"They'll kill us before they feed us."
That's what an old friend once told me. Know it or not, like it or not -- we're screwed. Yes, he was talking about food, but what he also meant was, 'The System would work its way so that the old, the sick, the poor, the different and the "other" would be thrown overboard, sacrificed even to the point of death before social policies in the United States were constructed and instituted to care for such people -- for the old, for the sick, for the poor and especially for the different and for the "other."'
I didn't agree with my friend. Didn't we already have Social Security? Didn't we have Medicare? Nobody starved in America. Weren't race relations improving? Wasn't the whole world becoming a better place to be? He just smiled. I said he was an old friend. He knew me and I'm sure he expected my disagreement.
That was twenty years ago. We were just past fifty, still strong, still vital, still able to look in the mirror and see ourselves as young and attractive, or so we thought. We would never be in jeopardy like that, would we? I was wrong, of course, but I didn't know it yet. My friend was right. The worst was yet to come. Well, it's here now.
I'll be seventy-two soon. I'm among the lucky ones. I'll eat. I've seen a lot of this country and some of the world we live in. Most Americans are sure everything here is better than anywhere else. They've never gone 200 mph on a luxury train from Paris to Amsterdam. They've never seen a gleaming Asian airport looking more like something out of science fiction than LaGuardia or LAX. We admire Mercedes here, blind to their common use as taxicabs in Europe. Americans are unaware that we are the only civilized place left without universal health care. Its not just Europe and Canada. Remember when Rush Limbaugh was so upset that Barack Obama had been reelected he ranted about leaving the country? Where did he say he would go? Costa Rica, that's where. Maybe he owns property there, who knows? But that's the place he said he would go to escape Obama's evil socialism. Costa Rica, where they have universal health care.
As a candidate Barack Obama said he was "the people we were waiting for." Seventy million voters believed him. He said he favored "single payer universal health care." Simply put, that means Medicare-For-All with people younger than age 65 paying premiums equal to the actual cost of their participation. That's health care without the added costs and profits for the insurance industry. But once in the White House, President Obama never strongly supported this. He didn't insist on or even rally support for a Senate vote on their limited version of a public option. What we got -- what's come to be called Obamacare -- is more an insurance and pharmaceutical company windfall than anything resembling socialized medicine. Obamacare is better than nothing, but it's not Canadian and not European. It's not even Costa Rican. Richard Nixon had a better plan in 1971 -- you could look it up. What's more basic and fundamental than universal health care for the old, the poor and the sick, for everyone? Here's what's really basic and fundamental -- "They'll kill us before they feed us."
In 1939, our federal government started the first Food Stamp program. A true patrician, FDR, was President. No one would mistake him for a black community organizer. The Secretary of Agriculture then was Henry Wallace, who would soon become Vice President and who would later run for president as the candidate of The Progressive Party. Milo Perkins was the first administrator of Food Stamps. Perkins said this at the start: "We got a picture of a gorge, with farm surpluses on one cliff and under-nourished city folks with outstretched hands on the other. We set out to find a practical way to build a bridge across that chasm."
Imagine, if you can, anybody in government today saying such a thing. Imagine anyone even thinking it. Times change. Indeed, Ronald Reagan's administration actually declared that ketchup was a vegetable. But Reagan never stopped the food stamp program.
Eventually food stamps became part of the politically sacrosanct Agriculture Bill, a multi-billion dollar commodity market stabilizer with most of the money going to big-time agri-business. The latest figures show about $5 billion spent on food stamps accounting for a total of $9.2 billion in our national economy. Every dollar in food stamps generates $1.84 in economic activity. That's how the marketplace works. Food stamps also feed more than 47 million Americans who otherwise might go hungry. Do you know what it means to be hungry and have nothing to eat?
The recent Agriculture Bill passed by the Republican controlled House of Representatives cut the Food Stamp program. The bill didn't reduce funding for Food Stamps. It cut it out completely. This is the same House that approved $198.2 billion for the war in Afghanistan for the fiscal year 2012-13. The Food Stamp program costs less than 10 days of a failing, decade long war halfway around the world. Food doesn't kill anyone. It feeds the hungry. No Food Stamps. No food. Have you seen a hungry child?
What's happened that we no longer have men like Franklin Roosevelt, Henry Wallace or Milo Perkins in our government?
"They'll kill us before they feed us." Did you believe a great American city, New Orleans, could die unattended? A quick flood fix is not the same as rebuilding a national treasure. Did you ever think the bankers and tycoons of Wall Street, still alive only by the grace of a federal bailout, would put Detroit into bankruptcy? General Motors, Inc. was bailed out, but not the people of Detroit.
I recall when Martin Luther King Jr. stood in front of the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, facing the reflecting pool with the Washington Monument straight ahead. We had never seen anything like it before. "Free at last! Free at last!" We had never heard anything like that before. Perhaps the joy of being in your twenties is the ease with which you can believe great things will happen. So many of us did.
What I would not have believed on that wonderful day in the summer of 1963 was that fifty years later there would be laws, and courts and juries ready and willing to enforce those laws, that would allow a white man with a gun to leave his car and follow an unsuspecting black teenager, then shoot the teen to death because the man with a gun said he was "afraid" of the teen. As my old friend told me, The System works its way. And now we see, "They'll kill us before the feed us" in your face, with the full force of law?
If you are much younger than me and see only the light at the far end, missing the long, black, dark tunnel, and if you insist that things are getting better, look at these Census Department numbers:
--the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population today is age 85-94
--the largest demographic group of Americans is already age 65+
--by 2050 there will be 88,500,000 Americans age 65 or older
--by 2050 there will be more than 600,000 Americans 100 years old +
--by 2042 the total U.S. population will be majority nonwhite
America is getting older, sicker, poorer, more diverse, and more different, more "other" than ever before in our history. How will we care for one another, help the elderly, provide for the ill, feed the hungry, embrace our racial and cultural diversity? A more important question: Will we even try? Or, will they really "kill us before they feed us?"
I won't be here to answer these questions. Neither will my old friend who warned me years ago of the bad and worse things sure to come. But, if "They'll kill us before they feed us" has already shown itself in the fabric of our national politics, and if its swiftly gaining momentum, what will this nation look like in only 37 years? Should you find the answer, which seems so obvious and likewise so unacceptable to a civilized conscious, coming true -- what will you do about it?