I always appreciate when someone else gets outraged. That’s not to say I ever want someone to get angry. But since I’m usually the person loudly stating my opinions or expressing indignation at some injustice, I can relate when others do the same.
I was getting my hair done the other day when another woman was waging a battle.
“My unemployed uncle,” she said, “is posting the most ignorant comments on Facebook. “He’s collecting unemployment and complaining about people who use food stamps. He doesn’t even know what he’s talking about.”
The woman typed something into her phone as she talked. “It’s not even food stamps any more. There are no stamps. It’s called SNAP and you get the benefits on a card.”
She typed something else then put down her phone.
“You would think,” she said, “he would know better than to make those comments when he knows I’ll see them.”
The woman who was speaking is knowledgeable, well spoken, hard-working and generous. She recently donated a half-day spa treatment to charity, and she won’t get paid for the hours she provides the service. She made the donation because the charity helped her when she was a teen mom.
“When I was a 17,” she said, “I had a child, was working and going to school. I was anything but lazy.”
A few minutes later, she picked up her phone again.
“Oh this is priceless,” she said. “He just posted that there should be special stores for people who get food stamps. He thinks those stores should be specially stocked with low-price items and no beer or cigarettes.”
As she typed in a response, another woman said, “Well I have to agree that people shouldn’t be allowed to buy beer and cigarettes with food stamps.”
“They aren’t,” several of us said at once.
Granted, SNAP recipients can use their cards to buy food and use cash to buy beer and cigarettes. Unfortunately, those are the minority everyone notices. What we don’t notice are the people like the older woman I saw the other day using coupons with her SNAP card.
The conversation led to a short educational session about how people actually can’t buy beer or cigarettes with their SNAP cards. Neither can they buy toilet paper, laundry detergent, cleaning supplies, toothpaste nor other necessities that aren’t food. Everyone agreed that the federal program would be more beneficial if it operated more like WIC, which provides vouchers for specific, healthy and nutritional food.
“What did you say back to your uncle?” I finally asked.
“I suggested that if he thinks poor people are such a problem, then maybe we should have special schools just for poor kids. Not only that, but we need to stencil the letter “P” for poverty on all their clothes. You know, we should make sure we marginalize them so they don’t have any hope at all.”
For the remainder of my hair appointment, no matter what the topic, we kept coming back to the concept of special stores. People who sing off-key in public? Special stores. Rude people? Special stores. Snobs? Special stores. Wait, they think they already have them.
As I was scheduling my next appointment, I asked the woman if her uncle had responded to her latest comment.
“No,” she said, “He must have figured out that you don’t mess with someone who has received food stamps. Some people might think I was a drain on society and never contributed anything, but I’m pretty sure I have.”
Everyone in the beauty shop agreed with her.
“You were NOT a Republican,” she stated. ”There is just no way.”
“Not just a Republican,” I replied. ”I was actually heartbroken that, because of my age, I missed voting for Ronald Reagan by only three months in the 1984 election.”
Since I was talking to my friend on the phone, I can’t confirm that her mouth was actually hanging open, but I’m pretty sure it was.
“What happened?” she finally asked.
“I don’t know exactly,” I replied. ”But by the time I graduated from college, I’d changed political parties.”
In all honesty, I do know what happened. I’d identified the core values that would guide the rest of my life, and they simply just didn’t align with the Republican Party.
I don’t think my friend, or anyone else, really cares about how I arrived at my decision. And, until this past week, I didn’t feel any need to explain.
But after witnessing one too many debates about how people who receive SNAP (more commonly known as food stamps) may be eligible for additional benefits if they were affected by the derecho (http://www.catholiccharitieswv.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=300%3Awv-long-term-disaster-recovery-derecho-storm-a-power-outage-disaster&catid=45%3Aannouncements&limitstart=1), I felt the need to say something.
On the surface, the gist of the conservatives’ argument against the additional benefits was that the government was once again frivolously spending taxpayers dollars.
But, as the arguments continued, a different, more self-centered concern actually emerged. Several people were turning the discussion into a conversation about fairness, or more particularly unfairness, in regards to their own lives: ” I lost all my food when the power went out, and no one is paying me to replace it.” “I have a lot of health care bills, and the government isn’t stepping in to help me.” ”Basically, I’m being punished for having a job. “
Sadly, I could relate to their complaints. That kind of thinking was the reason I had originally registered a Republican.
At the age of 18, I really did believe that everyone had an equal opportunity in this country, and if a person worked hard and persevered, they should be able to meet their own needs. If they couldn’t make ends meet, they needed to work harder or get a better education to get a better job. I believed in responsibility: if people made bad decisions then they, not I, should have to pay for those decisions. And I believed that our leaders had our, not their own, best interests at heart.
I held onto those beliefs because I was surrounded by people who believed the same thing. Then I went to college, and I was surrounded by people who didn’t.
I met too many people who had been denied equal opportunity through no fault of their own. I met too many people who had made poor decision after poor decision only to be bailed out by family while others fell into bad luck and had no one who could help. I learned more and more about greed, inequality and political corruption. And I learned more about myself.
At some point, I was confronted with the ultimate question: is life about what I can do for myself or is it about providing unconditional support for others, even when it sometimes costs me?
I chose the latter.
Don’t get me wrong. I can be very self-centered, and I know a lot of Republicans who are anything but selfish.
I just don’t think the core of my political beliefs should be about what makes my, or my family’s, life better or easier. I think public policy should be about ensuring the safety and well-being of all Americans, particularly those who haven’t had the same privileges that I’ve had: good parents, a good education, a decent I.Q. and a lack of any significant health problems.
When I look back on 18-year-old me, I still understand where I was coming from.
I still think people should do their best and be responsible for their behavior. I also think corporations and millionaires should do the same.
I still believe in hard work and self discipline. I also believe that too many people work very hard and still don’t get paid a fair wage so they can’t make ends meet.
I still wish life were fair. I also realize that making life more fair for everyone requires public policies that provide additional support for those who need it.
The difference between 18 year-old me and 45 year-old me is I don’t think the world owes me anything. Instead, I think I owe the world. The difference is I know some people put their own interests above the interests of others, even when it comes to the environment or safety or health. And I know that the most effective way to ensure such people do minimal damage is to implement and enforce regulation.The difference is that even though I don’t agree with wasteful spending, the wasteful spending I’ve seen isn’t for the programs intended to make the lives of most Americans better.
The difference is that I have enough life experience to know that life isn’t about being fair.
And that’s why I got so frustrated with the debate about additional SNAP/food stamp assistance. The debate wasn’t about whether people needed the assistance. Instead, it was a debate about fairness. I’m pretty sure if you asked the majority of people who were eligible to receive the help, they would be the first to tell you life isn’t fair. If it were, they’d be fortunate enough to afford to replace their own groceries while complaining about those who couldn’t.