Lessons from Aunt Mary: When bootstraps cut, a hand up is OK

Teri Carter
Teri Carter

Aunt Mary kept refusing to sign up for government assistance. She was in her 50s, living alone, paycheck to paycheck, overweight, struggling to manage her diabetes, and had recently lost a breast and suffered debilitating chemotherapy.

Doctors insisted she could no longer work at the shoe factory where she’d spent decades on the line. But Aunt Mary held firm. She didn’t want charity, to be on the dole. She would figure something out.

Americans pride ourselves on bootstraps culture — work hard, earn your keep, pull yourself up — and President Donald Trump’s proposed budget for 2018 reflects those principles.

There are $193 billion in proposed cuts to food stamps (known now as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP). More than 40 million Americans depend on these benefits to feed their families and, contrary to common belief, 80 percent of those on SNAP have jobs. They are the working poor.

The $9 billion in cuts to education include special needs, advanced placement and training for technical jobs. Tamara Hiler, a senior policy adviser for the think tank Third Way, called the president’s policy tone deaf as it hurts the core of his supporters: the poor, the rural and the working class.

Cuts for farmers and agriculture over the next decade equal $50 billion.

And then there’s health care. Kentuckians depend on Medicaid more than people in most states, so the president’s plan to slash Medicaid by $616 billion over the next 10 years (in addition to the $880 billion already proposed in the House Republicans’ health-care bill) would prove devastating to our most vulnerable citizens.

And yet conservatives cheer the president’s plan.

Aunt Mary was a proud American. It took us months to talk her into signing up for Medicaid. I’m convinced she would have held out longer, maybe forever, if my mother had not become terminally ill and guilted her into filling out the paperwork. “You’re my favorite sister,” my mother told her, “we were born 13 months apart and grew up sharing a bed. Do it for me. I won’t be able to die in peace knowing you’re not taken care of.”

After my mother’s death, with Medicaid to pay for health care and medication, Aunt Mary lived another 12 years. A colorful character, she filled the mother-void in my life, but she also took what responsibility she could for her health. She managed her diabetes with diet and insulin and, after having a tumor removed from her heart, kept at the physical-therapy exercises on her own. She even lost some weight.

When painful, diabetic neuropathy set in and she became wheelchair-bound, Aunt Mary signed up for Meals On Wheels. And though it took gargantuan effort, she continued to press her slacks, steam her blouses, do her hair and put on makeup every single morning, because, “if I’m getting a home-cooked meal, personally delivered, the least I can do is make myself presentable.”

Aunt Mary was on the dole, but she knew the importance of appearances. Americans may have a bootstraps culture, but we can also be a cruel and judgmental lot, quick to righteousness.

To the poor or addicted, we want to scream: “Clean up your act. Get a job.”

To minority groups and immigrants: “Keep your head down and your mouth shut. Learn English. This is our country. If you don’t like it, get out.”

To the obese mother in line at Walmart, with her full cart of food and her SNAP card: “Why do I have to pay when I work hard and you’re the lazy one, the one who made the wrong choices?”

To the sick, as Rep. Mo Brooks from Alabama recently put it, our goal is not to provide health care or a safety net, but to reduce insurance “costs to those people who lead good lives.”

So much for Matthew 25: 35-36: “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me.”

The president and his cabinet, and the majority of their supporters, believe massive cuts in social welfare programs, health care and education are necessary. A long overdue pulling-up of our collective American bootstraps. Hallelujah! they say.

But at what cost? Am I the only one with an Aunt Mary?

Teri Carter, a writer living in Lawrenceburg, can be reached at www.tericarter.net