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Free Lunch, Government Programs & Entitled Brats

There has been a lot of talk recently in our nation about government handouts and free lunch and feelings of entitlement.

Last month at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, made what appeared to be a joke about telling Bernie Sanders there is no such thing as a free lunch. In December, the news picked up a story from the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference. Then, House Speaker Paul Ryan told a story about a little boy in a public school who wanted a brown bag lunch packed from home like his peers, rather than the free school lunch. He also spoke against the Affordable Care Act, and he went on to say that “The Left is making a big mistake here. What they’re offering people is a full stomach and an empty soul.”

Within the past few months, I have seen many articles and blog posts and opinion pieces about how the free school lunch program and the Affordable Care Act and other government subsidy programs are creating a generation of entitled freeloaders.

And to be honest, every headline, every sound bite, every bumper sticker slogan – every overly-simplified, overly-generalized commentary on such a complicated, nuanced subject makes me angry, sad, beyond-frustrated. I have been mentally composing this blog post for weeks, but I didn’t want to write with word-guns blazing and anger-fire shooting from my fingertips. But I must write this. The thoughts and swirling words won’t leave my brain.

You see, I have been on the receiving end of some government “entitlement” programs. As a child and as an adult. And I can promise you this:  I did not ever, not once, feel some sort of greedy entitlement as a result. No.

When I was in high school, my dad’s hours at the coal mine were scaled back and then cut altogether when the mine finally closed. My stay-at-home mom went to work for the first time in my memory, making a fraction of what my dad had made. Family members helped my parents buy groceries and pay bills. If our extended family situation had been different, if we had been born into families caught in generational poverty, our story would have been different. My parents would have lost their home. We would have needed food stamps. As it was, we lived without health insurance and prayed nobody got really sick. My brothers and I qualified for free lunch at school. But I didn’t want a free lunch; I usually packed a peanut butter sandwich in a plastic baggie and brown paper bag my mom insisted I bring home and re-use to save money. Every time I did stand in line for lunch, I was embarrassed, mortified that someone would find out I was one of those kids, the free lunch kids. As my dad stood in line with other out-of-work miners to get government cheese, I guarantee you he was not feeling flippantly entitled, pleased with himself for fleecing the government. That was a humiliating time for our family. Through no fault of his own, my dad had lost his job. Men all over our county had lost their jobs. And we needed help — some of that help came from family and some of that help came from government programs.

In 2007, I was a stay-at-home mom of six small children. Compelled by God and commissioned by our local church, we packed up everything we owned and moved from Virginia to Florida to serve with an international missions organization. Our organization required that everyone, both the missionaries who went to remote places around the world and missionaries who worked at the main office in Florida, raise financial support. We wrote letters and made phone calls and visited whatever churches would invite us and tried to raise money to live on. During this time, I discovered that the Evangelical Church, which elevates foreign missionaries to rock-star status and which proclaims a desire to spread the gospel message to the ends of the earth, overwhelmingly prefers to support missionaries who go to exciting places and come back with emotion-tugging pictures. Bottom line – it’s not as glamorous to work in an office in Florida as it is to work in an office in Brazil or Kenya or France, so the Church is less likely to send money to the behind-the-scenes support-staff missionary in the United States – even if we’re all working for the same end-goal and even though missionaries could not be working in other countries without the support missionaries who work in the home offices.

Another thing I have noticed is that, though the Church in the United States is astoundingly wealthy compared to the rest of the world — both individual church members and the Church as a whole — Christians generally expect missionaries to live in poverty. When we were living on the monthly checks of supporters, I lived with the constant stress of feeling every penny I spent was scrutinized. If we ordered pizza for dinner, I didn’t mention it on social media because I knew someone would wonder why we were spending their support money so lavishly. When we went on an anniversary cruise, we actually had people question how we could justify spending support money on a vacation. Because missionaries aren’t supposed to spend any money on fun. We’re supposed to suffer — it’s evidently part of the understood calling.

In 2009, we received a whopping total of $27,210. For our family of 8 to live on. We paid rent and health insurance and school tuition and fees to our mission organization, and we bought groceries and gas and car insurance, and we paid doctor’s bills. Our health insurance was $500 a month for a family plan. That was the year we realized every other family we knew in our mission organization living there in Florida was using Florida’s Healthy Kids program, a free healthcare program for children. We could cut our monthly health insurance cost in half if we put the kids on this plan. I wrestled with the decision because I came from churches filled with far-right conservatives who excoriated people on government assistance. I didn’t want to depend on the government. But those same people claimed that helping people was the Church’s job. Our entire income came from “the Church,” and yet we qualified for free healthcare for our kids. Finally, we signed the kids up for government healthcare. We couldn’t afford not to. Our missionary role wasn’t exciting enough to get us enough money from the Church to pay for our most basic needs. I was embarrassed and didn’t tell many people. I certainly didn’t feel entitled; I felt sad and helpless.

When we left the mission organization and returned to Virginia in 2012, I was a stay-at-home mom, and though Patrick had a good job, our kids still qualified for reduced lunch at school. Because they could each buy a school lunch for less than 50 cents a day, they bought their reduced lunches at school. We were already frugally stretching a budget, digging our way out of the debt we had accumulated living as missionaries, and the almost-free lunch at school helped a lot. Again, we didn’t feel entitled; we felt grateful that our tax dollars were helping us and others like us.

My children didn’t behave like entitled brats because they qualified for a reduced lunch price. Their free healthcare and reduced lunch didn’t leave their souls empty. My free lunch in high school didn’t leave my soul empty.

As I have volunteered and worked in public schools, I can tell you confidently that I have met far, far more entitled children from upper-middle-class families who believe they somehow deserve expensive name-brand shoes and jackets and jewelry, who believe they deserve that car that was given to them for their 16th birthday than I have from families living close enough to the poverty level to qualify for free lunch or government-subsidized healthcare.

If we want to address the epidemic of entitlement attitudes in our country, I don’t think our discussion should begin with poor kids whose parents cannot afford almost $15 a week per child for school lunch or children whose parents cannot afford hundreds of dollars a month for a mediocre health insurance plan. Maybe we could begin by discussing politicians who feel entitled to huge salaries and a premium health plan, while disparaging their constituents who live on less than $30,000 a year. Maybe we could begin by discussing the uber-wealthy who feel entitled to tax breaks and political favors because they can afford to donate millions of dollars to politicians, the wealthy people who feel they are entitled to more government influence because they can afford to pay for it. Maybe we could start with the extremely wealthy who somehow feel they are entitled to their parents and grandparents’ millions-of-dollar handout but don’t think a child who is growing up in a family bogged down in generational poverty deserves a free lunch at school.

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