Ever notice how when someone
dies s/he is often relegated to sainthood? How easy the slide into
collective amnesia, especially if the deceased was a U.S. president?
But I remember.
When Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency, I was a social service
worker with the George Washington Carver Neighborhood and Day Care
Center in Kansas City, MO. His Title XX funding cuts resulted in numerous
children being removed from this government subsidized day care program.
Some mothers, in order to meet income guidelines and continue eligibility,
chose to work less than 40 hours a week or declined raises to already
paltry salaries. I know because I helped them fill out the paperwork.
Overwhelmingly, women wanted to continue working. They did not wish
to sit at home and collect a welfare check. But some were forced to
quit work; they simply could not afford to pay for day care on such
low wages; it barely paid their rent or house note.
And this wasn't the only social program budget cut resulting in drastic
According to scholar Howard Zinn, author of A People's History
of the United States, during the Reagan years, "New requirements
eliminated free school lunches for more than one million poor children,
who depended on the meal for as much as half of their daily nutrition.
Millions of children entered the ranks of the officially declared
poor and soon a quarter of the nation's children -- twelve
million -- were living in poverty. In parts of Detroit, one-third
of the children were dying before their first birthday, and the New
York Times commented: 'Given what's happening to the hungry in America,
this administration has cause only for shame.'"
Those also were the days when ketchup was officially declared a vegetable
in school lunches and Reagan's wife was busy selecting a new china
pattern for the White House.
I have other memories, too.
Like the time I participated in the 1981 labor march on Washington,
D.C., organized by the AFL-CIO and supported by other national organizations
such as the NAACP, NOW and the Gray Panthers. Scattered like jellybeans
across the campus lawn with our colorful clothing, banners and signs,
we marched for jobs and protested major funding cuts in social services
and the transfer of these dollars into defense spending. But our cries
that day fell on deaf ears; President Reagan was vacationing at Camp
As Zinn writes, "Unemployment grew in the Reagan years. In the
year 1982, 30 million people were unemployed all or part of the year.
One result was that over 16 million Americans lost medical insurance,
which was often tied to holding a job."
Further, "There would be $140 billion of cuts in social programs
through 1984 and an increase of $181 billion for "defense"
in the same period. He also proposed tax cuts of $190 billion (most
of this going to the wealthy)."
I also remember the fallout of Reaganomics. In the spring of 1989,
I began working as an employment specialist for a job program for
the homeless and near-homeless with Metropolitan Lutheran Ministry
(MLM), again in Kansas City. Here's what Reagan's "trickle down"
economic theory looks like at the bottom:
Our job clients were comprised of the mentally ill, the alcohol and
drug-addicted, single mothers and working poor families, legal immigrants
and a smattering of newly released convicts. They were people of all
ages and color. But they shared one thing in common: They all needed
They also needed food, clothing and shelter. One homeless man slept
each night beneath his non-working car because all of his worldly
belongings were packed inside. Another fellow slept beneath someone's
back porch, unbeknownst to the owner. He coughed in a towel so he
would not be discovered. Both held sporadic day jobs through an employment
agency; both were white.
However, as Zinn points out, "At the end of the eighties, at
least a third of African-American families fell below the official
poverty level, and black unemployment seemed fixed at two and a half
times that of whites, with young blacks out of work at the rate of
30 to 40 percent."
MLM's job program was a one-woman office (me) with a nearly nonexistent
budget (church-funded). The perks of the program were free resumes,
haircuts, cosmetics for the women, donated professional clothing (often
outdated), and interview training. There was a private phone line
in my office that clients listed as their own on resumes. However,
it was my recorded voice that greeted potential employers with a cheery,
"We're not home, please leave a message." Everyone's address
was a shared Plaza P.O. Box.
But the agency only could provide about 10 free monthly bus passes
to a limited "intensive" caseload of nearly 20 individuals
-- those who either had landed a job or were deemed "most likely
to succeed" in finding work. Sometimes, I paid for bus passes
out of my own lean (3/4-time) salary so clients could continue working.
Center volunteers and staff culled newspapers and employment banks
and contacted potential employers for job leads to pass on to the
hundreds that came through our doors and through our downtown Homeless
Our food banks were consistently low, especially at month's end, when
the food stamps had run out; likewise, the coffers for utility assistance
for those "lucky" enough to have homes. Many ate only one
meal a day at a local soup kitchen. One woman, who hadn't eaten for
three days but filled her belly by drinking green tea, vomited green
Yes, I remember.
And President Ronald Reagan, I don't ever intend to forget.
Rhiannon Ross can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org