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The Luxury of Dignity

There is dignity in work.

Despite the popular narrative, most people desire employment that puts to good use their God-given abilities, skills, and talents and allows them to leverage labor for wages to buy food, pay rent, and provide the basics for their families.

For sure there are those who prefer to reap the benefits earned by others, but our experience has been that those are the minority, not the majority. What is true is that desire and necessity are rarely compatible in Orange Mound.

Even after living lives saturated with profound hardships and disappointments, the women at My Cup of Tea still dream. They dream of owning a business, building a house, providing a college education to their children, or having a real, out-of-town vacation. Realizing those dreams requires resources – connections, training, and, of course, money. They desire these things and to earn the wages to have them. But necessity has something to say about it.

One of the ladies was involved in a car accident last year. For the record, she wasn’t at fault. The tenuously operating vehicle was her lifeline to work and her special needs granddaughter’s school. Thankfully, she wasn’t injured, but the car was totaled. The insurance paid her a paltry sum for the late model, high mileage transport. While not enough to purchase another dubious automobile, the payment was enough to reduce the amount of SNAP (food stamps) she receives. Now, she is faced with the decision to work less so she can adequately feed her family.

In another, more recent incident, one of our employees received a letter stating that the government could not pay her disability benefits for a previous six-month period, because her income from working during those months exceeded the government’s arbitrary threshold. Since the benefits have been paid, she may now owe the government. This employee has a legitimate disability that has been diagnosed by medical professionals on multiple occasions. She cannot sit for long periods, must have frequent breaks, and functions daily with substantial chronic pain. To keep her monthly benefits from a system she paid into throughout much of her life, she is only allowed to make $1260 per month. That’s $15,120 annually. Anything above this amount, the government calls “Substantial Gainful Activity.”

This is where necessity decks desire.

There is no intent to make a political statement. It is simply fact that the sincerest efforts by the My Cup of Tea women, and others like them, to be self-sustaining are stifled by policies birthed out of fear that someone might cheat or get more than we think they deserve. The predictable result is that working poor are caught between the “rock” of necessity and the “hard place” of desire never really getting ahead.

What is left for us to do at My Cup of Tea is to continue to stand in the gap and use our volunteers’ connections, mercy, and grace to tackle the gigantic inequities our Sisters confront daily. We must continue to pay a living wage and strive to increase tea sales. If we can do that, we can achieve the audacious goal of offering full-time work to those who want it. Full-time hours at fair pay opens the door to safe housing, reliable transportation, and quality childcare.

Until policy and opportunity combine for the benefit of people, like the women at My Cup of Tea, dignity will remain a luxury for the working poor.