Suffer the Little Children November 18, 2011
I’ve always been different from other kids. Smarter, prettier, more resourceful. Mostly more resourceful.For instance, in elementary school I carried an empty lunchbox to school most days and a full lunchbox home. My school cafeteria had a little table near the exit for used lunch trays, and a tray in the back where you could put any food still in the package, full milk cartons, or whole pieces of fruit. That table was my lunch line and my grocery store until we started getting food stamps. One of my teachers told me that it was OK to take an apple from the table and save it for later, and that was like a green light for me to start filling my empty lunchbox every day with enough food for dinner.
When I was little, there were times when we didn’t have enough food in the house. My mom’s an addict, and feeding us was less of a priority for her than it should have been.
Sometimes we had enough food, but my brother and I weren’t allowed to use the stove or mess up the microwave. Sometimes my mom had money but used it for drugs rather than food. Sometimes she forgot. And sometimes she grocery shopped and cooked wonderful meals. Sometimes we were hungry, and sometimes we were just food-insecure.
I became a much better-fed, happier, and less worried student when I was in fourth grade and we actually signed up for food stamps and the school’s free-breakfast and free-lunch program, after my fourth grade teacher urged my family to sign the forms. I started eating hot meals at school and worrying less about where my next meal would come from. Shockingly, it turns out that enrolling us in these programs could have landed my mother in jail!
(Yeah, I know, you follow this blog closely and you already know that my mother went to jail, but not for this. She served seven years following her second drug-related conviction.)
Why would someone go to jail for signing up for food stamps and trying to feed her family? Because she had a prior drug conviction, of course!
Matt Taibbi has an article in Rolling Stone explaining how a Mississippi woman in exactly my mother’s condition came to be arrested, convicted, and sentenced to three years in federal prison for lying about her arrest for drugs on her food stamp application:
Last week, a federal judge in Mississippi sentenced a mother of two named Anita McLemore to three years in federal prison for lying on a government application in order to obtain food stamps.
Apparently in this country you become ineligible to eat if you have a record of criminal drug offenses. States have the option of opting out of that federal ban, but Mississippi is not one of those states. Since McLemore had four drug convictions in her past, she was ineligible to receive food stamps, so she lied about her past in order to feed her two children.
The total “cost” of her fraud was $4,367. She has paid the money back.
Taibbi points out what this all means:
Here’s another thing that boggles my mind: You get busted for drugs in this country, and it turns out you can make yourself ineligible to receive food stamps.
How does this make sense? What is wrong with this country? When and why did we become a nation that allows children to go hungry because of a parent’s prior offense? Why do we force children into hunger because of their parents’ crimes? And why are more interested in jailing mothers rather than helping them become better mothers to their children?
If a person is convicted of a crime, they should serve their sentence and then be free to be a productive citizen. If the state is worried that a parent might sell their food stamps rather than feed their children, the state should send a social worker and make sure the children have food, but they shouldn’t exacerbate the already precarious financial situation of an ex-con by closing off legal avenues of providing for her family.
In my case, my mother was an addict with a serious mental illness, and she wasn’t really able to take care of us and make sure we had enough food, so we took matters into our own little hands. Anita McLemore, however, did everything she could to feed her family. Her crime was the most noble of frauds, and he should be applauded and not jailed for feeding her children.
Here’s the flip side:
What changed in my life once I started eating at school, and once we had an opportunity to have decent food at home more often?
First, I wasn’t hungry as often.
Second, I knew that my teacher cared whether I ate or not, and that in itself made me more eager to please my teacher and do well in school. It mattered that someone cared.
Third, I became a better student because I was well-fed and because I knew that my teacher cared.
Finally, the whole situation gave me the compassion and tools to become a blogger and to consider a career advocating for children in situations similar to mine. Today I’ve found myself identifying with McLemore’s children, wondering who is taking care of them, and hoping that they never feel guilty or try to convince themselves that their mother went to jail because they asked for another apple or a bigger bowl of cereal.
This situation is troubling enough even if you can’t imagine yourself in exactly the position of McLemore’s children, but Taibbi’s comparison of McLemore’s sentence to the lack of consequences faced by the banking and investment house perpetrators of fraud is even more upsetting:
Compare this court decision to the fraud settlements on Wall Street. Like McLemore, fraud defendants like Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, and Deutsche Bank have “been the beneficiary of government generosity.” Goldman got $12.9 billion just through the AIG bailout. Citigroup got $45 billion, plus hundreds of billions in government guarantees.
All of these companies have been repeatedly dragged into court for fraud, and not one individual defendant has ever been forced to give back anything like a significant portion of his ill-gotten gains. The closest we’ve come is in a fraud case involving Citi, in which a pair of executives, Gary Crittenden and Arthur Tildesley, were fined the token amounts of $100,000 and $80,000, respectively, for lying to shareholders about the extent of Citi’s debt.
Neither man was forced to admit to intentional fraud. Both got to keep their jobs.
Next time you see a little girl walking home from school with a full lunchbox, feel free to wonder if she’s eating at home. If she’s not, perhaps it’s because we as a country won’t help her parents get food for her.
America is better than this.