Recently, the House voted to reduce food stamp funding. One of the arguments I hear in favor of this measure is a desire to punish drug addicts. “They chose this life,” I hear. “Why should I support them and their bad choices? They chose it and they have to live with it! They should just stop, and be productive members of society.” I understand those arguments. I used to make them myself. But then I met Lana.
Working in a high poverty area consumed by drug abuse, I met many addicts. Some of them were obvious: broken teeth and peeling skin from meth, eyes glazed over. Lana was different. She volunteered in my classroom with exuberance. She was great with the kids and never appeared without makeup or styled hair. Lana was bright, funny and cheerful, and I was glad for a stable existence in my student’s lives. She sometimes disappeared for long stretches of time, which her daughter attributed to traveling to see family, or a weak immune system as she was often sick. Her daughter Jane was mouthy and street-smart, but I loved her. She had the same sense of humor and was a nice kid, even though her attitude needed some work.
I found out later that Lana’s endless cheer was a result of heroin. She shot up constantly. Her trips were failed stints at rehab and jail time; around the holidays she vanished for a couple of months. After that, she stopped volunteering. I felt betrayed. Here was a woman I thought was a good person doing her best, and now this? And what about her massive brood of children? didn’t she care enough to stop?
I grumbled about it, but life went on. In the spring, I decided to help host a parenting class. I didn’t teach, but rather managed the set-up and assisted. As it turned out, all the parents who signed up were parents or siblings of my students, which made for an odd dynamic. Lana was one of them. She genuinely wanted to make life better for her kids, as best as she could.
As time passed, Lana started talking about her own life. She was the child of an addict. From the time she was very small, her mother fed her sleeping pills every night so that her mother could go out and party. As she got older, but still in elementary school, her mother started feeding her “the good stuff” so that she could “party” too. Until she ran away from home at fifteen, she lived on drugs. Lana expressed fury at her mother: “I was told I was so smart, but I couldn’t focus at school. No one knew what was wrong. I couldn’t wake up and was always late, always in trouble. I never got recess or parties because my homework was never done. I wanted to learn. I loved math and science. I wanted to go to the moon. I wanted…the life I saw other people on TV had. I wanted to be someone important. She wouldn’t let me. She never wanted me to be anything more than she was. She hated me my whole life.”
When she fled, she tried to get clean, but she was young and without resources. To avoid starvation, she took up with a drug dealer. Pregnant shortly after, she lived on the streets until she married a man who beat her. I suspect he used her addiction as a method to control her.
One day, we sat together in my room, and she said, “I tried so hard to get clean. I work two jobs, but without graduating high school, I can’t do any better than fast food. I’ve done rehab, I’ve done jail. But if I go to rehab long enough to break it, I have to leave my kids alone with him. And then…what have I got? I still have no money. I still have a house that’s falling apart. I don’t have any fun in my life at all. And those foster homes–you read about how they beat and kill the kids. I have to keep them safe.”
It’s easy for me to say she should have sucked it up for her kids, divorced her husband, and got treatment. But I have resources. I have parents and extended family who love me, and who are willing to share their resources. I have wonderful friends with successful jobs who would take me in. I had education, food, shelter, and protection my whole life. No one forced drugs on me in kindergarten. No one beat me or told me I was worthless. Yes, Lana made unfortunate choices, but I can’t blame her. She didn’t make the first choice to start drugs. She has nowhere to go. It’s easy to see how someone in high poverty, with no hope of escape, would find escape in drugs.
Lana did try. She put all of the techniques we taught her to work. She wanted the best for her children; they ate when she didn’t, they had warm clothes when she was cold, and she did her best to help with homework. But the addiction ate at her core.
It was hard to balance my feelings about Lana. One day, near the end of the year, her daughter approached me and said, “I was thinking, your daughter is so lucky. She gets to go home with you.” Tears filled her eyes and she put her arms around me, and whimpered, “Please take me home with you. I’d be so good! I’d clean and cook and look after M and do my homework for you. I’d be the best kid! Please don’t make me go home!” And I held this sobbing child, giving serious thought to scooping her up and running. Of course I couldn’t; if I could I’d have forty kids. And at that moment, I hated Lana for putting Jane through this. I hated myself for hating one so helpless.
I did call CPS, in case you’re wondering. I did for every child in danger. Only three of the cases were “bad enough” for intervention. Think about that.
Back to food stamps. What does cutting food stamps really accomplish? Does it punish people like Lana? A bit. But more than that, it punishes Jane. Lana would not have the resources to pull herself out. Rehab is frightening, and what would she do with the children? The problem with this idea is that it punishes rather than reforms. It implies that hunger will drive people to achieve the impossible, as if losing food assistance would miraculously clean them up, give them a good job and a safe home.
Is our goal to punish, or to rehabilitate? Does punishment accomplish anything? It seems to me that it simply drives desperation and crime. I knew a man who sold all of his son’s toys for crack while the child was at school. Would losing food stamps encourage him to stop? Of course not, but it would remove the minimal food the child did get. Why should the child suffer? And the children do suffer. They are the ones who lack food. There are not enough foster homes to take them in. There are not enough social workers to see them all. I knew the social workers; they were amazing people who loved kids and tried their best with minimal resources in a badly broken system. They wanted to save the children. They couldn’t.
Rather than cutting relief, we need to fix the system. Offer quality foster care and invest in social workers. Invest in rehab that feels safe to the people that need it. Dig in and root out the gangs, secure the borders, allow people in poverty to have a glimmer of hope of getting out.
Doing that takes money. A lot of money. It seems to me that if we fought a few less wars and turned our resources to our own struggling populace, maybe we could do something about it. But first, everyone has to acknowledge that Lana and Jane exist. Every politician needs to spend a month in a Title I school, getting to know the families, and seeing how brutal poverty is first hand.
Last I heard, Lana died. I can’t confirm it. I don’t know what’s become of Jane, but I can guess. I hope the cycle stopped with her, but I doubt it.