I was born in 1949. I can still remember my parents coming home with 5 pound blocks of government surplus cheese, and brown paper bags of rolled oats, and other things that as a young child didn’t mean much to me but which were the difference for our family between going to bed hungry or not. It was after WWII, my folks ran a small hardware store, times were bad and there often wasn’t enough food on the shelf to feed one person, much less the three of us.
The recent story that our illustrious President wants to cut food stamps and replace them in part with boxes of food brought back a lot of memories I haven’t pulled up in a long, long time. I’m not even going to talk about the relative merits of El Presidente’s proposal; instead I want to think a little about what that was like.
We were happy, I remember, to have food to eat. But I know it did something to my parents who were embarrassed to have to resort to something the government provided. They were working long, hard days in a retail store along the Lake Michigan coast, in a new town (to them) and because the town was heavily ethnic these children of Polish immigrants weren’t finding a lot of friends among the heavily Danish population. They were the new folks; they didn’t fit in.
Everyone deserves a little respect. And it’s not a terrible thing to leave a person a little dignity no matter how much the need help. As a little child I was sufficiently struck by the impact receiving what amounted to a “care package” after dad’s having served in the Military that I grew up not wanting ever to have to take money or aid from the government. Fortunately I was able to do that. In spite of the number of times I changed jobs I never took a penny in unemployment or any of the assistance programs out there. I did not want to have to be insulted that way. But then I didn’t have to go to bed hungry either. By grace I was always able to keep bread on the table and we were never at the point of needing that kind of helping hand.
Still, I wonder about the idea of replacing food stamps with boxes of food. The reason given was that the government could purchase this food at wholesale, saving the retail markup. But I wonder whether, given the availability of data in our computerized world why the government can’t just force retailers to bill the government (via the food stamps) for the wholesale value of the food? Yeah — it would be complicated and data intensive but if we can get people to the moon and back I think there ought to be some way to handle that kind of transaction. Maybe the retailer shouldn’t be making money off the government for helping their fellow citizens? Oh, I can hear the hue and cry already, but my point is that with the same energy that we can exert trying to save money for our nation’s bottom line we could invent new ways of doing things that wouldn’t also rob people of basic human dignity. The idea that someone in Washington who may never have needed food stamps should decide what millions of people are going to eat seems awfully draconian. And awfully demeaning.
Yeah — we have some challenging times ahead of us. But the same kind of creativity that has been the hallmark of U.S. society can find better ways of doing things — if only those in government would pay attention to their jobs and work in a bipartisan manner.