Gov’ment Cheese

When I was a kid growing up, I ate what we in Arkansas called “gov’ment cheese.” Gov’ment cheese was distributed to people who were on welfare or food stamps.  This cheese hunk was wrapped in foil and came in a long cardboard box. We also ate gov’ment peanut butter, which came in a fat white can. Gov’ment cheese tasted all right, although it was unnaturally yellow. Gov’ment peanut butter was dry and tasteless, and using it was like trying to spread Play-Doh over a slice of bread.

My paternal grandfather died in 1976, leaving behind my 48-year-old grandmother and her 15-year-old son on a farm in rural Arkansas. My dad’s family never discusses the past, but I have pieced together a few details over the years. For instance, I know from my parents’ 1980 divorce papers that the farm was nearly half a million dollars in debt. When my grandfather died, they had just completed construction on a new house to replace the old building that had been on the lot since time immemorial.

My grandmother had no college degree and no marketable skills because she married almost directly out of high school. She lived in a town of fewer than 300 people, and she didn’t know how to drive. Because my grandfather was a veteran, she received a small VA pension, which I’m guessing didn’t cover a new mortgage, his medical expenses, the other bills and the farm debt. She took care of me and of another child so that both of our parents could farm, and maybe that brought in a little bit of extra income. Nevertheless, she was a lady with limited options, and she took public assistance to get by.

Gradually, my grandmother traded gov’ment cheese for Kraft singles and gov’ment peanut butter for Jif. I noticed the changes without much interest. After all, I had no idea that other people’s families didn’t eat gov’ment cheese.

In today’s economy, many people who never thought they would need public assistance have had to ask the U.S. government for help. People who never thought they would be homeless have nowhere to live. Proud, dedicated workers have found themselves without jobs, getting food stamps from the government and groceries from a local food bank. I’m guessing that the majority of these people want to get back to work so that they can stop accepting public assistance. However, they accept help not from a sense of entitlement, but from a sense of desperation.

In a September 18th column for The New York Times, conservative David Brooks wrote that “America remains one of the hardest-working nations on earth. Americans work longer hours than just about anyone else. Americans believe in work more than almost any other people. Ninety-two percent say that hard work is the key to success.” A presidential candidate who says that 47 percent of Americans want to subsist on government handouts sorely underestimates the character of the people he wants to lead.

Personally, I’m glad to stand with both Republicans and Democrats who are part of the 92 percent. But I’m also glad that gov’ment cheese was there when we needed it.

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