It started with a tree.
A storm cleaved the 60-foot red oak in two, with one side dangling over the street, the other over our house. I called our insurance company to see if they would pay the $1,800 to have it removed. No, the agent said, because it hadn’t fallen, and insurance wouldn’t cover any damage. The next billing cycle, the company raised our annual rate by $500 because of that call.
It was post-2008, and the country was in the thick of the Great Recession. My then-husband was still employed, but my job disappeared with the economic downturn. We had already stretched his income thin to cover the needs of our three children and middle-class household.
Like so many other Americans at that time — and now — we had little in savings, not enough to cover both the tree and our monthly bills. Still, we had it removed and rearranged our budget, cutting where we could until we couldn’t cut anymore. We prioritized our underwater mortgage, the car insurance so he could get to work, and food. Yet there wasn’t enough for food.
Our previously full pantry quickly became bare, with few canned goods remaining, the kind no one finds very good. There were no more juice boxes; the freezer contained little meat; fresh fruit and vegetables were a memory; and I could no longer set out dollar bills for each child to buy lunch. The school sent home a note that my son owed money for pizza and milk. One day I opened the refrigerator to find the shelves scattered with mugs and glasses filled with colorful Jell-O. My husband said he wanted the kids to think our fridge was full.
The worst day was a trip to the supermarket, where I passed my neighbors’ overflowing carts. They could feed their children. We had $40 until the next paycheck arrived in two weeks. When I went to check out, my hands began to shake. I was suddenly 6 again, standing in line with my mother as she added up the cost along with the cash register, her fist tight with bills and coupons, asking me to put back the cereal, the frozen orange juice, as mental math and anxiety clouded her face.
Outside in the parking lot, the nearby restaurant wafted steak and French fries. My stomach lurched. I passed a Dunkin’ Donuts on the way home and remembered how simple it used to be to drive through and get a medium regular and a box of Munchkins for the kids.
When I got home, my brother was in his yard across the street and called out, “Hey, how are you?” All of the shame and fear and stress I had been carrying burst in my driveway. Later that night, he and my father dropped off $500 so I could feed my children. Hard years followed, but my family eventually managed to pull ourselves out. Even now, my hands sometimes shake when I check out at the market.
And all these years later, I still feel shame.
I feel shame that 1 in 8 Americans now worries about feeding themselves and their families. They are lining up at overwhelmed and understocked food pantries across Massachusetts and America, and wait for hours. We see images of people bundled against cold and rain, waiting for a couple of bags of donated groceries, risking an invisible virus that has already claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands. They are scared and hungry, and some may feel the shame I did as they ask for help.
I feel shame that members of Congress, specifically Senate Republicans under majority leader Mitch McConnell, have willfully chosen not to pass another economic stimulus bill to help house and feed our neighbors in the midst of the worst pandemic we’ve seen in a century. Just as I had a safety net when I needed it most, we must now be the safety net for our communities and demand Congress pass a stimulus bill that provides real assistance to hungry Americans before leaving for the holiday break.
We think the worst can’t happen to us. But in 2020, we’ve seen the worst happen again and again, with some suffering so much more than others. It can start with a lost job, medical bills on top of a devastating diagnosis, or something as simple as a tree.