How do you explain poverty and a broken government to your children?

On the ride home from school, I found myself in a conundrum when my eight-year-old daughter asked, “Mom, are we rich or poor now?” My little girl was savvy enough to know that we had very recently been, by definition, “poor.”

As the only parent of three small children, the kids knew what being “poor” was while I was unemployed. They heard me mutter it when I refused them the goodies at the store, or denied them going to a friend’s birthday party because we could not afford a gift. We knew not having enough money to buy more than staple foods, not having enough gas to make it to school, and certainly not enough for brand new items. The kids knew about being cold when I shut off the heat at night and made a tent of blankets over my bed where we all snuggled to keep warm and save on the gas bill.

This is not to say that we knew poverty–not by reality’s standards. We were the lucky ones. We had a house with utilities, we had healthcare, and we had security. We had those things because of the recently much maligned (and now threatened) safety net afforded to Americans in need: Medicaid, food stamps, Section 8 housing and the unceasing generosity of family and community.

I say this without shame. It is for families like mine that this net exists. I had paid my taxes into the system over the years; I looked at it as drawing on my investment. I took what was given with the resolve of willingly being able to give it back in the future. It is not an easy process to be involved in the welfare system. There are constant audits and endless stacks of paperwork. It can be humiliating, and overwhelming to navigate.

This was not a hand-out: a person receiving these services must actively be working towards becoming self-sufficient or the services end…immediately. I take umbrage with those who make uneducated or sweeping derogatory statements of their fellow-citizens on welfare. Many of those who make these statements are unknowingly only a job loss or medical mishap away from needing these same benefits.

I have since been very fortunate to find a full-time job that keeps my family and me afloat. We no longer qualify for any governmental aid. We now find ourselves in the precarious and burgeoning demographic of Americans swimming just above the threshold of need, but not quite at the point of solvency. As many of us do to varying degrees, I now depend on the awful credit card as my safety net when things are tight.

“Are we rich or poor now?” my daughter asked. I thought carefully, struggling with my answer. “We are not poor,” I said, thinking of the bony starving families in Africa, anguish on their faces, torment unknown. “We sort of were before…but we have food and a house and you kids have things that other children cannot even imagine…but we are not rich.”

My six-year-old boy piped up, “Hey, Mom, did you know that it’s not the government that makes the rules, it’s the people?” I considered this, and realized he had been taught something utopian at school that he’s still not fully able to comprehend, but somehow knows it involves “class.” I tried to explain. “Well, the way our government is supposed to work, is that all of the people pick out a few of themselves, and send them to make decisions based on what everyone wants and needs….but the government is broken.”

My daughter interjected, “Is Obama gonna fix it?” It pierced my 2008 hopeful heart. “No” I replied, “He can’t. Obama is trying to change it. He thinks that it’s not fair that some people who are very, very rich don’t pay as much for taxes, as the people who don’t make very much money.”

“But why can’t Obama change it?” my daughter insisted.

“Because instead of following the needs of the people, like they are supposed to most of the representatives, have become more concerned with representing their own wants and needs, and the wants of the very rich people who don’t like the changes and who are fighting very, very hard to keep their money.” Thankfully, we had pulled into the driveway and the kids hopped out of the car and onto their bikes narrowly missing my parsed “absolute power corrupts absolutely” lesson.

I thought, how am I going to teach them that on the world’s poor to rich continuum, we are very privileged, because we are Americans, and we should be humble and happy with what we have, unlike so many spoiled, potato minded children, of potato minded parents?

How can I teach that lesson, while at the same time making them understand that there are now those rallying to take away those benefits that saved us, there are corporations and folks that egregiously use the system to their own benefit, without consequence to anyone other than this demographic we now find ourselves in?