Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Where Have you Gone, Jimmy Braddock?

None of us get to choose the times in which we live. From a cultural and aesthetic standpoint I am a man of the 1940’s, with its grand struggles, big band music and fedora hats. I would have been equally happy as a twenty year old in the 1770’s amidst the revolutionary chaos of our nation’s birth. But, I live in the 21st century, in a country that no longer makes sense to me and from which I feel increasingly estranged.

I saw this picture, the logjam of overflowing shopping carts abandoned in an aisle at a Walmart somewhere in Louisiana. There was a video of how they got there on YouTube. As I watched, I felt myself recoiling from the world. I tried to conjure up some degree of detachment, to place some emotional distance between me and the story. I read all I could find about the details, hoping to find some mitigating circumstance that would provide me with some intellectual cover. The more I learned, the worse I felt. What I was trying desperately not to believe about the pictures became more and more untenable. The pictures did in fact tell the unfiltered truth, a thousand word tale of what has become of shame in my country. It has vanished, cast off by a people seduced by entitlement.

The facts are few and uncomplicated. The Louisiana Food Stamp EBT debit card program temporarily malfunctioned, suddenly removing all credit limits. Word of the glitch began spreading like wildfire among beneficiaries of the system. Literally within hours, Walmarts in two Louisiana towns became swamped with customers loading up all the carts they could manage to handle, stripping inventory off the shelves. Walmart officials made the mistake of honoring the purchases anyway. When the temporary glitch was finally suddenly fixed hours later, shoppers simply walked away, leaving carts burdened with perishable food abandoned in the aisles. One man racked up $700 worth of goods on his EBT card which carried a .49 credit balance before the windfall.

In America today, it is a dicey business to set about criticizing this sort of thing. Charges of insensitivity or worse, racism, often follow anyone who complains about Food Stamp fraud. In fairness, many who do most of the complaining are actual racists. Still, I read stories like this and something inside me screams out, no, no!! this is just wrong, no matter who is doing this, it’s just wrong!!

I think of Cinderella Man. I remember the look on Jimmy Braddock’s face as he stood in line to get his first public assistance payment. He was at the end of his rope. His family was starving. The money would save their lives. And yet, the shame on his face, the humiliation of having been reduced to charity was almost too much to bear for such a proud man. The most powerful scene in the movie was when, after winning his first big payday fight, Braddock stands in the line again; only this time he’s holding a wad of cash which he gives to the teller, paying back every dollar he received down to the penny. The year was 1936. Today those lines don’t exist. There’s only an EBT debit card, and when that card malfunctions, a feeding frenzy ensues.

I’m not one of those people who think Food Stamps are evil. There exist in this country people who through no fault of their own are in dire straits and desperately need help. We as a people do have a moral obligation to help the least of these, our brethren. But when I see this picture, I see less and less funds available for the truly needy. Because of the greed of people savvy and energetic enough to drop everything and run to Walmart to take advantage of a glitch in the system and yet not energetic enough to find work, these are the people stealing from the needy.

But, this picture will not change anything. This is the country I live in, the land of the free and home of the brave. But it has not always been so. There used to be millions of Jimmy Braddocks.