Monday, June 06, 2011

The Dilemma of Asking For and Accepting Help

I keep thinking about a friend I'll call Edna. Edna is a divorced mother of two. Because she's had to juggle child care, her job history over the past 15 or so years has been rather checkered-- nothing bad has happened, but she's had to stitch together various part time jobs that would allow her to be there for her kids. She'll do pretty much anything, from cleaning out someone's basement to cold-call selling on a commission-only basis to bartending, but many of her jobs have been temporary so she's never had a chance to really establish herself in a career. Her husband has paid child support, but she's just barely made ends meet-- one of the kids is now old enough to have her own part time job, and she made more money last year than Edna did. I learned this fact during a dinner when another friend of Edna's urged her to apply for food stamps, which Edna did not want to do.

The friend's argument was that these government assistance programs exist precisely for people like Edna-- she does her best to find sources of income but is trying to look after her kids without being a burden to anyone. Her income in some years is basically at or below poverty level though there are times when she manages to do better. Shouldn't she accept some help?
But Edna hates to ask for help, which leads us to another fascinating aspect of her situation: Edna's parents are quite wealthy.
They have several other children. Some of those children have been given quite a bit of financial assistance-- particulary the male children: there seems to be just enough of a generational gap that girls were seen as needing only to find a husband, while boys needed education... and cars and clothes and apartments and so on. But although they've occasionally paid Edna to do work for them, they are otherwise very stingy with her. They barely even give gifts to Edna's kids, and when they do, there's often a whiff of goodie-bag re-gifting about it. Edna hates to ask them for anything, and rarely does, but at one point she reluctantly reminded them of an offhand promise they'd once made to chip in when it came time to pay for sending Edna's kids to college-- this time they kind of winced and alluded to money being tight for them... but of course this is in the context of them having two luxurious homes where they do lots of entertaining, and other trappings of an upper-class life.

I'm way over-simplifying the situation here to avoid too many identifying details, not to mention writing a mile-long post, but it's an interesting dilemma, isn't it? Should someone who is not wealthy herself but has a wealthy family turn to government for assistance? Is it the family's obligation to help her first? Some will no doubt say "neither" but what is someone in such a situation supposed to do? Leave her kids unattended? Pay money she doesn't have for day care programs? Edna's ex-husband is a mess, so he's not much help. It's hard to imagine anyone being more responsible and less prima-donna-ish than Edna... but she just can't seem to make all this work on her own.
Within a few years, both of her kids will be in college, and whether or not they get financial aid, that will be another drain on her resources, even if it does free up her time for a full-time job. But she's already been looking, and it's tough-- with the resume of a stay-at-home-mom who's fit odd jobs in around child-rearing, she's not going to be the most attractive job candidate in a climate like today's, where employers can probably be more picky. But she did mention that she will be going on a second interview for a job that pays about $40,000 a year, an amount she referred to as "life-changing."

Interestingly enough, she told me about the potential job while we were both at the home of another friend who has become something of an art collector. As I was listening to Edna, I was looking up at a painting above the fireplace that supposedly cost $50,000. It was such a collision of worlds... and it leads me to one more facet of these kinds of situations among friends:

Whenever Sweetie and I have dinner with Edna, we'll often cook something at home in order to avoid the issue of whether Edna can afford to go out. Sometimes we do end up going out, and sometimes we'll just pick up the check ourselves and tell Edna it's our treat-- but again, Edna has a lot of pride and won't always let us do that. The art collector friend hadn't seen Edna in a long time and invited us all to visit for a weekend in the country. I had thought we'd just be barbequeing, but we went out to dinner one night, and when the check came, we all split it evenly. I guess on one level that's totally fair, and just because one person makes 10 (or 20 or 100) times more than another doesn't mean it's their obligation to pay. But I personally think that if you invite someone to spend the weekend with you, they are your guest for the whole weekend, which means the host should cover the dinner bill, while the guest will hold up their end of the bargain by bringing wine or some sort of gift and offering to chip in for dinner but not arguing too much when the hosts insist that they'll get it. That rule doesn't have to be set in stone-- maybe going out to dinner one night is the thank-you gift to the host/hostess, to show your appreciation and relieve them from having to cook so you can all just relax and talk. But in this situation it seemed a little insensitive...


Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this post.

As to the wealthy (or wealthy-appearing anyway) parents' obligation to provide financial assistance, I think of the facts stated in 'The Millionaire Next Door' about parents that provide economic outpatient support, as the authors term it. I don't think they have any obligation, especially if they paid for Edna's college education. In fact, creating a dependence upon them could be harmful for her. Her situation now is a result of her choices - a poor choice in mates and an honorable sacrafice for her children.

On the other hand, I think that an invitation to any hosted event - a party, a weekend, or a night out - should not include any costs for the guests. How awful that Edna was put into a situation where a friend caused her to blow a budget on an unexpected expense! The way you handle dinner by inviting her over sounds perfectly considerate and supportive of her situation.

C.M.C. @ said...

I'm certainly not trying to seem insensitive, but I think Edna's attitude about her situation is appropriate. I don't know her in any way, but it sounds to me like she realizes she may have made some "missteps" in life (ie: marrying her ex) and perhaps this is her opportunity to re-establish herself, without assistance. My mom was in a similar position as Edna after her divorce, only she was able to land a full-time job and she had us stay at home with a babysitter for a couple of hours (we were about 14 at the time) until she got home at around 6 or 7 at night. It wasn't ideal, but it was doable. And I think both my brother and I have strong work ethics.
As far as paying for her childrens' college - I was financially responsible for my own college education and have done okay with it. I am paying off student loans, which is inconvenient, but it's not impossible.
Anyway, if her kids are almost old enough to go to college, I don't see the harm in her spending more time working.
She sounds like a good person with a good work ethic, who unfortunately is dealing with the consequences of some misjudgments in her past. But it sounds like she'll be okay.

lv883684 said...

She should apply for assistance and get any help she can to get through these times.
The "friend" that invited her for the weekend was very insensitive.

Anonymous said...

As a weekend guest, I don't expect my hosts to pick up my meals out. I take them out or make them dinner as a thank you. If I can't afford the costs related to the weekend, I don't go.

Anonymous said...

- Shame on Edna's parents for discriminating in their support, but that's water under the bridge.

- I feel she should apply for assistance when she qualifies, here kids certainly deserve it. Reminds me of a friend with a non-working spouse and kids. He was laid off from a relatively low paying white coller job, but refused to claim unemployment benefits out of misplaced pride.

Anonymous said...

This is the problem with having friends from different financial levels. I understand you want to be friends especially if you have been friends for a while, but it always leads to these discussions.

I am one who is against government financial assistance, however if it is there, and she qualifies, take it. She is working and trying to make money. She is not sitting at home and not doing anything.

As for the rich family, let them be. She said the parents offered to help pay for kids tuition, she asked and they said "no". Okay - grandma and grandpa reneged. Move on.

As for the weekend dinner. If Edna was really in that much of a bind (where were her kids?), she should of asked how the check was being split up prior to going out. If you are in such dire straits that you cannot afford a dinner as such - then have the cajones to speak up before you go out. Live and learn I guess.

Dave said...

Her parents status has no impact on whether she should take gov't assistance. If she was starving the law would have no ability to compel them to buy her food. If her parents financially favor some kids over others then they are jerks (absent special needs kids or the like), but they are free to do with their money as they wish.

I am not big on food stamps, but as a taxpayer I'd rather see some one who hustles be helped than some one who does little. I respect her desire to not take charity though.

As to the friends scenario, if I was you and saw your friend setting up that scenario I would have grabbed the check myself and covered all three. I have done that kind of thing before as my best friend is a starving artist type and if I want him in a group outing I'll step up.

Sarahbyrdd said...

Edna has already paid into our social safetynet by working, even if it's been mostly in odd jobs. If receiving foodstamps would ease her burden, of course she should apply. Her tax dollars at work, as well as yours and mine.

In the dinner out scenario, and I've been snagged by that in my starving artist stage too. Better to have folks pay for what they've ordered rather than splitting evenly. Then the person on the limited scenario doesn't end up subsidizing someone else's extravagance when they've only ordered a burger and no drink because that's what they can afford. If you order something "for the table" then you should include that on your portion unless otherwise agreed by all the diners. Every phone has a calculator these days, it's not that difficult to figure out.

As for the parents, boy does that strike a nerve. After my parents divorced my father told me that he wasn't going to pay for private high school because, although my education was the most important thing to him, he'd have to give up his vacation home or his 30 foot yacht (both of which he'd bought with his second wife). Ahem.

Priorities people. No, Edna's parents are not obliged to help her or her children in any way, nor should they drain their retirement resources to help a child (or grandchild). But shame on them for not being equitable in their support, and apparently continuing to flog her for mistakes made years ago that she's done her best to overcome. I hope that they don't have the equally sexist expectation that she, as the daughter, become a caregiver to them when they're older.

Anonymous said...

I find it stunning her parents don't feel obliged to help their daughter or grandchildren in any way even though they are struggling and they, the parents have the means to do so. They chose to bring her into the world and their responsibility to her does not end in adulthood.

I personally could not enjoy my wealth, knowing that my kid was struggling to make ends meet. It's a far different thing than spoiling your child which her parents seem to have no problem with when it comes to their other children. As her parents age, they should not expect any help in the form of caregiving in return, and can use all the money that they kept for themselves to check into a nursing home.

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Anonymous said...

Thank you for the post. This is an interesting discussion.
I agree with your approach to being sensitive to the friend's situation. I would hope that the third friend didn't truly understand what a tough financial situation Edna is in, or they would not have suggested a restaurant meal she could not afford. I also agree with you that she seems to be a perfect candidate to accept some government help.

Regarding the parents: this issue struck a chord as my family has a similar situation. My sister and her family are in a very difficult financial situation (she is in her 40's) and our parents are quite well off. Quite frankly, my sister has made some very, very dumb financial choices. If my parents were to financially support her it would continue to perpetuate the situation and she wouldn't be able to make the decisions she needs in order to dig herself out. I personally believe they have done their job: they raised her well, helped her with her education, wedding etc. and been more than generous with gifts. Unless there is a very unusual circumstance, continuing to financially support her now may lead to bad feelings: what happens if she uses some of the money to eat out or go on a short trip? She certainly has the right to do this, but I would think this could create negative feelings in the family. We never quite know the background behind these types of situations so I'd be reluctant to criticize the family without knowing more.

That said, of course there are certain situations where I would certainly hope parents would step into help. I certainly know that my parents would help out for example, if there were a medical crisis, or another type of problem. We also all go out of our way to give generous gifts to the kids and take them out clothes shopping etc.

I do wish the best for your friend- Hopefully she can find a fullfilling job now that her kids are grown up.

Connecticut Blogger said...

First of all, you would hope that most loving parents, especially those who are wealthy, would help out their kids, but they aren't "obligated" to do so. Adult children have hopefully picked up the skills to support themselves. Edna should have no qualms about applying for food stamps or any other govt aid if she's having a hard time making ends meet. You do what you have to.

If Edna's kids are bright enough and can get into a well-endowed Ivy school, their tuition will be largely paid for. If not, they should attend an in-state university and work their way through college, the way many kids do.

Frugal Living said...

This was an interesting story, as I read through it a number of thoughts and opinions about "Edna" came to mind. I had to step back and think through all that was written about her life and choices as not to jump to conclusions or cynical opinions. This led me to my following.

I applaud her head-strong decision to avoid assistance (government or family), this shows pride and a sense of earning what you get. I feel in some scenarios such as this though, that pride can be a downfall. The assistance that is being refused could be the helping hand needed to make that life-altering change.

I wish Edna the best, she sounds to be a determined person in life, even if everything has not fallen into place for her yet.

Anonymous said...

If the kids are almost in college I don't understand why she can't have a fulltime job. They no longer need a babysitter do they?

Anonymous said...

High school aged kids have a lot of school commitments if they are to be considered "well-rounded" enough to get accepted to college. If you are lucky enough to live within walking distance of the school, then yes, the single parent could get a full-time job away from home because the kids could get to the school on their own. However, there are often practices, meetings, etc. that require extra trips to and from the school during working hours, and that requires driving in most places in the US.

If Edna had a full-time job for several years, her employer may have granted some flexibility, but it's hard to get that going into a new job with a track record of part-time jobs.

Her best bet is to try to get hired by a working mother who's either in or been in the same position and who can provide flexible work hours. I work part-time for a real estate agent, and I only have to be in the office about 10-12 hours per week. Any other work can be done from my home computer.

Good luck to Edna in her job search and to her children as they finish high school and head to college.

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Jerry said...

Yes, I think her family should help her. The government is there as insurance in case there aren't any other measures you can seek. It should lead people to pursue their other options first before going to the government. But, I'm glad it's there for people like her. God bless her.

Colleen said...

I disagree that she can't work because she has children ...or school age children. They aren't babies, they are high schooler or middle schoolers. Many mothers work -- and raise children successful. I have work and raised a child alone for the past 15 years, it is definately doable. And quite frankly, it is my responsibilty to provide for him....which means working to make sure he has the right opportunity and environment to succeed. Which means being in a neighborhood with good school, the ability to be involved in sports and after school activities etc... Once they are in school, it is much easier..but if they are as old as it sounds like they are, they is no reason they can't be home after school (with set boundaries and emergency plans) for an hour or two until she gets home from work. And is she is eligible for food stamps, she is def struggling for money, she would benefit her family more by creating a real career rather than piecing together part time jobs so her teenage children are never alone or responsible. You can be a good mother and a good worker (earner), millions of people do it every day.

Anonymous said...

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Financial Independence said...

Hi there. Things are not so bad for Edna if she was having dinner out somewhere :-0

Why her parents elected to abandon her? Obviously they see their grand-kids and could appreciate Edna's position.
There are so mane various way to help with the kids!

Well we have to confess that many women decided to give up on their career development after having two-three kids, preschool
tab is higher than their after tax income....
So truly and honestly what is the point of having education (apart from meeting soul mate)?

To answer your question - it is not an economical question for Edna but rather philosophical.
I would go for any help I can get to be back on track to my financial independence.

Anonymous said...

Great post! I definitely think Edna should get government assistance if she needs it and qualifies for it. I grew up poor and my parents were very proud and never applied for food assistance, and I did't see them often either. My brothers and I did all the chores at home which we didn't mind. But, I would have liked to spend more time with them growing up, my mom never went to any of my graduations and to be that financially unstable that she felt like she couldn't miss work one day makes me sad. My dad did attend my high school graduation though, but that was because he had lost his job around then. I started working part-time at age 14and never asked my parents for money and just took loans for college, which is fine. I think Edna's kids would understand their family situation and wouldn't mind taking out a loan for school. As for Edna parent's, if there is favoritism and to the extent that was described, I will definitely not care to take care of them in their old age and they should expect their other kids to take care of them. The family situation is odd, my brothers and I are close and I know they will help me and would be angry with my parents if they are like Edna's. Then again, my parents always told us that we should stick together, share, and help each other.

ross said...

I think in the long run a person that is independent will always do better than someone that is always seeking out help. I'm sure she is going through some tough times due to being a single mother. But, she has the right attitude to succeed. It's probably just a matter of time, before things turn around.

Petra said...

I think that I would gladly have some of my taxes be used to pay for Edna's food stamps. You could tell her that. She's probably tougher to herself than she would be to anyone else (What would she advise others in her situation?). It would almost be an honor to help her out a bit. Hopefully she gets the job and gets her children through school, so they can have a good start in life.

Anonymous said...

40K a year is an AMAZING that many Americans (myself included) would LOVE to be able to receive...
With that being said, no, the parents have no *obligation* but, they also don't sound like the most supportive parents either.
I think it would have been proper etiquette for the host to the pick up the tab, but then again, I wouldn't know.
You should write a post about/for adults who don't have fancy college educations and salaries but who work minimum wage jobs but still care about their money and want to be financially literate and as secure as possible! :)

Anonymous said...

Hey, I have been getting food stamps for about 4 years to feed my kids, the last two as a single mom. I have worked darn hard, going to nursing school (almost done) taking out school loans to pay daycare, and trying to make it. Do I feel bad about it? No. I worked on and off for over thirty years, if the economy is such I can't make it and need some help with food, which we as Americans have plenty of (breadbasket of the world) why should I feel shame to keep my kids well fed and healthy? I would think that is a great use of taxpayer dollars, so they don't get sick, can get to school and learn Oldest is through school, youngest is going to kindergarten next year. My junior just got 32 on the ACT, if I can provide the nutrition, good structure, and help transport to good public and charter schools to help them out, I am there. I will be balancing my job options in the summer/fall with the family needs, just because I can work full time, it might still make sense to be part time, and take 6 kids to things like gifted/talented, musicals, speech, Latin club. It is all for the good of the family, which is what is the best for the community, really, and the world eventually. Not a slacker, a mom who is mothering and doing her best to support her family, financially AND emotionally and physically. BTW, oldest had last two years tuition paid at a public university due to family income, it is not just Ivy league, your state schools will do that too. Edna can start calling now, to see what to expect for school bills, or her kids can take that over when they get home from school. Kids are great at emailing and tracking info, that's their world.