In the summer of 1991 I scraped together some coins from my rapidly depleting change bowl and hopped on the 14th Street bus that took me through Columbia Heights — definitely not CoHi in those days — and dropped me in front of a small storefront where the cashiers worked behind thick, bulletproof Plexiglass. That’s where this 22-year-old gay white boy with a journalism degree from a prestigious university and the product of a rural and deeply conservative Kentucky family went to redeem my first voucher for food stamps.
It was not a step I’d foreseen on my career path.
This is no secret story. I’ve shared it from time to time, generally with the self-deprecating irony I use to deal with things I can’t ignore but am not particularly proud of. It’s more difficult to tell it in a sober, straightforward manner because it makes the memory of the internal shame that much sharper.
I’m a child of the Reagan ’80s, just another Reaganite in a high-school letter jacket. Domestic politics then (as today) centered on welfare queens, shifty layabouts and no-good criminals (read: ”black people”) who lived off government checks subsidized by hardworking, real Americans (read: ”white people”).
While coming out during college pushed me to the Democrats for extremely valid reasons, my conservative disdain for government help, whether by check or by cheese, remained. So stupid and blind I was to all things related to the safety net, I refused to apply for unemployment benefits after I lost my first job in the midst of that early ’90s recession, spurning the one program I’d already been paying into through payroll deductions.
That explains how bad things were that I would go on food stamps, one of the most reviled programs among conservative Americans who steadfastly believe anyone who needs help buying food did something to deserve their fate. These were the days before EBT cards that allow people to purchase their food with the same swiping motion as everyone else in the store, granting a certain level of privacy from everyone except nosy ”tea partyers” convinced that any brown person buying a non-generic, non-gruel product is taking tax money straight from their pockets. No, I was using paper food stamps, which might as well have been printed in neon with ”MOOCHER” and ”LOSER,” in front of the queens at 17th Street Safeway.
My story isn’t told to prove anything about the ”worth” of people on government assistance. I worked hard and I got through it, though that’s irrelevant. Not every person who receives welfare will become self sufficient, the same as not everyone who consumes a communion wafer will become a good person, or that not every banker who receives preferential government treatment will refrain from engaging in activities that cause world financial disasters.
I tell it because our societal responsibility for our fellow Americans is under attack from the small group of Republicans who believe they must destroy the nation to protect it. We’re being held hostage by Republicans who will gladly vote billions in subsidies to employed farmers, yet cut poor families from food stamps. They demagogue about one child denied experimental cancer treatments because of a government shutdown even as they shut down the government to make sure every sick child without health insurance stays that way.
Once I was ashamed of getting help from the government. Now I’m ashamed of the GOP leaders in the government who would rather hurt us all than help a few.
Sean Bugg is editor emeritus of Metro Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @seanbugg or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.