I have a mushy memory from kindergarten about the little half-pint cartons of milk. I wanted to have milk at snack time like the other kids. If memory serves, Mrs. Knowles said, “I thought you didn’t like milk.” I’m guessing we hadn’t paid for it. She told me if I wanted milk, I needed to bring money to school with me. We had just moved to Kansas from Indiana and were living with my grandparents at the time. I went home and said I needed a nickel or whatever it was for my milk. It all got straightened out and I did not have to do without the rest of the year.
We were always poor when I was growing up so I have many memories of doing without. I learned to not ask for much, even things I needed. I remember doing without school supplies, like in the first grade when I didn’t have an eraser. I remember walking home looking at the ground, hoping I would find a piece of rubber or something else that would work better at rubbing out my mistakes than a wet finger.
As I got older, I learned what it was like to sit on the sidelines and not participate in sports or other activities because we couldn’t afford it. There was the time that my class was taken down the hall to look at music instruments. I would have liked to have chosen a clarinet but I knew it was not an option for me. In the fifth grade, on the annual play day, one of my sneakers literally fell apart when I was running because it was ripped from front to back.
When I was twelve, I got my first babysitting job. For fifty cents an hour on Saturday mornings, I watched three kids while their mother cleaned at the hotel. I opened up a passbook savings account and saved what little I could from that job and others. As a teenager, I tried to help out by paying for some of my own things. As a teen, I remember asking Mom to take me shopping to Topeka so I could buy a winter coat with my savings. I didn’t choose something fashionable; I chose a simple, cheap one. As a senior, I paid for my own pictures and graduation announcements with the money I had saved. Poverty taught me the value of frugality and self-sufficiency.
I did without a lot growing up but I got to go to a public school whether or not my parents could afford the school books. I had free lunch every day. There were many times when we did not have enough food at our house. How would I have performed in school if I hadn’t had that dependable, balanced meal every day? I will never know. What I do know is that I was a good student and I am grateful that there are people in the world who thought I should eat.
As a kid, I was well aware that there were people who looked down on us for being poor. I heard the whispers and saw the dirty looks. I knew that people resented us because their tax dollars contributed to our welfare. I write about what it was like to be a poor kid because I hope that people will have mercy on the children who will be harmed by proposed cuts to school lunch programs, the Pell grant program and after school programs that help poor students.
So let me take this opportunity to say thank you, taxpayers, even those of you who resent the poor, for paying for my free lunch. I didn’t ask to be poor any more than you asked to feed someone else’s kid, but thank you, because you did the right thing, even if it was against your will.
White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney defended cuts to school programs with his claim that there is no demonstrable evidence that programs that feed poor kids help them do better in school. He believes that hard-working taxpayers should not have to pay for welfare programs that help the poor without proof that it makes a difference. He is one of those people who would have looked down his nose at me and resented me for being what Paul Ryan calls a “taker” and not a “maker.” But again, I was just a kid. I didn’t ask to be poor.
Today, I am demonstrable evidence that programs that help the poor pay off in the long run. Government grants paid for about a third of my college costs. I still had to work and I still had to get good grades to keep my scholarships. When I graduated with a degree in accounting, I made $21,000 a year at my first job at a CPA firm. That was three times what I could have made at minimum wage. Over the past thirty-two years, I have paid tens of thousands more in income taxes than I would have paid if the government had not helped me out when I needed a hand up. I’ve paid for my free lunches and free school books and college tuition assistance many times over.
The President didn’t ask me if I want my tax dollars to go towards increased military spending or towards building a wall or towards providing security for his second home or for his frequent trips to Florida. Believe me, I would rather pay for free lunches or Meals on Wheels or for taking care of our veterans. But I don’t get to choose where my tax dollars go and a shocking quarter of every dollar goes towards military spending.
The sad thing to me is that even religious people who should care about the poor often don’t. I see more expressions of compassion from my atheist friends. One of my evangelical friends recently repeated what she heard a guy say on the radio about the difference between Christians and liberals: Christians believe that we should care for the poor with our own money but liberals want the government to pay for everything! Yet I have never heard an anti-government Christian explain just how the church or secular community would replace the government’s role in providing help to the needy.
So again, thank you American taxpayer for every bit of government financial assistance I received in the first twenty-one years of my life. I know there are people who don’t think I was worth it, but thank God someone did.