Friday, October 24, 2003

My Rightful Radical Inheritance
My father hates welfare passionately. Even the mention of the word makes his veins pop and his eyes bulge. Since he takes the role of the unredeemed conservative in our family, I had always assumed the usual Republican bilge applied.

Today, in the middle of a discussion that started with a throw-away comment about education, I finally asked him why. Mind you, not a simple question: I tossed a loaded "you-sure-buy-into-the-black-welfare-queen-tripe" sort of hand-grenade into the conversation.

Here's his answer:

About a decade ago, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. My father was working only part-time and his job did not provide insurance. After the surgery, my father had to leave his job and become my mother's nurse. He cleaned her wound, cooked her food, held her head when she vomited. My sister became de facto head of household, handling day-to-day tasks when she got home from her job. Me? I was in New York, working two jobs and sending home as much as I could. And the doctors' bills kept coming.

Someone in the doctor's office convinced Dad to try to look for some public assistance. One of the things he was asked to do was to apply for food stamps. He went to the welfare office, this proud man, to be questioned by a pipsqueak half his age who seemed to assume he was a criminal.

While he waited for some paperwork, he struck up a conversation with a lady at the desk next to him. An African-American woman, in her late seventies, dressed, in his own description, "like ladies used to". She had cleaned houses in Coral Gables all her life, worked and scrimped, paid her taxes like a good citizen, and lived a blameless life. She had just been told that her monthly food stamp allotment was $15.

Fifteen dollars. A month. For food.

While they sat there, a man walked in. A young man, sporting several large gold chains and rings, and wearing hundred dollar sneakers. He left ten minutes later, carrying $1500 in food stamps.

The woman was roughly told by the obviously bored welfare clerk that there was nothing they could do for her. She walked away, her face wet with tears.

My father threw the papers at the clerk and walked out. When he got home, he told my mother he would rather starve--or kill himself and her--rather than take a single handout from the welfare system. He's haunted by that woman and prays for her almost every night.

Long silence. What was I to say? All my carefully thought out liberal arguments seemed inconsequential. There's nothing like stepping down into the mud of real life experience to bring one face to face with with all the shortcomings of political theory. My father was right. There's no getting around the fact that the system stinks.

I worked up my nerve, and asked him so what do we do?

Here's his solution:

Make the tax system really work. Cut out all the tax loopholes, especially for corporations. Billions are drained out of the government till every year that way. Why are we giving them money to go overseas? Why are we letting them get away with all the financial rannygazoo?

Get it all back. Take that money and fund a system in which every person meeting a simple means test gets enough money to live decently on. Elderly people with limited income, women raising minor children, the disabled, would be covered automatically. There's no goddamned reason why people should go hungry in the richest country in the world.

Umm....Dad....that kind of system would have a lot more opportunities for fraud, wouldn't it?

Nasty grin. Not, he said, if you put large enough penalties in place. How would 10-to-15 without parole for cheating? How about doctors getting their medical licenses yanked and their bank accounts confiscated in addition to jail time if they committed fraud? How about twenty-to-life for welfare workers caught with their hands in the till? Two or three good examples and a lot of people are going to find their scruples real fast.

Gulp. Dad...you're a wild-eyed-radical!

So... where do you think you get it from?

I'm so proud of my father.

Tuesday, October 21, 2003

They Lived Here Once



There are ghosts here. Memories of hard, proud lives, and brutal clearances, and people fighting a heroic battle for a dying way of life.

The highlands are full of these. Small tumbledown ruins marking the places where people eked an honorable living out of their clan lands--only to be tossed aside by their own lords to make way for sheep.

The wind sounds like wailing, even on a sunny day.