The scene: a small sidewalk construction zone near my home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The foreman, Arnie, had waved me on, but I stopped to ask questions. Hadn't they just redone this sidewalk in the fall? Why were they re-redoing it now? Were Cambridge tax dollars paying for this?
"No, the contractor's paying," Arnie replied. "But you know what Cambridge should be paying for? Running all the bums out of here. They're everywhere!"
I have spent a little time with the kind of people this man was referring to, so the conversation had now taken on a new dynamic. This happens to me a lot: someone speaks to me out of what seems like a desire to engage, but what they say feels like I've been slapped in the face.
What do you say when someone slaps you in the face by accident?
A direct rebuttal ("You don't even know any of these 'bums'. Who are you to judge?") will slam down a wall between us, cutting off any possibility of a shift occurring on either side of the conversation. Pretending to agree with him or remaining silent will leave me humiliated, him reassured that I share his views.
So many times I have not responded. This time, for the first time, I responded.
"Well actually, I'm a bum myself. I'm on welfare." Arnie's crew continued moving equipment and shouting busily behind him, but he stopped still, a quizzical look crossing his face.
"But...what? You seem like a nice enough guy. You...you seem educated!"
"Yes, but I'm also on welfare."
I continued: my life, the way I live, is possible due to welfare. I don't receive checks from the government, but my college degree, my lack of debt, my experiences traveling abroad, my home, my family, and my current unpaid employment are all possible thanks to money that was doled out to me by someone else. That's welfare.
This could sound unappreciative of my family, so let me take this chance to say: I'm proud of the work ethic of my mother, my father, and my grandfather--the people who have allowed me the freedom to do what I'm doing. They have always been dedicated to achievement through hard work. That dedication has generated enough financial security to allow me to do things that not everyone is able to do. Mom, Dad, Poppy--thank you.
Here's my point: the genuine hard work of my grandfather was also federally-fertilized. The tubing business that my he ran was subsidized, just like all American industry is in some way, by the government. Public investment in education helped to prepare his employees. Public investment in infrastructure provided his company with systems for transportation, water, sewage, and electricity. Public investment in the war effort opened up a vast market for tubing. Public investment in an intellectual copyright system and the judicial system to defend those rights ensured that his company's technology was safe.
So when I hear someone talking with disgust about people who receive public assistance, well, that person is talking about me, too. And themselves. And everyone in this country who's been able to build themselves and their families a financially-prosperous life.
* * *
I am trying to learn how to speak. Not to argue, or to convince, or to intimidate...but to speak a truth that dignifies myself, the person in front of me, and everyone else as humans worthy of consideration. It's only step one, but it is step one.
This is something I can do with my class privilege: publicly embrace what society would reassure me and itself that I am not--a welfare bum. Is it ridiculous to call myself that? Probably. Then I must ask myself: is it not then ridiculous to assign anyone that label?