It hurts to admit it, but the admission is necessary to this story. I’m getting old. I grew up in rural Georgia during the 1950s. That was Georgia in the days before the Civil Rights Act, back when tangible evidence of the plantation system could still be found woven through the fabric of small towns, and prejudice and injustice were a part of daily life for black Georgians and their poor white counterparts alike. The worst thing you could be in the Peach State at that time was black or poor. Woe be unto those who were both.
I heard a lot of mean and hateful things come out of the mouths of grownups when I was a child in that time and place. Things I had hoped I would never hear again. Sadly, I am hearing many of those things again these days and with renewed vigor and vitriol. Mean words. Just plain, simple, down and dirty mean and hateful words on the television, in print, on the Internet, and even out of the mouths of some of my friends, neighbors, and relatives.
I have been paying close attention lately to public discussions about poverty and proposed legislation to slash funds for safety net programs that help poor Americans get by. Listening to the many hateful diatribes on Fox News, talk radio and in online forums and social networks, rants which call into question the very humanity of those who cannot afford all the necessities of life, I am reminded of the rural South of my youth. Corrosive words from of our President also bring to the forefront a widespread racism I would not have believed yet persisted in this country.
As a child, I often heard adults (all lower middle class working people) gripe about having to support the no account, fat, lazy, (supply your own nasty adjective) people who drove Cadillac automobiles while living on welfare handouts taken from the pockets of honest, hard-working folks like themselves. There was a time when I thought that everyone receiving a welfare check drove a new Cadillac. From this, I deduced that everyone driving a new Cadillac must be on welfare.
The one thing I was sure of, what I learned from attentively listening to adult conversation, was that helping poor people was wrong. Absolutely wrong, even unpatriotic. Nowhere was this sentiment expressed more vociferously than at my church. Oh, we might be urged to drop a few quarters in an envelope to help out some faceless starving kids in Africa (hey, it was only a few quarters and it made us all feel like we’d done our Christian duty), but poor people (often called “trash” or “parasites”) who lived just down the road, people with faces and names, were a different matter. They were to be looked down upon, ridiculed and despised.
Believing what I heard from the adults, I formed the opinion that being on welfare had to be greatly preferable to having a job. I wished that my parents were on welfare. If the family was on welfare, I figured, Mom and Dad would work less, spend more time with us kids, and we would all have more things, including a Cadillac automobile. Except for being the object of public scorn, it all sounded pretty good to me. That was before I accidentally learned the family of one of my school friends was on welfare.
My friend Laurie (not her real name) was a sweet girl. She was nice, kind, and all the good things a little girl should be. I knew she was poor. I knew where she lived. When I learned that her mother received welfare checks I could hardly believe my ears. How could that be?
Laurie’s family did not have a new Cadillac. In fact, her family didn’t own a car of any kind. Everyone in her family wore clothes donated by a church (not our church), and they lived in a shack without indoor plumbing. They had an outhouse. The family had meat for supper once or twice a month, Laurie told me, and the entire family made the trip to the nearest grocery store by foot once every month.
The primary source of protein in Laurie’s diet came from government cheese and an occasional egg. Her family owned a few chickens, but they couldn’t afford to buy chicken feed. Laurie’s were truly free-range chickens before that became fashionable.
I learned these things from Laurie over a period of time, one embarrassing admission by my friend at a time. I liked Laurie. I wished that I could help her and her family. Few other children, I noticed, seemed to share my affection for her.
Other children in our class tended to avoid Laurie whenever possible. When I asked my mother why she thought this might be, I learned that my teacher had done a terrible thing. She had suggested to the parents of several girls that their daughters might do well to choose a more “suitable” friend than Laurie. Because of her poverty, my teacher thought, Laurie wasn’t fit to be the friend of girls from proper families. Thankfully, my mother didn’t feel the same way.
One morning, several months after I first met her, Laurie told me that her family would be moving. The county, finally, had an opening for them in a housing project nearer to Atlanta. She was happy because she was going to have an indoor bathroom with a toilet and bathtub, but sad because she would have to go to a different school, would miss me, and wouldn’t be allowed to take her pet chicken.
On her last day at our school she brought a piece of fried chicken along with her usual cheese sandwich for lunch. In the cafeteria, she gave me the chicken leg and started crying. Her mother had killed, cleaned and cooked all the chickens she could catch the night before. One of them had been my friend’s pet. She wouldn’t take the chance that she might be eating her friend!
It is a mean person who begrudges the money needed to help feed hungry children. It is mean to resent paying a part of your earnings to provide needed health care to people who cannot pay for it themselves. It takes a hardness of heart that I cannot understand to make up hateful stories denigrating the moral character, worth, and humanity of the poor.
I am so sad to learn that things haven’t changed all that much since my childhood. There remain far too many poor and far too many hypocrites. Our church building was full every Sunday morning. We were proud, we were Christian, we were hard-working Americans, and we were better than those sorry welfare recipients. Let the Cadillac driving slackers get off their butts and take care of themselves, our congregation would have smugly said. As a child, I would have said, “Amen.”