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I didn’t hate welfare, but hated being on it

Illinois Link cards.| Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

Follow @csteditorialsA Link card is more dignified, more humane. Less obvious, perhaps less likely to make you stick out like a giant weed in a bed of glistening emerald grass. We had food stamps. But maybe after all these years the sting is still the same.

Once upon a time, my poverty and the need to feed my children in the absence of my ability to find work necessitated that we go on the government dole until I could do better. I hated it.

The very idea of signing up for welfare troubled me. It wasn’t “welfare” itself that I hated so much, only the idea of me being on welfare. I remembered the ridicule as a child when kids in my neighborhood caught me red-handed with food stamps at the store.

OPINION

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In fact, any kid seen by their friends spending food stamps quickly became a target of merciless teasing.

Food stamps were evidence that you were poor and not just ordinarily poor, but part of the lowest class of folks — so po’ that they needed the government to feed them. Everyone joked that the acronym AFDC — Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the fancy name for welfare — stood for “AFter Dad Cut out.” That wasn’t far from the truth.

When we grocery shopped, it always bothered me the way a lot of people, blacks and whites alike, whispered and shot us ugly looks when they saw our cart filled and us whipping out food stamps to pay for our groceries. I heard the nasty comments many times or read the silent words spoken by that detestable look in their eyes:

“How come they got all that meat and steak and stuff when I can barely afford to feed my family? Shucks, I work every day and I can’t afford steak,” is what their eyes said. “Them (N-word) getting over on the system… Greedy bums!”

I always suspected, however, that even if we had only beans, rice and milk in our basket, some people still would have considered even that too much for good-for-nothing, welfare-loving Negroes like us. It’s funny how people always make assumptions about folks on welfare.

I was reminded of that this week during a class discussion of Susan Sheehan’s “A Welfare Mother,” a book I read in college about a Hispanic mother of nine children who languishes on welfare, cheating the system. Despite its journalistic and anthropological precision, the portrait is disturbingly judgmental and stereotypical.

And yet, after all these years, it still holds invaluable lessons for budding young journalistic feature writers — and perhaps lessons for all in a divisive world of “us” versus “them.” A world in which the gulf between the haves and the have-nots sometimes glares like the finger-pointing today that too often blames victims of circumstance rather than a system that does not ensure liberty, justice and equality for all.

The prevailing mythology is that everyone on welfare is bilking the system. That the poor and needy really don’t want to do better. Or that they would all rather live off someone else’s hard work than pull their own weight. Bull.

This may be true in some cases. But this is not the rule. I’m a witness.

As I handed my food stamps to the cashier, I always fought hard to keep my head up. I vowed never to forget that feeling.

I vowed never to look down on someone for having to use government assistance to buy their groceries. Never to allow anyone in my presence to put them down. It is a vow I intend to keep.

I still remember the sting.

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Email: Author@johnwfountain.com

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