Last month, my mother told me she was receiving food stamps. When she told me, my first reaction was one of embarrassment—what was my mother doing wrong that she wasn’t able to provide for herself? Then frustration—why didn’t she tell me that this was how she was surviving, since I am very fortunate to have a well-paying job at the moment? Shouldn’t I have saved her from the shame of having to ask for a hand-out? Then disorientation—only a few weeks before, in my capacity as a board member of a non-profit, the Executive Director had asked me for a $10,000 multi-year donation. What world was I living in that one moment I was being asked to be a major donor, and the next I was hearing all about my mom’s trip to the food shelf, how she was starting to volunteer there, how the available food was shrinking, and how one weekend she got a bushel of heirloom tomatoes?
Then I took a step back and asked my mom about the experience of getting food stamps. Here’s part of what she told me about waiting in line to apply:
Sitting there, watching the people in the line, I focused on many people but mainly the older women. Quite a few older white women probably in similar situations as I am in. Lots of older women with their daughters and often young grandchildren. They came as support for their daughters, I presume. I wonder what they had gone through with their daughters to get them here. And what are their lives like? I gained strength by imagining their lives and just looking at them. People in line had such dignity. No complaining, no pushing and shoving, some visiting among us. Beautiful people. Some young fathers with kids, also old men. Our world would be a better place if everyone had a chance to stand in this line.
Comparing my reaction with hers, I recognized with surprise how much I had internalized the dehumanizing rhetoric directed at poor people, a group that now includes members of my family. Asking for help to put food on the table should not be a cause for shame. However, instead of merely ignoring people who need help feeding their families, political leaders like Paul Ryan, who claims to be Catholic, are actively blaming them for the problems of our economy that excludes so many. The prophets of old attributed Israel’s tribulations to how it ignored the widows, the orphans, and the strangers. The demagogues of today blame the widows, the orphans, and the strangers for asking for basic sustenance. Far from embracing the preferential option for the poor, these politicians are advocating an active preferential scapegoating of the poor.
Those of us who take our faith seriously need to change the terms of debate. We need to fight against the attitude that suggests that something is wrong with you if you receive government help. Quite simply, being poor says very little about your work ethic and even less about your dignity as a person.
My mother is very typical of many American women—because of nearly constant work as a full-time caretaker, she has not had the opportunity to have a career that would pay her adequately or allow her to save for retirement. She initially stayed at home with my sister and me when we were very small. Later she began to build her career, but lost it a few years later when my sister became critically ill and she had to switch to an hourly service sector job so she could have the flexibility she needed to care for her daughter. Later, after decades of marriage, my father divorced her, breaking not only a moral commitment, but an economic one, thatshe would be the primary caretaker and he the primary breadwinner. Finally, my mother was a full-time caretaker for my grandmother for several years until she passed away, and now she is a full-time caretaker for my sister in her “retirement”, surviving on a fixed income of just over $1000 a month plus what I can contribute.
My mother has worked hard as a caretaker all of her life, but this simply does not pay financially. Judged by her tax return, she is a failure as a person. But judged by the hours of work she actually puts in, she doesn’t seem quite so lazy and unproductive. Salary.com has a powerful tool that calculates the unpaid labor of caretakers. On mom.salary.com, by simply plugging in a zip code and estimating the amount of time spent on various tasks, you get a fair market value approximation of what this labor is actually worth. I asked my mother to do this, and the number crunching showed that she deserved a salary of $83,131. (Salary.com’s average is $113,586 and male caretakers certainly can check out this calculator.)
My mother does not see food stamps as something to be ashamed of. She knows she has worked hard her entire life but that her labor has simply not been recognized. She has dedicated her life to taking care of her family, and, in her jobs, often working with the poorest of the poor. Living a simple and non-materialistic life does not scare her, and she doesn’t wish for a lot more. But she also does not feel any guilt for receiving a bit of support after the years and years of service to her family and community in myriad ways.
As a young professional, I appreciate the opportunity to pay thousands and thousands of dollars in taxes each year to provide support to other families around the country. As a child, I was privileged to drink clean water, live in a safe town, and go to good public schools, thanks to the taxes of people I would never meet. This gave me access to higher education that in turn has led to financial success. There is nothing unjust or undignified about my mother needing government help and me being in a position to be able to fund this government help, both for her and for people who I will never meet.
My hope is that Catholic leaders from across the political spectrum will stop demonizing people who receive help from the government. I hope that Representative Paul Ryan and others can start to listen to the stories behind the hyperbole, of men and women who contribute to the common good of our communities each and every day even though they depend on government support to eat.
A millennial Catholic who preferred to remain anonymous.