The line is wrapped around the block this morning. Hungry, frightened people wait in the freezing cold, hoping that this time they will get one of those coveted numbers that will yield a bag of groceries to help feed their families through the next week. Maybe two, if they really stretch it.
Some of them are old hands at this, and they know the drill. The first fifty people are served, and you can only get food once every three months. They come when it’s their turn; when it isn’t, they stay home. They are the elderly, the disabled, the moms raising a houseful of kids who know their situation isn’t going to improve anytime soon – if ever. There are new faces, though. Those hit hard by the economic downturn. They were just hanging on before, making enough to get by. Now they’ve been “downsized”, or maybe someone in the family is sick and without health insurance, or they got this month’s utility bills and realized they had a choice between payment and eviction, with nothing left over for food. Or all of the above.
I know some of them are working the system. Hell, all of them are. So are we. The world we live in rewards that. It’s pretty hypocritical to get angry about poor people who go from agency to agency, trying to get a little something from each of them, when we reward corporate CEOs who go from company to company, bidding up their compensation and leaving with their golden parachutes to provide a soft landing – even if the stock price tanks on their watch.
There’s shouting now, arguments breaking out. Anger masks the fear that there won’t be enough, again, this week, that they will go home to hungry children with empty hands. And not just hungry children. When did we start thinking it was only the children who “deserved” to be fed? Thirty years of Reaganomics, with its undertone of “nobody’s going to take what’s mine”? I hate many things about the Reagan legacy, but his fake pandering about rich welfare queens may be the most pernicious. Despite numbers that may tell us otherwise, the face of the poor is black. From Reagan’s campaign launch in Philadelphia, Mississippi, to George H. W. Bush’s Willie Horton ads, to George W. Bush’s South Carolina strategy, right through to Sarah Palin’s scary black guy campaign rhetoric, the Republican party has othered people of color. And not only are “they” different from “us”, they’re out to take away what we have.
As times get tighter, and they will, we have a choice in how we respond. Will we retreat into our own safe circles, guarding our stuff and leaving it to others to care for those whose needs are greatest? Or will we reach out? I’m not crazy about the old aphorism, “There but by the grace of God go I,” because it implies that someone else didn’t experience God’s grace. But there is truth in the idea that any one of our lives could be made very different by a sudden change in circumstances. Death of a parent or spouse, divorce, loss of a job, a house fire, a disabling injury, a catastrophic illness, an unexpected pregnancy. Do we stop to consider that we could find ourselves waiting in line, praying for a bag of groceries? Maybe that’s one upside of the economic downturn: if we aren’t in that line, we can envision being there, hoping for a kind word and a helping hand. And we can remind ourselves to give what we would hope to get.