Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Will This Shutdown Stay Unbroken?

I certainly hope not. My memories of working for the New York City Department of Social Services in the 1970’s may provide some clues.

As an investigator in Spanish Harlem, I’d knock on recipients’ doors. “I’m from the New York City Department of Social Services, Bureau of Public Assistance.” (‘Welfare Dept’, we were told, had negative connotations).

“Say what?”

“I’m from the New York City Department of Social Services, Bureau of Public Assistance.”

“Say what?”

“I’m from the Welfare Department.”

“Oh. Why didn’t you say so?”

I’d hear the deadbolt lock open. Then the metal police bar would be removed. Next came the other two locks. Lastly a door would crack open and a brown or black face would warily poke her head out and welcome me in.

Months later, I was transferred to Queens where I worked in a neighborhood that was predominantly white of various ethnic origins. I’d knock on the door with the same introduction. Someone on the other side of the door would eventually stage whisper, “Go around the back. I don’t want my neighbors to know I’m on Welfare.”

Little did it matter that many of her neighbors were also receiving help since they were too ashamed too talk to each other to know that. As I’d be warily let into the home, the person would often say, “We’re not like the others. We’re getting this help because we really need it.”

Who was I to judge? As Bob Dylan so eloquently sang, They’re only pawns in the game. Ten years year later, Reagan exploited that indoctrination with talk of welfare queens and images of underclass people- usually black-in various squalid situations. Those images are haunting us still. The fact that 83% of SNAP [formerly known as Food Stamps] recipients are full-time low-wage workers or that the majority of people receiving TANF [formerly known as Welfare] are white often doesn't enter the public consciousness.

In our still racially divided society, I suspect that the Tea Party exploits these haunting images as they rail against government money being spent for health care or basic necessities to aid low-income people in our country. Their hope is that if people perceive of the majority receiving aid as the Other, they won’t have empathy enough to support the programs.

Hopefully, this strategy is not going to work this time. Too many white people have been uninsured due to pre-existing conditions and/or not having jobs that provide health insurance and/or not being able to afford the premiums of private policies. This time the majority isn’t going to buy it. That’s why Pres. Obama was re-elected and why the Affordable Health Care Act aka Obamacare is here to stay. Get used to it, Tea Party. They'll probably accuse me of playing the race card as they do whenever people try to deal with the knotty subjects of race and class.

Stay healthy everybody until our government comes to its senses. I’m counting on the good sense of the centrist majority to prevail.

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