Why should I pay taxes to support some couch potato? Why should a ne’er-do-well live off my money? Why didn’t those old people save enough to take care of themselves? Why the hell do I need to pay for some old person’s health care when I am young and healthy? Sound familiar? Our safety net is under attack today, perhaps it always has been from it’s very beginnings under Roosevelt.
I was raised in a household that believed in taking care of one’s self and one’s family. Work hard, and use money wisely. My family had its dysfunctions, but the idea of living off the dole was certainly not among them! I believe my father would have looked askance at anyone utilizing any portion of the safety net.
So here I was in 1969 trudging down some concrete stairs feeling totally humiliated and defeated. At that moment I wanted to just disappear, an impossibility as it happened,
since my very young daughter was walking beside me holding my hand. Inside was a huge basement room with a windowed counter along one wall where an elderly couple was struggling with the language and obviously desperate. Scattered throughout the space were young students, some hippy types, couples and singles all showing some degree of stress and frustration, while social workers attempted to explain the system and the clients eligibility status in tones that were far from warm and friendly. Enter myself, totally white brunette, with a blond, curly-headed little girl holding my hand. Suddenly we had a social worker happy to help and eager to make sure we got what was needed.
I will digress here for a bit to comment on privilege. I had never considered myself privileged and certainly felt at the bottom of the pyramid as I descended those stairs. My awareness of privilege took a giant leap that afternoon, and embedded a modicum of guilt. Because I was white, an abandoned wife, and had a very young, blond child I was advanced to the front of the line and given respect and sympathy. Respectful treatment goes a long way toward restoring ones dignity and self-image, something many were denied in that room. Privilege is a nuanced commodity, highly dependent on the circumstances you find yourself in and what is happening to those around you.
With that first step taken we moved forward, government aid in hand. I encountered animosity toward those who utilize government aid programs early on while standing in line at the grocery store. My sister-in-law (who was comfortably provided for by her husband) had some steaks clearly visible in her cart. A male customer in the line glanced at the food stamps I was holding in my hand, took a look at her steaks, and proceeded to tell the world how terrible it was that we could get food stamps to buy steaks. My wonderful sister-in-law took him on immediately, as I stood there embarrassed and maybe a bit ashamed. She told him bluntly that the steaks were hers for which she was paying cash, and her sister-in-law had food stamps in order to feed her child! It took some time and soul searching to reconcile myself with the need for those precious food stamps, and the knowledge of how thick a skin I would have to develop!
It was time to find a new direction. Since my husband was just completing the Doctoral journey I had traveled with him, my choice was to return to college myself. While he settled in with his young mistress I found myself acquiring a housemate. Gail was a bit younger than myself, a fellow student, and escaping an abusive relationship. She, too, had very little in the way of material wealth, but brought a touch of mutual help and sharing that saw us through those early days. Her presence in the household meant that both adults had to report to the Social Service periodically in order to renew our food stamps. While being questioned by the social worker Gail naively used the word “procured” in explaining how she had obtained some item he was asking about. With a lovely figure, a penchant for make-up and coming from a failed marriage my housemate, a bit younger than myself, was nevertheless rather naïve and did not understand the man’s leering look and rather crass comment “so you procure”? Captive in that time to that situation all I could do was re-direct the conversation and explain to my friend, on the way home, what he was implying in a snarky way as he laughed at his own joke.
We were still using food stamps upon moving to California. I had a part-time office position while working toward a graduate degree and at that point we were housed in a government subsidized apartment. Every year I had to fill out a questionnaire regarding finances and income, at which time the rent would be adjusted if necessary.
As my income increased the cost of purchasing food stamps increased accordingly. Within a couple of years the cost of the stamps and the bus trip to the social services office, situated in a neighboring town, made the decision to drop out of the program an easy choice. Some years later we moved out of that apartment as we were now paying market value.
Is the system abused? Most assuredly some will attempt to take advantage of the tax supported programs. But as that old saying goes, you don’t throw the baby out with the bath water, and there are many babies that have been given a decent start on various government programs and are now productive members of society. There are babies today who are in desperate need of help. There are senior citizens who have worked their entire lives and now are aged, unemployed and homeless. We absolutely need to bolster our safety net, to provide food, housing and medical access for the vulnerable. I have never resented paying my tax responsibilities knowing I am giving back to the fund that kept us afloat during the bad years. I grew up thinking we were a compassionate society, a large community that could disagree, nevertheless work together and take care of our brothers and sisters. Listening to so many friends, acquaintances and strangers complain loudly about the government “stealing” their money…it seems I was wrong.
My daughter and I are two of the “couch potatoes” the grumblers would resent, and yet I was employed and paying taxes until my 76th year. My daughter has been with her present employer for over 20 years and is paying taxes on an above average income. In short, we have contributed to the economy, and are productive citizens, at least partially because there was a safety net for an abandoned wife and child. For that I am, and always will be, grateful to the government that was and the taxpayers of the time, may their legacy of compassionate assistance last forever.