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The stimulus checks won’t make a difference — take it from someone who’s really been poor

In California, I was thrown in jail because my papers weren’t in order. My pregnant wife was in my ancient pickup truck and I was supposed to be on my way to start a job

Stephen Lyons
Tuesday 09 March 2021 15:31 GMT
Virus Outbreak Congress
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I know all too well what it’s like to be poor. The daily doing without. The shame of using food stamps. The humiliation when you pawn your last few treasures for pennies on the dollar as the surly store owner treats you like dirt. The envy of those who are comfortable, those who are warm and fed. And I know the inability to imagine a future when simply surviving the present takes every ounce of effort.

I have also experienced what it is like to be arrested because your papers were not in order: in my case, a years-old “fix-it” ticket in California that I did not take care of for lack of funds on a car I no longer owned. When I was arrested and thrown in jail, everything I owned sat in the bed of my ancient pickup truck along with my former wife, who was pregnant with our daughter. Ironically, I was on my way to begin a new job in Michigan.

The arresting officer appeared a bit too happy when my name popped up on his computer screen. The handcuffs seemed unnecessary. But I wasn’t going anywhere. That night in jail with two (also poor) sad but friendly Mexican laborers felt like 20 years.

Trust me when I tell you there is no virtue in being poor. In this fabulously wealthy nation, money is the only lingua franca, and without it you are an outcast, a worthless slacker, an untouchable. You become invisible.

I found a way out through education and more than a few lucky breaks. Those tough years are behind me now, but the traumatic memories remain. As a result, I am beyond frugal, endlessly cautious in my spending and always expecting that my middle-class lifestyle will end in a heartbeat.

So I am sensitive to a stark increase this year in my neighborhood of those desperate men and women, often with small children or with dogs, holding cardboard signs at the entrances to Starbucks and Wal-Mart here in the Heartland. Sometimes I give them money or food. Sometimes I don’t, but I always treat them with dignity. I call them “sir” and “ma’am,” because they are somebody’s daughter, son, brother, sister, father or mother. Sometimes they thank me and say, “God bless you.” Sometimes they do not thank me and that’s OK.

I now have the means to donate money to causes and in that I am not so frugal. I mostly give to food banks because I know that people first need sustenance before they can think straight, and the only way to begin an ascent out of any situation is to be able to deliberate clearly, something you cannot do when your belly is empty.

This past weekend, the Senate passed a $1.9 billion coronavirus relief bill that will, among other measures, provide direct payments via stimulus checks to families, and extend unemployment benefits to the 11 million Americans now out of work. The measure is now in the hands of the House, where it is expected to pass. That a single Republican did not vote for the bill is hardly a surprise. (The last time I can recall a Republican doing anything that benefited average Americans was when President Nixon signed the Clean Air and Water Acts in the 1970s, acts his own party has chipped away at ever since.) Nor was it out of character for Republicans to quickly label the bill as a “liberal wish list,” even though the head of its caucus, Mitch McConnell, leads a state that has 10 counties with poverty rates at or above 30 percent.

Whatwas surprising was the resistance from eight Democrats in a separate proposal to raise the federal minimum wage after 12 years from a pathetic $7.25 an hour to $15 an hour (alas, phased in over several years). Fifteen dollars an hour over a 40-hour work week and 52 weeks a year comes to $31,200 before taxes. I won’t even dignify the numbers on $7.25 an hour.

The average annual salary for a US Senator is $173,000. In the most recent 116th Congressional session, those same Senators worked (I use the term loosely because I really don’t think requiring your clerks to read a 628-page bill out loud into the Congressional Record counts) a total of 163 “legislative days.” Heck, Congress gets more recesses than I did in all my years in elementary school.

The $1,400 payments will help ( I will donate mine), but for so many Americans out of work, on the verge of eviction and waiting in long lines at food pantries, the amount seems paltry. Yet, breathless headlines followed this small victory. One which stuck in my mind declared that: “Biden stimulus showers money on Americans, sharply cutting poverty”.

“Sharply cutting poverty?” Nope. Perhaps delaying poverty for a week. 

“Showers?” More like crumbs that were reluctantly brushed from a table laden with a royal feast. American will require much more from Congress to stem the growing rift between the haves and those have-nots that have fallen into the category of never-wills.

As I was leaving the California jail that fateful day after my arrest, I passed the very officer who had brought me in the previous night. He looked right through me without a hint of recognition. To him, and to the rest of America, I was still invisible.

Stephen J. Lyons is the author of four books of essays and journalism. His forthcoming book “West of East” will be published by Finishing Line Press

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