Ask what your country can do for you

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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10 thoughts on “Ask what your country can do for you”

  1. There was this guy at work who used to say “Word” every time someone else said something profound. I grew to hate it – it was too simplistic a response, I believed. Maybe, after all, that is the beauty of if – Word!

  2. And those complaining loudest about the poor making more money receiving stimulus checks and unemployment than they did from their jobs have nothing to say about the Fed buying junk bonds and stock to bolster the stock market.

  3. Friend of mine was on disability and was into guilt trip over that.

    An attorney she met set her straight. Said that there is so much money grabbing in government and business by the entitled and wealthy that she should had no cause to feel guilty, just take her benefits and be proud.

  4. Instead of giving the next trillion dollars to corporations issue a portion to each American citizen and they will spend it properly to jump-start the economy.

  5. if the house loan is a single family residence or condo, no rental income, must be owner occupied and was a conforming loan when written, if she writes to the mortgage processor she can get 6 months then another 6 months of relief per the cares act. But one has to do it in writing, (return receipt requested suggested) The payments get tacked on to the back of the loan. That will not put off property taxes and insurance that will be due, and that will catch a bunch of folk come December or when the next homeowner insurance is due if that is paid through an escrow account, but better than out on the street or facing an auction.

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