Government Cheese

Remember the part of the story where Jesus says, “Take the seven loaves of bread and those few small fish, and once you have completed all the drug-testing and sorted out the people who could be working and aren’t, feed the people”?

I did not like those big wheels of cheese that for a short time took up space in my mother’s refrigerator. Nor did I like grocery shopping with my older sister, carefully scanning the cereal aisle for Kix and other foods that were on the list of things she was allowed to buy. I was actually nervous as we went through the checkout line, and I admit it, embarrassed. I wanted to tell the checker, “It’s not for me; I don’t live like this.”

The cheese came to my sister through the WIC program, and I’m guessing her refrigerator was either too small or not working at the time, and that’s why my mother was keeping it for her. My sister’s life was harder than mine. She had insulin-dependent juvenile diabetes, the hereditary kind, not the sort you can make go away by improving your diet. She gave herself shots daily and had to check her blood sugar frequently. She didn’t go to college. She had emotional problems that were built into her struggle with diabetes. She never learned to drive.

She also had an adorable son and was married to a good man who loved her. He had a mental illness that sometimes caused him to detach from reality. Their health challenges made it hard for them to get and keep jobs, but for a while at least, she worked in the laundry-mat up the street. For a good stretch, he ran his own business, painting houses. They made a living. They lived. Their son was beautiful and laughed often. She was a good mother.

After an explosion blew up their trailer, the husband’s hands were injured. His car was gone. It became hard to work, then hard to feel good about yourself. There were long trips to Texas to find jobs. I don’t remember exactly when this was, but I expect that this same time is when the government cheese moved in.

I have been remembering these things lately because the tone people use when they talk about the farm bill is making me sad, and I had to look backward to figure out why. I have also been worrying about all the kids who are growing up thinking that paying taxes is some sort of punishment imposed on good rich people to support lazy poor people.

I don’t remember everything about grade school, but I do remember learning that paying taxes was part of the privilege of living in a bountiful country. I remember specifically discussing whether an elderly couple with no children should have to pay taxes that supported the school system. The answer, given by my fifth grade teacher, Sr. Janine, was “Of course they should.” That nice old couple were going to share in the benefits as those educated children grew up and became firemen and doctors and lawyers. That’s what it meant to live as part of a thriving community.

I can imagine people thinking as they read this, “Yeah, but that’s because you grew up in the seventies, before the government started taxing everyone so heavily.” Maybe that’s it. In 1976, earnings in the top tax bracket were taxed at 70%. Today that number is 39.6%.

I was about to say that I’m not writing today in support of any particular plan or policy, but that’s not really honest. I’m writing to say I’m glad the farm bill didn’t pass. I’m writing to say those posts I see on Facebook about the poor downtrodden taxpayers make me sad. And I’m writing to say that it makes me angry that people co-opt Christianity as a plan for achieving worldly success.

My mother once told me I have the wrong opinion about everything. This was after the time when she had started watching Bill O’Reilly three times a day and before the time when the doctor suggested to my father that that habit might not be helping her.

So, if I have the wrong opinion about the farm bill, at least it’s the opinion that puts a big wheel of government cheese in the refrigerator of some potentially hungry kids. I’m willing to risk being wrong about the rest of it.



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