Commentary

The first step in fighting poverty is cutting the compassion deficit 

July 26, 2021 12:01 am

Randy S. Lamb is seated on his mother’s lap in their home in the unincorporated farming community of Keefe in Lake County, Tennessee, in this family photo dating to the mid-1950s. (Lamb family)

Randy was everyone’s friend in our high school days, but somewhat in the background, never too close. Handsome, easygoing and smart, he navigated a precise path that made him popular with faculty and classmates from whom he carefully hid a painful secret.

That Randy Lamb grew up in grinding rural poverty was something I did not know until last week. In his dress, his demeanor and the confident manner he projected, he gave no outward sign that his was a sharecropping family. His secret held, at least with me, until he wrote an extraordinarily powerful and poignant post on social media that lays bare the heart of America’s socioeconomic divide and the way it marginalizes the poor.

As the post explains, Randy — for decades now a successful Tennessee lawyer — felt compelled to answer a fellow lawyer who had recently (and coldly) asked Randy why he “gives ‘two sh**s’ (sorry for the expletive) about poor people and especially Obamacare? You’ve got it made.”

Randy, who had flirted with elective politics as a Democrat in a couple of unsuccessful state legislative campaigns, said he was standing in the hallway of a small-town courthouse in rural western Tennessee when his colleague commented on the stream of impoverished people arriving for their court dates. He identified the fellow attorney only as “an arrogant Republican,” noting that he didn’t believe all Republicans to be that way.

In that moment, Randy recalled in an interview last week, he replied only with a generalized comment that poverty isn’t always a choice or a consequence of one’s own making and that many people are unable to bootstrap their way out of it.

“I guess he didn’t have a clue how I came up,” Randy said. “It seems so easy for people to say those things.”

He couldn’t speak his whole truth in that courthouse encounter, he said. He needed time to examine his conscience, assemble the facts and, like any good lawyer preparing for trial, organize and enumerate them in a brave and candid first-person narrative on Facebook for all the online world to read.

“Although both of my parents were hard working and attentive, their lack of education, opportunities and health found us poor — sharecropping, dirt poor, but proud!” Randy wrote in his post.

Randy grew up in the unincorporated crossroads of Keefe amid the flat cotton and soybean fields of agrarian Lake County, Tennessee, in the mid-1950s through the early ‘70s. He worked evenings and weekends as a restaurant busboy. He helped clean school premises in exchange for school lunches. He was unable to join the marching band because his family had one vehicle and he had no way to get home after the extra hours that practice required. He lived with the apprehension that classmates would see him working his after-school and weekend jobs and judge him for it. I don’t recall that anyone noticed, much less judged him, because it was a point of pride among most kids in that era to have a job and the measure of independence it conveyed. What few, if any, of his contemporaries knew was that he did it to help the family meet its expenses.

“I know what it feels like to hold a food stamp coupon as a teenager and exchange it for food in a crowded public grocery store,” he wrote. “I know what it feels like as a teenager to work in and around your classmates at school in order to eat lunch there.”

Accompanying the post is a faded family photo of Randy as a smiling toddler sitting on his mother’s lap. On the wall overhead hangs a framed picture of Jesus. On a shelf next to it, a potted plant sprouts from a Folgers coffee can.

“I know what it feels like as a teenager to see your parents try to borrow money from their employer only to be turned down, and with nowhere else to go, to go without,” he continued.

No, he could not have admitted this back then. What child could have without suffering deep shame and heartbreak? He bore it not only with grace and dignity but with at least the appearance of cheerfulness.

Randy was the president of his 1972 high school graduating class. He was an excellent student who sat next to me in our typing class and derived hours of laughs watching my clumsy fingers, sprained and swollen from football, plod hopelessly along a balky manual typewriter keyboard.

A benevolent local employer recognized the tragedy of Randy’s potential being foreclosed by financial obstacles to his higher education and staked him to two years at a nearby community college. His good grades helped him leverage the grants, scholarships and loans he used to earn his electrical engineering undergraduate degree and, later, his juris doctor from the University of Memphis.

But the family’s financial woes didn’t recede into the past with his educational attainment.

“I know what it feels like as a teenager to see your parents struggle with real access to health care for their children and themselves — even facing significant surgeries, when they have no medical insurance and little money,” he wrote.

Which brings us to the present and how the United States tends to those in straits similar to the Lambs back then.

It is an abiding verity of conservative doctrine that those who can work and earn their way should do just that, and they are right. Republicans — with the support of many Democrats, including then-President Bill Clinton — championed welfare reforms in the 1990s that conditioned government support on employment in many cases.

But life gets messy. Breadwinners die. People lose jobs, often through no fault of their own as the pandemic brutally demonstrated. Lose your full-time gig and you lose your health care safety net in a nation where medical insurance is illogically tied to employment for most people. Absent the economic might of insurance companies to negotiate discounts to the extortionate hospital and medical care rates and to indemnify policyholders against most of the burden, bills can soar easily into multiple six figures and beyond. There goes whatever might have been saved for a down payment on a house, a children’s college fund or a reasonable retirement. It means living hand-to-mouth off odd jobs, sans benefits, well into one’s dotage before being warehoused for our final months or weeks in whatever nursing facility will accept the indigent.

In America, the gap between the affluent and those who desperately struggle to keep roofs over their heads grows by the year. I don’t know whether those who bed down in comfort each night can see across the widening chasm and witness the plight of the poor or whether they simply choose to look away.

“It’s not that rich people can’t be compassionate, too,” Lamb said in our long phone chat. “But having been poor, you are better able to recognize it when you see poor people.”

The big-government solution was the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. It was chock-full of flaws when Congress passed it in 2010 without a single Republican vote and Democratic President Barack Obama signed it into law. But for all its warts, it is a lifeline of last resort for more than 20 million Americans.

Medicaid, the federal-state health care program for the poor, disabled, blind and aged, was enacted with GOP buy-in as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society reforms of the 1960s. Unlike Medicaid, Obamacare instantly and permanently became a hard partisan scrimmage line that has only gotten more divisive in our coarsening, tribal culture.

How divisive? Ask former Virginia House of Delegates Speaker Kirk Cox, who finished fourth in his bid for the GOP gubernatorial nomination in the Republican state convention in May. Or ask former Del. Chris Peace, whom GOP insiders muscled out of his nomination for reelection in 2019.

Their trespass? Voting in 2018 to expand Medicaid eligibility to an additional 400,000 Virginians by raising the annual earnings threshold to 138 percent or less of the federal poverty level, matching Obamacare eligibility criteria.

That’s not to say that individuals should not act on a private, heart-level personal urge to alleviate financial hardships as we are able when we see them – you know … to “give two sh**s.” That’s what the Lambs’ kindly benefactor did in a gentler time to enable Randy’s climb out of generational poverty.

Unfortunately, this isn’t rural Tennessee in 1972. There are too few benefactors and too many poor.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]

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