This past Saturday, my wife Deb and I drove out to the Giant supermarket in Groveton, a neighborhood in the southeastern part of my hometown of Alexandria, Virginia. We were not going to go food shopping. We were going to stand on line at a food bank for federal workers who are not being paid during Trump’s stupid shutdown. It was humiliating and it shouldn’t have been.
Let’s rewind for a bit here. My wife works for the government and she is currently considered “essential.” That means she’s working and not getting paid. Worse, she’s doing the work of a dozen people and while you might think that with almost 25% of the government shut down, the Human Resources departments (where Debbie works) of furloughed agencies would quiet down a bit, you’d be wrong. It’s frantic, barely controlled chaos with people freaking out over not getting paid and all the usual HR problems are still rolling in but with a fraction of the staff to handle it. So far, Debbie is rising to the challenge but no one can go full speed for weeks on end without eventually burning out.
At the same time, she’s in a constant state of near panic over paying the bills. Mind you, we have a very strong support system and our friends and family have got our backs in a way we were not expecting. Friends have sent us gift cards to supermarkets, one gave us a pork shoulder, another is paying for our internet bill for the month, etc. Deb’s father and my father have loaned us the money to pay for next month’s rent although we suspect they’re not going to let us pay them back. Jordan’s special needs rec center is getting us a grant to pay for the next two months of his after school program and possibly even a grant for his summer camp which we were supposed to start paying for next month.
But even with all of that, which is a huge amount of help and a lot more than most people are lucky enough to have, we’re still looking at running out of money by the middle of February if this doesn’t end. One missed paycheck is bad. Two is devastating. Three is a fucking disaster.
And this is with us planning, as best we could, for a shut down. When Republicans took over the House and started playing chicken with the debt ceiling, I started thinking that maybe having some extra food on hand might not be a bad idea. When they took over the Senate, I thought maybe a little more would be prudent. When Trump was elected by Russia, I flat out told Debbie that we had to stockpile food because there was going to be a shutdown and it was going to be a long one. That’s why we have a deep freezer filled with frozen meat and a pantry filled with dry goods. We got a whole lot of rice and beans, cans of tuna, boxes of stuffing, oatmeal, etc. We would have put money on the side as well but we’re scrambling to pay off college loans and old credit debt from before we had kids and we’ve been in a race to do that before Trump and the GOP crash the economy again.
This is how, despite preparing as best we could, we still found ourselves on line at a food bank this Saturday and it was still humiliating.
We had to line up with hundreds of other federal workers and hope there was enough food to go around because we were worried we wouldn’t be able to feed ourselves or our families. we didn’t have to go now because we’re not at the point of desperation but why the world would we wait until we completely ran out of money? Better to supplement what little we have in our bank account and make it stretch as long as possible.
For my part, it was far less humiliating than it could have been. I volunteer at my school’s food bank every month and I take home some food, particularly stuff that other people don’t want. My biggest score was 35 jars of gefilte fish because as one of the only Jews in our school, no one else even knew what it was much less wanted to eat it. Bazinga! But when the donated food is limited (it varies from month to month), I take less and I rarely take any meat on the infrequent occasions we have it because there’s never enough for all of our families. That wasn’t a concern this time. We got a leftover holiday meal pack that was high in salt and sugar and a bag of apples of carrots.
I even knew the driver of the truck and we had a lovely chat about how this food market had the food prepackaged compared to the ones at my school that come in boxes that we have to sort ourselves. This took even more out of the sting of having to accept a handout from strangers. I can’t even imagine what it must have felt like for the people on the line with us who had never even seen a food bank before much less stood on line for one. I’m no stranger to this sort of thing and I was embarrassed to be there. It must have been so much worse for many of the other people there.
But why should I or my wife or any of the people there feel shame over this at all? We didn’t bring this on ourselves. Debbie makes good money. We do not live outside of our means. She’s not out of work; she’s literally working without pay. We were even denied unemployment because she’s still working. Yes, you read that correctly. People who are furloughed can apply but essential employees are automatically rejected. She’s appealing but who knows how long that will take? Just a little more humiliation.
Again, though, why should should we feel any humiliation at all? We are being denied the ability to earn a living by forces beyond our control and we need help. On top of that, this is temporary but even if it wasn’t, it still has nothing to do with any decisions we’ve made so why should we be embarrassed to to ask for help from the public?
The answer, of course, is that there is something deeply broken in our society that shames those who need help. We see this in our politics that overtly shame those on any kind of public assistance. We know for a fact that testing people on government assistance is a massive waste of money. Some states have spent tens of thousands of dollars to catch literally 12 people using drugs. One state caught a whole whopping one user. But “preventing” drug use is not the goal here and it never was. The goal is to humiliate people asking for public assistance and to stigmatize them as junkies.
This hatred towards those on welfare has been building for decades including Reagan’s lies about a (black) “welfare queen” that never existed and a (black) “young buck” buying steak with food stamps while white people were buying hamburgers. Once upon a time, people in this country loved public assistance because it was limited to “deserving” white people. Once the courts said that everyone else was entitled to it, it became the thing of lazy moochers.
So now asking for help is a mark of shame. Using food stamps means you are a moral failure. Heaven forbid you live in government housing! What kind of person can stand to live such a life devoid of dignity?! It doesn’t matter if you need help because a natural disaster destroyed your home, Wall Street wiped out your job, a corporation annihilated the industrial base of your town, you got sick or injured, you just weren’t very smart and made bad decisions, or if Donald fucking Trump shut the government for no goddamn reason and took away your paycheck, you are lesser because you are asking for handout.
The only people that are immune from this shame are the rich. They are allowed to wallow in beneficence of the taxpayer without limit and we applaud them for finding new ways to fleece us for billions.
Think about that. We begrudge a family a few hundred dollars a month to put food on the table but gaze upon the rich as rock stars as they find new and inventive ways to steal enough to feed every family in America ten times over. That is why I felt humiliated waiting for a tiny box of food and a bag of apples and carrots to make sure my kids have fresh fruits and vegetables to eat. Is that sick and twisted? Yup. Have I been aware that this is what America is like for some time? Absolutely. Did that make it any less difficult to stand in that line? Nope. Will it be just as difficult next week when Deb and I are back there again because Donald fucking Trump is still holding my wife’s job hostage? Probably. Knowing you’ve been conditioned to feel something you know is wrong doesn’t mean the feeling just goes away.
It has, however, solidified my resolve to continue fighting the source of this anxiety: The right wing and the lie that needing help is a moral failure. I’ve taught my daughter her entire life that we should always help people who need it because we’re lucky enough to be in a position where we can help. When this is over and we can breathe again, I’m going to make sure she knows how many people stepped up to help us when we needed it so she understands that there is no shame in asking for help or accepting it when offered freely. I’m going to explain to her that there are people who do want us to feel that shame because they’ve forgotten what it means to be a good and decent person. They’ve been consumed by petty jealously and hate and would rather see people go hungry than to reach out a hand to help them.
In the richest country that has ever existed, with an alleged billionaire for a president, no one, much less people working full-time, should have to worry about running out of food or feel humiliation when they ask for help. It has to stop.
I’m a stay at home dad, father to a special needs son and a special daughter, a donor baby daddy, a militantly pragmatic liberal, the president of the PTA, a hardcore geek and nerd and I’m going to change the world. Or at least my corner of it.