Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Just Like Me

By Ron Harris

NOVEMBER 9, 1998:  The question was pretty straightforward. Hell, even I could understand it. “Now, I’m going to mention some individuals and groups in society,” it read. “For each, I want you to tell me whether you think this individual or group in general shares (a) most of your moral and ethical values, (b) some of your moral and ethical values, or (c) hardly any. How about …?”

The question was from one of those ubiquitous polls, the kind that politicians use to figure out the politically expedient thing to say and that journalists use to figure out why politicians say things that they don’t believe. This one was done recently by The Washington Post and Harvard University.

Of the 50-plus questions, this one in particular caught my eye. It was, as they say, “telling.” Much of what it told, I’m still trying to figure out. For instance, it told me that Americans felt that they shared more moral and ethical values in common with black people than they did with President Clinton, Vice-President Gore, the two major political parties, or the religious right. Hmmm!

Americans also said that they shared more of their moral and ethical values in common with immigrants than they did with Newt Gingrich. Hmmmmmmmm! Of all the categories, the runaway winners were older Americans. Of those polled, 55 percent said that they felt that older Americans shared most of their moral and ethical values. The runners-up, whites and poor people, came in a distant 27 percent. Maybe the respondents forgot that older Americans break down into all those subgroups, i.e., blacks, immigrants, whites, conservative, liberal, Republican, Democrat. Actually, the numbers just further prove an axiom uttered by John Huston as the villainous Noah Cross in the movie Chinatown.

“Ugly buildings, politicians, and whores all get to be respectable if they stick around long enough,” he said. Doubters need only consider South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond.

But I didn’t come to bore you with statistics. I came to explore a myth. Only 7 percent of Americans felt that welfare recipients shared most of their values. Yeah, you know, welfare recipients, the people who we seem to think are living fat on the public dole. I wanted to see these “welfare scourges” up close. So I tracked down Lakisa DeBerry, 26, and her sister Chandra Carroll, 24. No wading through a bunch of names for the right profile, just the first people who popped up.

Lakisa applied for food stamps this week. It was her second time around. The first time was shortly after she and her husband separated. She was all of 21 with two children. Times were tight. Eventually the couple was reunited. They struggled until her husband got a job as a forklift driver for Coca-Cola. She worked too, but he was the real breadwinner.

They bought a house and decorated it. They bought a car and took family vacations to Houston and Galveston and Chicago and Sardis Lake. Their kids watched Nickelodeon. Then her husband got laid off. Times got tight again. And then her husband was killed and Lakisha found herself back down on Third and Mitchell.

Chandra was an honor student with scholarships to some of the finest colleges in America when she fell in love with the wrong guy, with whom she had four children. Children have to eat. Pride wouldn’t let her take any more from her parents, so she applied for AFDC and food stamps. They eventually cut her back to just food stamps because Chandra worked. Chandra almost always worked.

She worked for two and a half years at Federal Express during the day while she studied computer repair in the evenings. She worked at Bryce Inc. while attending Shelby State. After four years she has finally landed a job at the post office. Now the last thing she ever wants to see again are food stamps or the people at the Department of Human Services.

I met these people, and I met their children and I met their parents – father, a PBX engineer for BellSouth; mom, day-care owner and operator – and I wondered, which of their moral and ethical values do Americans find distasteful?

Michael Harris at DHS knows what I’m talking about. Harris is not a spokesperson for the department. He is a case manager, and as such he works closely with people like Lakisa and Chandra. He knows that they are just like you and me, all of us just a mistake, just an illness, a death in the family, a job layoff, or two months of missed paychecks away from being in need of his assistance.

Yet, those who come to his door have been painted with a cruel brush that says they are people of low character, aberrant personalities comfortable living at subsistent levels in crowded, crime-ridden public housing. Think about it for a minute. How can we believe that?

“They want the same thing that I want and everybody that I know wants,” says Harris, “They want a good paying career or a business, a safe neighborhood where they don’t have to run from gangsters every night. They want education for their children, to know that their children are being taken care while they are at work, and to know that their children are under medical insurance.”

I know what Harris means. And he knows that I know, because he knows that just a little over a year ago I stood like Lakisa and Chandra in that same food-stamp line at Third and Mitchell looking for someone to lend me a helping hand.

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