I was talking to an older woman yesterday. She was crying. After five decades of backbreaking work, paying her taxes, scrimping to buy a home and raise a family, her husband got terribly injured and can now walk only with difficulty.
Her home is teetering on the edge of the default process that could ultimately lead to foreclosure. Her job has been furloughed and her husband’s tiny company has revenues of zero. Bills keep piling up until finally she had to ask the question that we, in America, think we’ll never have to ask:
“How am I going to pay for groceries?”
She had heard on the radio about an LA County program offering assistance to people who need help buying food during the pandemic, but she had never thought of herself as a recipient. Until the cupboard and fridge were totally, completely bare.
She found the online link to the CalFresh benefits card and applied, never really believing she would qualify. But she did. And then the card arrived, loaded with $180 for food purchases for the next month. She couldn’t believe it.
At the store she embarrassedly and with difficulty tried to use the card. The clerk smiled. “First time?”
“Yes,” she said shyly.
“Let me help,” the kind lady said, swiping the card and checking her out.
She felt thrilled and profoundly humiliated at the same time, as if she had found something that wasn’t hers, but then she also knew that the thing in the pit of her stomach was something she hadn’t felt since she was a little girl, when she was one child of ten in a family of immigrants. What she felt was hunger.
Not the gentle reminder that it’s lunchtime or the hurry-up that comes when preparing dinner, but the gut-deep gnaw that begins the Defcon 4 messaging throughout every cell in your body, warning you that if this thing isn’t quieted the result is death.
When I spoke to her she was sobbing. “I can’t believe I’ve taken money for food,” she said. “My mother and father never asked for help, even with ten kids and sometimes barely enough food to fill half a plate. But I did, I did.” She was inconsolable so I let her cry for a few minutes.
Then I told her this, and I’m afraid my voice quivered. I’m afraid that what I said was tinged with anger. And I’m afraid that out at the edge of that anger there was something approaching rage.
“You,” I said, “have worked for fifty years. You,” I said, “have paid taxes to the penny, raised fine children, and by the strength of your own will and back you have lived as honest and honorable a life as a person can live.
“This money isn’t a gift. It isn’t something to be ashamed of. It is yours. This is what your government owes you. This is the payback for supporting your country in good times and bad, through booms and busts, through wars and peacetime. It’s time for your country to stand behind you as unflinchingly as you have stood behind it.
“Any human who tells you that you are a bad person because you need help is evil. Any human who thinks that you don’t deserve everything that we as a government can muster to help you in your time of need is evil. Any human who would begrudge food in the belly of a hungry person is not fit for the term ‘person.’
“Use what you’re owed with confidence and with the pride that comes from having earned it. And anyone who tries to take you down a peg for being in need, you can tell them to go to hell.”
She stopped crying and listened. Then she said the only two words that mattered, calmly, with deep dignity. “Thank you.”
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