are some who would say that if I didn’t feel personally responsible for supporting every animal charity that sends me a postcard, I’d be better off financially. They might have a point.  But it’s not one I’m willing to immediately concede. Rather, I’d like to place the blame for my constant battle with poverty squarely where it belongs – on a society with extremely odd values.

A lovely young lady I know told me recently that she was thinking of taking a job holding up the signs at construction sites that say, “Stop” and “Slow”.  She was going to take it, even though it was not nearly as appealing as her current job, because it paid $34 per hour. If this is true, that is one dollar per hour less than the state pays me to work with abused children.  And I have no such thing as overtime or holiday pay.  Considering the amount of road construction going on around town, I’m going to venture a wild guess and say that I think both are probably available to sign holders.

Now before the sign holders in town get mad at me and hold up the stop sign for 30 minutes at a stretch in my direction, let me just say that I do not begrudge them a penny of that money.  Standing in traffic all day inhaling fumes and swatting at mosquitoes can only be fun for so long before it starts seeming tedious.  And I’ve noticed more than one driver who is less than courteous to these workers, often zooming up to within an inch of them or acting disgruntled as though the sign holder had some power to make all the traffic hold ups magically go away.

So I’m sure these men and women earn their pay.  The thing is, so do I.  And in placing relative value on various types of work, wouldn’t we wish that society would value work with abused and neglected children just a tad higher than the money made by people holding signs at road construction sites?

To add insult to injury, the state requires contract GAL’s (my official title) to bill them in six minutes increments.  Yes, you heard right. I have to divide the hour into six-minute segments and try to figure out if the hearing lasted 36 or 42 minutes for billing purposes.  When you consider yourself a professional that can feel just a tad bit demeaning.  And that rate hasn’t risen in the six years I’ve been actually billing the state for my work.  Prior to that, I did it as community service since the North Slope Borough, my employer at the time, thought their kids were important enough to cover me when I was working with them even though my job was Public Information Officer.

So why, you ask, would anyone in their right mind do this kind of work instead of standing out in the sunshine, inhaling those heady gasoline fumes for about the same money with no paperwork worries and no kids calling at 10 PM because they are feeling suicidal and want to talk to you? I wish I had a good answer for that.  I know all the pat answers about how the work itself is rewarding, the kids need us, we’re all slightly demented…oops, scratch that last one.

I think probably we do it because it needs to be done and the kids deserve caring, competent people doing it.  After all, it’s not as though they wanted to be born into dysfunctional families or that given a choice they would be spending their teen years in kiddie jail.  But circumstances and bad choices got them there and society needs to help them as best we can so that they at least have a chance at a productive life.

Choosing writing and children’s work as my careers is probably not the usual formula for riches in this world. So I will continue my personal war on poverty in my home while knowing that if the work I do helps some kid down their road of life, it’s probably all worth while.  On the other hand, while it may be true that money doesn’t buy happiness, it certainly can’t help but make the search more comfortable.