One of the first lessons you learn growing up poor in Philadelphia is how to game the system.
We braid and weave elaborate hairstyles for "clients" on government-funded front porches. We wash dishes and file folders in cabinets "under the table" at small businesses to supplement Social Security benefits. And sometimes we trade food stamps for a little extra walking-around money.
It's the dirty little secret that many of us poor folks do not like to talk about, mainly because you never know which government agency is watching. But sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do to survive. And sometimes survival as a poor person means spending time contemplating criminality.
For example: Do I pay this extremely high PGW bill or do I let it get shut-off and have it reinstated in my child's name? Do I file taxes this year and take a loss or claim someone else's kid as a dependent to get back a few extra bucks? Do I update my disability paperwork with the Social Security Administration or do I rent a camel for my son's prom send-off?
OK, that last one is not par for the course.
But that may have very well been the case for Country Cookin's Saudia Shuler, infamously dubbed "the camel mom."
At one point in her life, Shuler was an unemployed single mom who regularly suffered seizures, had cancer, and finally a debilitating stroke. At another point in her life, she operated a successful restaurant, gave out toys and free food during the holidays, and threw lavish block parties, which featured exotic animals not native to her North Philly community.
And somewhere in between those opposing times, she allegedly pocketed thousands in undue Social Security benefits.
The most immediate takeaway from her story is, short-term gratification can lead to bigger problems down the road — like a visit from law enforcement for Social Security fraud. But there are other, less self-righteous, lessons we can all learn as well: Like, being poor is very expensive; government assistance isn't always enough; and sometimes the choices poor folks have to make to get by, and come up with, may not always be right, but are very necessary.
I'm not saying what she is accused of isn't wrong. However, morals and ethics are relative; just ask the big banks who got bailed out after causing one of the biggest economic depressions of our lifetime. Or better yet our president, Mr. Bankruptcy-in-Chief, who still flourishes in business, as well as in politics, even though he has engaged in some questionable dealings of his own.
With the rapidly declining middle class, the average American person forced to work multiple jobs to make ends meet, and an entire generation of millennials unable to pay back student loans, let alone move out of their parents' basement, these moral and ethical lines we have traditionally followed will become even more ambiguous.
And at some point in our society, we are going to have to reexamine the goals of public assistance and ask what is it really for?
Is it a welfare-to-work program that offers more time-wasting than actual skill-building? Is it a cash assistance program with unreasonably low federal income guidelines ($12,060 for one person; $24,600 for a family of four. Are they for real?), which does not take into account the inflation of our American dollar? Is public assistance meant to raise people out of poverty and improve their quality of life, or is it meant to keep them forever downtrodden?
We can vilify Shuler for being a cheat and demand she pay back every single penny she allegedly stole from taxpayers. But we can also commend her for using the system for what it should do for poor folks — and that is empower.
After all, she didn't just use her disability checks to buy camels, allegedly. She also used it to raise her children, build a business so prosperous that she was able to give back to other poor folks in her North Philly community, and become an overall productive member of society.
If you ask me, she already paid us back.