This diary is inspired by Cynthia Davis, the brain-dead political hack from Missouri who thinks that supplying food to hungry children is somehow a bad thing. I won't argue her point. To argue this issue with her is to give validity to her opinions, and those opinions are so far beyond the rational that to argue them is to elevate them. I am not willing to do this for her.
But this not really about her. It is about the poor in this country and what it means to grow up hungry in America. I am going to put some of the private issues of my life out here this evening. Many of these memories are painful, but I hope that they will carry some weight.
I grew up poor and hungry in west-central Illinois during the Reagan years. I was born in 1972. It is my belief that my father (who is not, and never has been, good with money) has never earned above $30,000 a year, and almost certainly never during my childhood.
Our house was on a double lot, and backed onto Fayette Street. Half of the property was given over to a garden. We grew almost anything that would take root in the soil. Lettuce, spinach, radishes, carrots. Green beans (which my brother hated), peas, tomatoes (which I loathe), strawberries, onions, green peppers. We had a grape arbor, planted rhubarb, grew broccoli, cucumbers, potatoes, tried corn (massive fail) and watermelon (too small). We had two apricot trees, a peach tree, and a cherry tree. We even tried making our own ketchup (also fail). Every summer and fall, we would can massive amounts of vegetables and fruits, to tide us over during the winter months.
My grandparents on my father's side kept stock on a small farm in a small town to our south, and twice each winter, we would go south to butcher. Once for the pigs, once for the cows. I am not sure if we got the meat for free or if my grandparents let us have it at a reduced rate, but either way we got hundreds of pounds of meat for way less than what we would have to pay at the A & P or the Eagle.
It wasn't enough. It was never enough. With four boys within seven years of each other, a house payment, and my father terminally underemployed, it was never going to be enough.
In 1983, my father was putting up a radio tower in Missouri. For most of my life, he has been a free-lance electrician and radio engineer on a more-or less permenent basis. The tower fell. He was under it. He was fortunate not to die. His left leg was shattered and he walks with a limp to this day.
That is when I found out what it is like to really be poor. We ate homemade vegetable soup almost every night (it seems) during that interminable winter of 1983-84. Most of my clothes were hand-me-downs, from people who went to the church that my mother's parents attended. It was always cold in the house that winter. In December, parishioners of the Mount Zion Lutheran Church (Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod) left a small artificial Christmas tree on our front porch. They had pinned money that most of them could not afford to the branches. My mother cried.
It was during that winter that I grew to know and hate that damned goverment cheese. We used in everything from sandwiches to chili. It was pale and it was impossible to cut and it was awful.
My brothers and I also had reduced rate lunches at school. I remember exactly how much it cost. It was 40 cents that you would drop into the big plastic cup in the lunch line at Washington Elementary. Cynthia Davis must really hate that idea. But it saved my parents eighty cents a day, between me and my brother (a buck-sixty when the other two were old enough to attend school). Eighty cents a day is four bucks a week, which is over a hundred dollars for the school year, and that could buy you a hell of a lot of rice and milk and peanut butter and gas in 1984.
I got out. Two of my brothers got out. The third is trying. But here is the thing. We are all still haunted by the experience of growing up poor. Despite my good job and house and refrigerator full of food, inside I am still that kid with the patched jeans and the runny nose waiting for the reduced-rate lunch in 1984. And I am terrified that somehow it will all be taken away from me. We are all terrified of the debt that ruined our parents' marriage.
Let me set you straight, Senator. The poor are not bad people. My father could have taken Social Security disability in 1983. He is still working to this day. My mother raised four boys on a pittance, saw one go to college, three get married, and still baby-sits small children to help out her husband. One bad accident you could put you where we are. One illness, one divorce, one lost election, and you could be there, asking for your reduced-rate lunch.
And then, maybe, you would understand what so many of us in this country have gone through, and are still going through.
Then, maybe, you would have some compassion.