I’m often accused of being heartless when I read media stories meant to tug at the heartstrings – stories about the nation’s poor, about hungry children, about stinking, miserable poverty that are meant to make me feel better about government spending yet more of my hard-earned tax dollars ostensibly to “help the poor.”
Because I have no sympathy. None. Sure, there are real stories of hardship out there, but frankly, I’ve been there and done that, so while I can empathize, what I usually see in these stories is parental FAIL, government FAIL and, to an extent, society FAIL. But I don’t see society FAIL in our failure to spend more money to provide more food for the destitute. I see society FAIL in preventing generational dependence on handouts, rather than fostering self-reliance and ingenuity.
When I first came to this country with my parents, we were destitute in a very real sense of the word. We had a couple of suitcases, $300 in cash, and a $3000 debt we owed various organizations that helped us escape the Soviet Union. For the first few months, we lived in a one-bedroom apartment with my aunt and grandfather. My parents and I used the living room for a bedroom for the three of us. My aunt and grandpa slept in the “bedroom.” There was one bathroom for the five of us. I remember being so thrilled that it actually had toilet paper, because back in the USSR we used old newspaper to wipe. Toilet paper was cool!
Those first few weeks, I joined my grandfather on his excursions through Brooklyn, NY. He would walk the streets and look through people’s garbage to see if there was anything he could pick up. You’d be surprised what people threw out! I got toys, some books that helped me learn English and even some clothes!
Yeah… from other people’s trash.
After a few weeks, we moved into an apartment of our own a few blocks from my aunt and grandpa. It was small and infested with cockroaches. A lot of cockroaches. And no matter what the building did to exterminate, they were all over the place like the plague. They were on light switches when you tried to turn the lights on, in the sink, in the bathroom, in the shower, on my pillow and walls… everywhere. My parents had a room, as did I, and my dad got a menial job – yeah, even with his two Master’s degrees in engineering – to support us.
Furniture? Trash. It’s not like we actually brought anything with us! What we did bring that was worth anything was pretty much stolen by the customs “people” on the border. My dad found two frames for wooden armchairs in other people’s trash. He found wooden planks, which he placed on top of the chairs and cushions from other people’s garbage to place on top of the planks. We had some throws we brought with us from the USSR, so he put them on top of the old cushions, so we wouldn’t have to sit on them directly.
TV? Trash. My dad found a little 10-inch set, which he fixed (those Master’s degrees in engineering came in handy). It had rabbit ears, and sometimes, you had to wrap the things in foil in order to be able to see what was happening on that screen. That’s how I learned English. Watching cartoons on that little TV.
Food was always nutritious, even though we had nearly nothing to spend on it. I ate ice cubes instead of ice pops and ice cream. No candy. No soda. I didn’t even know what soda was until about a year after living in the United States! But we had chicken (it was the most inexpensive protein out there), cereal, milk, some juice, some fruit, vegetables, bread, milk, eggs and potatoes and rice. That’s it. Not an exciting menu, but it got us through each week. I didn’t starve, and I ate food that was good for me.
I wore pretty much the same clothes day after day. I had a couple of outfits. We saved the “nice” ones for school picture day. The other kids at school looked at me funny, because I didn’t change my clothes daily. The only thing I did change daily – a luxury back then – was the color of rubber bands in my pigtails. We found a few discarded items in others’ trash, so my mom washed them, and I wore those too. My clothes were always clean, even if they were washed in the sink with some soap by hand.
So yeah… I know stinking poverty. I’ve lived it. And when I see stories such as this atrocity in the Washington Post, I don’t look at my country and condemn it for not feeding the poor! I don’t look at the family in this story and think, “Look at me! I have all this stuff! I could give a little more!”
No. I read this story, and I see parental fail and societal fail for breeding generations of leeches, who have no desire or drive to care for themselves, but instead rely on handouts.
The lengthy article focuses on a new program to feed hungry kids in rural Tennessee.
First, schools became the country’s biggest soup kitchens, as free and reduced-price lunch programs expanded to include free breakfast, then free snacks and then free backpacks of canned goods sent home for weekends. Now those programs are extending into summer, even though classes stop, in order for children to have a dependable source of food. Some elementary school buildings stay open year-round so cafeterias can serve low-income students. High schools begin summer programs earlier to offer free breakfast.
How did government address this issue of child hunger? They threw more money at the problem. A record $15 billion annually to feed 21 million low-income children in the nation’s schools. And another $400 million to feed these kids over the summer funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Governors came together to form a task force. Michelle Obama suggested items for a menu. Food banks opened thousands of summer cafes, and still only about 15 percent of eligible children received regular summer meals.
Why? Because they apparently couldn’t make it to the food. The food had to be brought to them.
And late last month came the newest iteration: a school bus retrofitted into a bread truck bouncing along a potholed road near the Blue Ridge Mountains. It parked in a valley of 30 single-wide trailers — some rotting in the sun, others swallowed by weeds and mosquitoes alongside the Nolichucky River. The driver opened his window and listened to the utter silence. “It feels like a ghost town,” he said.
So, earlier this year, a food bank in Tennessee came up with a plan to reverse the model. Instead of relying on children to find their own transportation to summer meal sites, it would bring food to children. The food bank bought four used school buses for $4,000 each and designed routes that snake through some of the most destitute land in the country, where poverty rates have almost doubled since 2009 and two-thirds of children qualify for free meals.
A very depressing setting in a rural community of trailers, where children must rely on government and food bank assistance to have access to food. Yes, it’s sad.
A 5-year-old girl saw the dust trail of the bus and pedaled toward it on a red tricycle. Three teenage boys came barefoot in swimsuits. A young mother walked over from her trailer with an infant daughter in one arm and a lit cigarette in the other. “Any chance there will be leftover food for adults?” she asked.
It was almost 1 p.m. For some, this would be the first meal of the day. For others, the last.
Observation #1: Mom has money for cigarettes, but none to feed her infant.
My parents had both been smokers for years. Pretty much everyone in the former USSR was – they smoked and drank a lot to get through life, I guess. But somehow, my parents prioritized food over cigarettes and booze during those lean years.
On this day, what [the food bank worker] saw at the first stop was five siblings arriving in clothes still stained from the pizza sauce they had been served on the bus the day before. “Did you get a chance to change today?” Anderson asked one of them, a 10-year-old girl. “Into what?” she said.
Next, at the second stop, a 7-year-old whose parents were both at work arrived carrying his 1-year-old sister in nothing but a diaper, spoon-feeding her juice from the bottom of his fruit cocktail cup. “She can’t eat chunks yet,” he said.
At the third stop, a high school football player pleaded for extra milk; at the fourth, teenagers fired rifles at cans up the road; at the fifth, always the most crowded, kids, parents and dogs waited in the shade under the trailer park’s only tree.
“Finally!” one of them said as the bus pulled in. He was a 12-year-old boy, shirtless and muddy with half of a cigarette tucked behind his ear, and he barged onto the bus and grabbed his lunch. “Bologna again?” he asked, studying his sandwich.
Observation #2: Kids received pizza the previous day, so there’s enough variety in the meals to at least provide a somewhat varied menu. Kid bitches about “bologna again.” Kid is rude. Kid is an entitled little shit.
Kid smokes. Cigarettes are expensive.
OK, honestly, if the child was truly hungry, he would take what is given to him and eaten it without complaint. That’s what true hunger is. True hunger is not complaining about what is given. Given by taxpayers. Provided by people who care about the hungry. But apparently, the kid feels himself not only entitled to the free meal, but entitled to a variety of which he approves! Sorry, that’s a no-go.
The rest of the story focuses on one particular family, living in a trailer in the area.
At Cedar Grove, the first stop, all five Laughren siblings returned to their single-wide trailer, back into the vacuum of their summer. Their mother usually took the family’s only car to work, leaving the children stranded in the trailer park. Admission to the nearby swimming pool cost $3 per person and they only had $4.50 among them. The cable company had cut off their service, and they had already spent the morning watching a DVD of “Fast & Furious” twice.
I will withhold comment about the fact that no one living in stinking poverty – real, third-world stinking poverty has a VCR, let alone a DVD player or DVDs. My parents didn’t even purchase their first VCR until we had been living in the US for more than seven years! But hey… first world problems.
The children aren’t “stranded” in the trailer park. The oldest one is 14 – old enough to clean up, make some dinner, take the others for a walk, mow lawns or babysit for extra cash, etc. So can the 13 year old.
But no, there’s no dinner to be made. Why?
“I am so freaking bored,” said Courtney Laughren, 13, walking over to their refrigerator 21 hours before the school bus was scheduled to return. Inside she found leftover doughnuts, ketchup, hot sauce, milk and bread. “Desperation time,” she said, reaching for a half-eaten doughnut and closing the door.
For Taylor, 14, it meant stockpiling calories whenever food was available, ingesting enough processed sugar and salt to bring on a doctor’s lecture about obesity and early-onset diabetes, the most common risks of a food-stamp diet.
For Sarah, the 9-month-old baby, it meant sometimes being fed Mountain Dew out of the can after she finished her formula, a dose of caffeine that kept her up at night.
[Mom's] $593 in monthly food stamps usually lasted the entire month. They ate chicken casserole and ground beef for dinner. But now, with school out, she was down to $73 in food stamps with 17 days left in the month. “Thank God for the bus,” she said, but even that solved their problems for only one meal a day.
She walked into the kitchen, collected what items remained in the pantry and set them on the table for dinner. “Buffet’s ready,” she announced. The children ate corn chips, Doritos, bread, leftover doughnuts, Airheads candy and Dr Pepper.
Her food stamps could be used for cold food but not hot food, and the nearby grocery store sold pre-made sandwiches for half-price after 8 p.m. She loaded all five kids into the car and drove a mile to the supermarket. They chose three subs from a case that glowed under fluorescent lights. They shared two, mushing pieces of bread for the baby, and then Jennifer wrapped the third sandwich to take home.
“For breakfast,” she said, and they drove back to the trailer and went to bed.
Here’s what I see:
A mother who has now squirted out FIVE kids – with the first one at a mere 18 years old – with a low-paying job and apparently no father for a second source of income. FIVE children, with the last one having been born less than a year ago. I would guess that a box of condoms is less expensive than supporting yet another hungry mouth. But no. Apparently, it’s OK to keep pumping out babies you can’t afford, because the government will provide free lunches.
Donuts, candy, sodas, chips, pre-made sandwiches. This is what this woman feeds her children for dinner.
Pardon me, but with nearly $600 per month in food stamps, one could get the following, which would easily last the entire month or even longer. I will note that these products would be purchased at WalMart here in Arlington, VA, where food prices are ostensibly higher. But I needed an idea of how much could be purchased with $600, so I used this particular service as a comparison of how much I would need to spend to feed a family of six for a month, using fairly nutritious foods, and not crap.
Here is the entire grocery receipt from WalMart:
As you can see, this is a grocery cart that includes everything from milk (powdered, but it’s milk) to juice, to easy-to-prepare meals, to canned veggies, rice, cereal, mashed potatoes, tuna fish and fruit snacks.
Ideal? Probably not.
But it’s more nutritious than donuts and chips, and much more filling. It requires some preparation, and it’s something the teenagers could easily prepare while mom is at work! But no… they would much rather sit around and watch DVDs.
Oh, and she has more than $130 left, which she could use for an occasional treat – dessert, pizza, whatever…
It can be done – with a little ingenuity and some help on the part of the children.
But no… the bus brings “free” food.
And it’s much easier to have “free food” brought to you than it is to make it work with what you have.
So what are we doing here?
Frankly, I don’t care if 1/1000th of a penny of my taxes goes to feed hungry kids. It’s not the amount. It’s what that tiny fraction of a penny is paying for. It’s paying for perpetual dependence. It’s paying for generations without a work ethic, the will or the ability to make do. It’s paying for someone who doesn’t see a problem with bringing five kids into this world without a proper job, knowing she would be unable to support them without government assistance.
And if the handouts continue, so will the generational dependence.
That’s what my tax dollars are paying for, and by all accounts, the problem is getting worse, not better!
My parents worked menial jobs, and they worked hard until they knew enough English to improve their lot. We moved to a better apartment – this one without roaches – but I still wore clothing from other people’s trash, and I still didn’t know what a donut was.
And guess what! We made it! Without dependence on the state, and without handouts.
So, no. I don’t like my tax dollars rewarding parental FAIL on this scale, and you shouldn’t either.