The 47 percent -- how do you measure my life?

  • Article by: ELIZABETH BURNS
  • Updated: September 25, 2012 - 7:10 PM

Dollar amounts and percentage points: Is this what sums us up?

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Today I woke up wondering how much I am worth in dollars.

The government is helping with my medical insurance. When I first got the insurance, the worker said to me, "You had better tell us if you get work with health benefits, because we are paying a thousand dollars a month for you and your daughter. That's a lot of money."

So, with food stamps ($360 a month), my daughter and I are each worth $680 a month. People have car payments higher than that. But, in the eyes of many, my daughter and I are valued at less than automobiles.

Let me introduce myself:

I am a highly educated white female, divorcing, mother of two teenaged girls. I am 53, and have received more than 100 rejections from job applications in the past six months. I have taught at universities and colleges, foundations and corporations all over the country. I am an award-winning writer.

A recent issue of the Economist shows a giant cartoon Obama with a tiny Romney leaning against his back, dressed like Laurel and Hardy, next to the legend "Another fine mess." Text below reveals that articles within focus on: "Big government or small? America's great debate."

Obama's decisions and his tenure are both Big Government and Small Government. They are big because they encompass enough to provide for my daughters and me. They are small because they reach the smallness of my situation -- we are only a speck of a fraction of a population in need -- and touch me in ways that have daily, overpowering impact on the functioning of my family.

I have worked and paid taxes since I was 16, except for the months following the birth of each daughter. In each case, I returned to work part time, while my former husband worked full time. We were middle-class.

Until my eldest was 7, it was imperative that I be able to stay awake at night. A full-time job would have destroyed our family sooner. Someone had to be awake at all hours to take my daughter -- who has profound autism and bipolar disorder -- on car rides in the middle of the night to calm her, to keep her from pulling open the cabinets, unlocking the doors and rocking her rocking chair into windows. Since my ex-husband needed to be at work all day, he could not get up with my daughter at night.

The adage that a society is judged by its ability to care for the most vulnerable stands tested during the current contest for the White House. Presently, Minnesota practices this philosophy, and I practice sincere gratitude: Hennepin County, and the country in which we were born, assist my daughter in living in a safe, staffed and pleasant home with peers sharing similar learning and communication styles.

In a better world, the direct care staff would be paid more than the sales associates at Macy's. I like to think my daughter's life is worth more than protection and overhead for a pair of shoes. I know that the people who work with my daughter are devoted to her. She is now 19.

I suppose I am now part of the famous 47 percent. But how do you measure my life? The life of my daughters? Are we worth more or less than $680 a month?

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Elizabeth Burns is a writer in St. Louis Park.

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