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.

Fourth, eventually I became a good enough student to earn a scholarship to Princeton.

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.

Read more:

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.

Gnome de Plume November 18th, 2011

Why am I not surprised to see that this happened in Mississippi? The judge was obviously grandstanding for some political reason. I, too, wondered about the kids. I had to read the article twice before I found that they were teenagers. Did that have an effect on the judge’s decision? Teenagers should be able to fend for themselves? No matter. It is outrageous that felons are not allowed to use food stamps to feed innocent children. I doubt the brilliant lawmakers who were so intent on punishment thought that one through.

David November 19th, 2011

Economic historian Karl Polanyi wrote about a popular myth in the 19th Century, a convenient story in the popular imagination that made life easier at that time.

This was the so-called religion of the Free Market which had taken the fore and was the new ethos of modern life. But while unprecedented wealth was been created amongst the beneficiaries of the industrial revolution, the rest of society was being left in dehumanizing poverty. How does one explain such injustice? Or rather, how do otherwise decent citizens sleep at night knowing that their prosperity came at the expense of countless others living in utter destitution and hunger?

This is where the myth came in. It was imagined that God had preordained those who were to be poor and those who were to enjoy the niceties of life. Evangelicals like Hannah More wrote stories where impoverished children, working in horrible conditions like coal mines, could – if they expressed the proper virtues of patience and hard work – thereby win God’s good favour and gain the attention of those of affluence, and finally be rewarded with, get this, a promotion to be something like a maid. More then presents her moral lesson to her readers: “This story may teach the poor that they can seldom be in any condition of life so low as to prevent their rising to some degree of independence if they choose to exert themselves, and there can be no situation so mean as to forbid the practice of many noble virtues.”

The myth was clear. The poor are poor because they did not try hard enough and were not pious enough before God to deserve anything more than their mean lot in life. The horribleness of their poverty was entirely their own fault in that larger ‘cosmological’ sense. And moreover, the rich and well-off had no duty or responsibility to help them – that is, unless the poor grovel enough to merit the ‘reward’ of cleaning their floors and scrubbing their dishes like the poor Lancashire colliery girl in More’s fable.

The religion of the Free Market is alive and well today, as Cass and Matt Taibbi report. Many Republicans and Libertarians still believe that the poor are immoral for being poor, and that public assistance is wasted effort. If only, they tell themselves, the poor people worked hard enough, they would get that job, that promotion, that ticket to a better life. And as for the children, well, that is ‘just the way it is’ and there is no use in trying to help them. If they are supposed to succeed, they will anyway thanks to hard work and God’s good grace. And if not, well, that’s life. The myth helps them sleep at night.

The reality is Cass’s story. Every child deserves a chance, and the decent goddamn dignity to have enough food to eat, and to never feel ashamed about it.

Many Evangelicals, now and then, are just plain evil in promoting this misbegotten myth of the immoral and undeserving poor. It is time to treat everyone in society as being created equal and treated as such. Thank you Cass for sharing your story.

knowdoubt November 19th, 2011

Thanks for writing, I get so sick of seeing good people going to jail for our failed drug laws. I see cold blooded murders going to jail for five years (they will call it manslaughter) and drug users or sellers going to jail for more with no chance of parole because of something called recidivism (they just keep smoking that weed). But hey, that’s corporate America and there is money to be made with our privatised prison system.

The Cunning Runt November 19th, 2011

Thanks for writing this. The disparity between how we treat the poor and how we threat the wealthy is nothing if not disgusting.

And I’ll wager that most of the people pushing for this reality consider themselves to be Good Moral People, as likely as not Christians.

As if!!!

Alan Folsom November 20th, 2011

Nice site, Cassie. MPS referred me here.

Keep up the good fight and we can change things. We’re in the streets now.


motocat November 21st, 2011

Cassie, thank you for sharing your experience and the Mississippi woman’s story. It is shameful that there are hungry children anywhere in the world, that the poor are routinely punished for being poor, that the wealthy are so often rewarded for criminal behavior. Young people like you give me hope.

Brandon FromBrooklyn November 22nd, 2011

Thank you for sharing your experience, Cassie. I am moved by your story. Your very last comment is true though: America IS better than this. At least I’d like to think so. There is something wrong with our system when we’ll send Mothers to Federal Prison for lying about their past as they apply for meager Government assistance to feed their children; but we give “banksters” a slap on the wrist when they tell lies AFTER receiving massive Government bail outs. It’s not like that Miss McLemore was trying to defraud the Government. Her request for Food Stamps (to help feed her children) was legitimate. She only omitted the fact that she had a record. Conversely, we have banksters who peddled toxic investment products all over the world that ended up wrecking our economy in 2008. They continue to roam around free with little or no fear of prosecution. Keep up the great work Cassie.

Sharonlee November 22nd, 2011

@ Cassie:
Of course he doesn’t deal with what this will do their time for classes and study and their ultimate futures.

Jado November 28th, 2011

@ Sharonlee:

I hardly think Gingrich NEEDS to deal with the repercussions – they are self-evident. These children will grow up to be “master janitors” themselves. Soon, there will be entire clans of roving Master Janitors, trained and ready to oversee children cleaning schools. And then they can branch out into cleaning offices, pools, streets, etc. Plus, the kids will be so busy trying to make enough money to eat, they won’t have time to run wild in the streets, with all the hippity-hop and the backwards baseball hats.
Why, Good Ol’ Uncle Newty has simultaneously solved the problems of hungry children AND teenage vandalism and crime. We are truly blessed to have him.

Of course, the future of the American workplace will need scores of highly-trained, technologically savvy workers, and these Master Janitors won’t qualify for THOSE jobs. But hey, that just makes it easier for the children of the RIGHT people to get those jobs. Wouldn’t want any child of a Master Janitor to invade the High Aerie of the Meritoriously Deserving.

And, in the event of the of a glut of Master Janitors, they can always fight each other in Thunderdome for the amusement of the Deserving.

Cassie November 28th, 2011

Hi Jado! Thanks for commenting. How did you find my blog?

[...] 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!  Source Article [...]