I worked in social services, both government and non-profit for over twenty years. When I hear right-wingers say such things as food benefits destroy families (lack of food is good for families?) and the unemployed should be punished (for their own good) I realize that they don’t actually KNOW any poor people.
They have the Reagan myth in mind. Lazy immoral lounge lizards sponging off their hard-earned tax dollars. They hate this mythological creature. The creature is a myth, but their hatred is real enough. They want to slash all benefits to those moochers, you know-to force them to go to work. For their own good, of course. Then they will be moral and when you are moral, you prosper.
Let me introduce a real poor person. William entered my office awkwardly one winter morning. My office was the last stop when no government program or local charity would help. I could tell William was not comfortable asking for help. He was about 5’10” with a masculine build, a stiff walk and graying hair, a veteran of Vietnam. At the time I naively thought veterans were well-cared for.
“Hi, William, how can I be of service?”
“I was told to come see you.”
“All right, now what can I do for you?”
William looked down at the floor. I waited.
“It’s like this. You know how high gas has been?”
“It has taken all my extra money just getting back and forth to VA appointments.”
“I tried to save ahead for emergencies, but haven’t been able to for months.”
“Right, high gas prices hurt us folks out in the boonies.”
A long silence ensued. I waited.
“I don’t have any food,” William finally blurted out. It was obvious this was a painful thing for him to say.
“Oh. You get some sort of pension?”
“Yes. $800 a month.”
(“WHAT?! That’s what a wounded(?) veteran gets?” I did NOT say)
“Usually I’m fine. I own a little mobile home and I live careful. I don’t need much. But my truck broke down and the repair was $200. So I don’t have any food until next month.”
“No, no I don’t get those.”
I glanced at the calendar to buy enough time to compose myself. It was the 16th.
I looked back at William and he was crying, just tears building up and flowing down his clean-shaven cheeks. He was crying in shame, because he was a man and because water was inexplicably coming out of his eyes and because he was “begging” for food. I clearly remember William because I felt his extreme shame. He was a man. He was a soldier. He was crying.
I had no program funds to help William. I could send him to a church, the solution anti-welfare proponents love to suggest. The church would give him a small bag or two of canned goods, a gesture more than a solution.
There is an ironclad rule among social workers at street level. You never give your personal money to a client. The needs are too great; you would go broke and the contribution would amount to a drop in the ocean.
To hell with rules, I thought, reaching for my pocketbook. I was furious that a veteran had to get by on such a pittance and furious that a veteran should EVER go hungry in America. Alas, I had no cash myself! Just then, thank God, Bud waltzed into the office. I explained the situation to Bud, who ran St. Vincent DePaul Catholic charity in a neighboring town.
“William needs more than two bags of canned goods to make it through the month,” I said pointedly.
“Of course you do, William. A man can’t live on a few cans of crappy peas and corn. Hey, have you got time to ride with me? You can keep me company and we’ll figure out this little glitch.” “Sure,” William said, glad to help. He stood stiffly to his feet and the men left on their mission.
Bud had that priceless gift of some social workers. He viewed clients as human beings equal in dignity to himself, not victims needing rescue or miscreants needing discipline. Bud was a lot like Jesus in that regard. William would go home with food and feeling pretty good that he had provided company for Bud. I smiled as I imagined them talking about “man stuff” as they drove along.
So now you have met a real poor person. I will introduce others as time goes on, but you will meet them waiting tables this week. Treat them with dignity. And leave a tip.