In August 2019, our late friend Michael Brooks was writing an article for Esquire magazine. He asked me to be an early reader on the piece, and even though I was on a cross-country trip at the time, I was excited enough that, every time he’d send me a new version, I’d pull into a rest area to read it on my phone and send him comments.
Esquire ultimately decided not to run the piece. My sense, when I asked Michael about it later, was that they were looking for something that was less ideological and more of a straightforward personal essay. That could be wrong — but I do know that it’s a moving encapsulation of his humanity and his commitment to political change.
We’re running it today as a tribute to our comrade, on the one-year anniversary of his death.
— Ben Burgis
(If you want to help create work that continues the legacy and vision of Michael Brooks, please consider supporting the Michael Brooks Legacy Project.)
When you turn thirteen or fourteen years old, all kinds of things you used to accept as normal become potentially embarrassing. I know I was around that age when I started to notice the anxious look on my mother’s face when she passed our family’s SNAP card — the acronym stands for Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or what’s popularly known as “food stamps” — to the cashier at the grocery store. The anxiety of not always having food in the fridge was doubled by the potential shame of being “caught” using the card.
There is an obvious material toll to experiencing poverty. There’s a psychological one as well.
I thought about that when the Trump administration announced a policy change that would kick 3.1 million people off of SNAP as part of a new push for “efficiency” in the program.
The results of this bureaucratic war will almost certainly lead to millions who need food assistance losing it. There was a casual cruelty in Donald Trump’s decision. His own Department of Agriculture announced that up to five hundred thousand children across the United States could end up going without meals at school as a result.
The Republican Party has long fought for cuts in food stamps, and the Trump administration has sought to impose “work requirements” for poor people who rely on the program. The latest attack is changing the program from one of automatic enrollment (if you need SNAP, you get it immediately) to forcing people to fill out forms and jump through hoops. In the words of the Washington Post’s Paul Waldman, this is about “weaponizing bureaucracy against poor people.”
In my case, though, this wasn’t just a matter of abstract social policy. It was a reminder of some of the most difficult times in my life. And many, many people in this country grew up in far worse conditions than anything I ever had to deal with.
What I realized as an adolescent wasn’t just that we were poor but that there was something wrong with being poor. In the Clinton era, politicians of both parties thought nothing of bashing “welfare mothers” for perpetuating a “culture of dependency.”
I can remember a friend’s mom, a good liberal, musing in casual conversation that she knew it was probably “wrong” to think this way but that she couldn’t help but think that a lot of poor people just couldn’t get ahead because they were “stupid.” She probably didn’t know about my family’s SNAP card — or the occasional eviction notices we received — and I can’t blame her for not knowing. I went out of my way to make sure people in my social circle didn’t find out that we weren’t “middle-class.”
The problem went a lot deeper than the unintentional cruelty of local soccer moms. This was in the 1990s, when Bill Clinton was celebrating the idea that “the era of big government is over,” and Newt Gingrich was upping the ante by talking about taking away the children of those irresponsible “welfare mothers.” In 1996, Bill Clinton would sign the ruthless Republican “welfare reform” bill, which did away with long-term cash assistance to impoverished families, imposed work requirements, and kept felons from accessing food stamps, among other draconian measures. The legacy of “welfare reform” has led to a rise in what academic literature now calls “disconnected mothers,” caught between the impossibility of accessing benefits in order to survive and an inability to find the low-wage jobs the bill was designed to push them into.
By the time I was in my mid-teens and George W. Bush came on the scene, with his creepy and unconvincing talk of “compassionate conservatism,” I was starting to get the impression that some new federal bureaucracy was going to come along to try to convert all poor people to Christianity and stop me from listening to Howard Stern.
Things have gotten better — much better — in the Bernie Sanders era, but even in 2019, a lot of people who may be one medical crisis or a couple of missed paychecks away from dealing with eviction notices and needing SNAP cards themselves don’t identify with these problems. They think they’re part of something called “the middle class” — a phrase so vaguely defined that it sometimes seems to encompass everyone who’s not either a member of the Walton family or currently holding up a “Will Work for Food” sign on the side of the highway. That’s exactly why I don’t think it’s helpful to see social class as just another “identity” category. If a trans woman tells me that her gender identity doesn’t line up with her sex at birth, I’ll use her preferred pronouns as a matter of course, but if a working person tells me he’s not like the people who need “food stamps” because he’s part of the “middle class,” I’ll roll my eyes and tell him that he’s buying into the plutocrats’ propaganda.
At the same time, though, what the woke college kids call “lived experience” really does matter. Just as it’s important that not all of the media figures who write about police brutality be white people who’ve never experienced racism, we need voices from a broader range of economic backgrounds covering issues like the Trump administration’s assault on SNAP.
These proposed cuts hit me personally, and that’s a good thing. It helps me understand something far too many commentators miss: that this isn’t just a matter of different politicians having different “solutions” to help us reach common goals. It’s yet another front in this country’s ongoing war against the poor.