I am an American citizen, 35 years old, and I rely upon the federal government. The fact is, we all do. Our roads, post offices, libraries, public schools: these amenities come from tax dollars and are the product of our social contract. But such arguments have been made time and time again, and seem not to gain much traction. So let me speak from the heart.
I rely upon federal assistance.
I am an American citizen who is quite upset by the tone coming out of the GOP debates. To wit, Mr. Gingrich’s recent standing-ovation-receiving comment that President Obama has put more people on food stamps than any president in history, a line that seeks to identify a lazy entitlement class established by the so-called “liberal elite.” Gingrich touts an administration will that convert food stamps to paychecks, ala Jesus changing water into wine. Certainly, this is an admirable goal, but the trope overlooks a basic fact: A vast majority of Americans who receive food stamps are children, the elderly, or those who are disabled; in other words, those who can’t work. Further, a great number of recipients do work. Sometimes two or three jobs. The simple fact is, wages have not kept up with inflation and cost of living increases.[i] But pointing this out constitutes “class warfare” or “socialism.” If one is to defend these programs, one is frequently accused of selling out “real Americans” who “work” for a living. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney intensifies the charge. He claims that President Obama is dividing the country with the politics of envy. And given the fact that Mitt Romney has not held a job, by his own accounts, for four years, I do not see how his income from capital gains—which are taxed at only a 15% rate—constitutes “work.” But maybe that is just envy speaking.
So, in summary, two of the major candidates accuse Americans who receive assistance (or perhaps, only those who support President Obama’s policies) of both laziness and envy.
Doesn’t really make one want to run out and vote for you, candidates.
I stated above that I rely upon federal assistance. My continuing education would not be possible without the FAFSA loan program. If Congressman Ron Paul is to have his way, this program will be cut.[ii] This makes sense, because if you can’t afford to go to school in order to get a well-paying job you don’t deserve the education that will secure you that job. So if you are on food stamps or other forms of public assistance, good luck pulling yourself out of the systemic poverty that keeps so many Americans from realizing that ever-elusive American dream. While Mr. Paul may have been able to work his way through medical school without accruing debt, that is not an option for well over 99% of people who pursue graduate degrees. Times have changed; wages, unfortunately, have not. Most of us have crushing student loans debts that rival mortgages, and little hope of paying off said debt in a timely manner. Most of us will carry our debts for decades.
I am an American citizen. In fact, I am the “average voter” that so many of the GOP candidates want to target. I am a white male, culturally middle class, and a Christian. I have held a job since I was 13 years old, and I am a hard worker. Just ask any of my friends who frequently tell me that I work too hard. But I don’t have a retirement account. I moved back in with my family because I cannot afford to pay both my student loans and rent at the same time. To be sure, I also help my aging parents, and I do so gladly. I have knowingly chosen a career path—a theology professor and, God willing, a pastor—that does not result in vast dividends. I willingly make the necessary sacrifices because I believe in what I am doing, and my treasure is not to be quantified in monetary terms. But I resent the idea that I or others like me are asking for a handout. I, and many others I know, work multiple jobs. Yet we rely on Medicaid, SNAP, WICA, FAFSA, and a variety of other programs because we are the generation that has been left behind. And the GOP is demonizing us, calling us lazy and envious. Telling us that the brass ring is there is we just pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. But many of us don’t even have boots, or if we do they are owned by Bank of America. Corporations can receive bailouts, can have the status of personhood, and seem to get all the privileges of citizenship without any of the responsibilities, but we do not.
I must ask, Do you really want to live in a country where citizens go hungry even while they work? Are you so out of touch that you do not realize that the minimum wage is neither minimum nor a wage? We can do better. We must do better. But until we do, social safety net programs have to stay in place. And humiliating those who utilize them is not the answer.
According to the recent rhetoric, we who rely upon social assistance or entitlement programs, apparently, are not American enough because, at the end of the month, what we owe exceeds what we have taken in. We have to make a decision between food or rent, education or heat. When we note that such a choice does not seem congruous with the promises given to us—that an education will lead to a good job, stability, and rewards for hard work—we are told to shut up. We are told to love it or leave it. We are told that we are failures.
This is not hyperbole; it is fact.
I am in a better situation than are a lot of people I know and a great number of Americans who are struggling right now. I am able to live with my parents, and my fiancée has agreed to marry me and move in to the family home. I really have no other choice if I want to pay off my debts and contribute to society as a whole. I do not want to be taken care of; I am not lazy; I am not envious. I accept the fact that my yearly vacation, most likely, will comprise of a stack of books and a long Netflix queue. I have realized that quite a few of the “necessities” in my earlier life are no longer necessary. I use my yearly tax return to pay down my debts. I do what I need to do in order to make ends meet. But I don’t like being called lazy. I don’t like having my American-ness challenged. I don’t like the fact that I can see the writing on the wall, and when I read it aloud, I’m told that I am filled with envy. I don’t like needing to rely on FAFSA, just like the people I know who utilize other assistance programs don’t like having to do so. We wish things were otherwise. We wish that education was not so expensive, or that companies would receive incentives from the government to keep jobs here rather than to send them overseas. We would happily pay more taxes if it meant that average wages could be increased so that the dignity of an honest day’s work could be rewarded with the luxury of a filled refrigerator and a consistently heated home. We would love that, but for many of us this is not the reality.
So I will not accept the politics of feudalism. I will not be a silent vassal that does what the overlord demands. I will not sit by as the gilded class seeks to dismantle the social safety net our forbearers wove for us so that we may not know the horrors of child labor, or unregulated food, or millions of elderly and disabled people starving on the streets. Because that is what the GOP candidates seem to be gunning for; and most horrifyingly, it receives a standing ovation.
I am an American citizen. No matter what you say, GOP candidates, you cannot take that away from me. I will not allow you to disrespect the work a vast majority of us perform, day in and day out, with no expectations of praise or standing ovations. I will not accept charges of envy and laziness, when many of you earn more money by delivering one speech, calling me lazy, than I do in an entire year working hours that would make you collapse. Stop saying that you speak for me when your speech seeks to ridicule and marginalize me.
My name is Aaron Maurice Saari, and I approved this letter.