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  • Writer's pictureAllan Dyen-Shapiro

A Letter to Joe Manchin

Hey, Joe. Allan here. Not one of your constituents, but we've got many West Virginia transplants living near me in Florida. I met one the other day, and I figured I should tell you about her.

So, why now? Well, you just made it public that your main beef with Joe Biden was his proposed extending of the tax credit that put money in the hands of impoverished people. You figured they'd use it for drugs. Nationwide, for the most part, that hasn't been true. The main use was buying food for children.

Now, sure, you can say these people lied. Who's going to tell a pollster they were buying meth with the money? But Joe, the period in which these credits existed coincides with food insecurity among children dropping into a single-digit percentage. Most of those people were telling the truth. They used it for food or rent or clothing or other things that benefitted their kids.

Still, I can't argue that you were wrong 100% of the time either. In France, when they tried a guaranteed basic income, the Romani people, for the most part, gave up working. Meth addiction in those communities is through the roof. I'll grant you that a minority of those in the US who received their tax refund went out and bought drugs with it.

I still think your objection is wrongheaded, and here's where I come to the lady I met the other day. I'd headed out for a haircut before omicron hit my area, as I knew I'd be encountering the unmasked and unvaxxed. And sure enough, the woman who cut my hair went unmasked. She didn't smile much, though. Turns out she was rather sad about her husband, who was home convalescing and not doing very well at it. He'd just lost his spleen and most of his intestines from an infection caused initially by gingivitis.

He wasn't very smart about it, this woman admitted. Hell, when her teeth hurt, she got them pulled right away. She can eat whatever she wants with her dentures. Her husband, on the other hand, kept his teeth too long, and they rotted his gums. These days, he doesn't like his dentures much—they're painful—so he just gums stuff.

Joe, these folks didn't take care of their teeth because they never had a job that provided dental insurance. Dental insurance is mostly meager even if you want to pay for it because bilking people for money is just too lucrative. And if I had dug deeper, I probably would have found out they didn't get to see doctors much growing up or have nutritious food every meal.

They both were working low-skill jobs because nobody ever made sure they'd acquire skills. Now, Joe, I appreciate it that you supported the President on universal pre-K, but have you ever read that book Obama wrote just before he got into politics? His idea was that tackling one aspect of poverty is near-useless. Suppose money is short (and Obama was a self-proclaimed admirer of Ronald Reagan, so austerity was taken as a good thing). In that case, you tackle everything at once in a small number of the worst areas of the country: child poverty, nutritious food availability and distribution, removal of environmental toxins, drug/alcohol-abuse counseling, housing, etc. He never got around to implementing these policies (he started his administration with an economy in free fall and fell back on LBJ's ideas, for the most part), but he kind of had a point—don't you think?

Let's jump to this woman's grandchild, as it's a bit too late for her. She skips pre-K, as it's not funded or required. She comes to school to be standardized tested and is told she's already way behind as a kindergartener. Because she had no books in the home or a literate adult to read to her. And the nearest public library was pretty far away. And maybe she has speech pathologies or learning handicaps or other issues that could have been addressed had her caretakers brought her in to Child Find at three years old, but they didn't know they could do that. So, she'll spend a few years being called dumb until they approach the high-stakes standardized tests upon which her school district's funding depends. They'll teach her not to read—just skim for the answers and click a, b, c, or d. They'll teach her that reading is pointless. And maybe she'll try to do her homework at night, but by late elementary school, her caretakers no longer will know many of the answers. And she has to ride the bus home immediately after school lets out because there's nobody to pick her up after enrichment activities the middle-class kids get after school. And she goes home hungry. And there's no food around.

So, she grows up and either drops out of high school or gets a meaningless degree where multiple re-tests and concordant scores have gotten her out of there while she still reads, writes, and does math at what the rest of the world considers an elementary school level. And she gets her fast-food job, and fifty years later, she'll be her grandmother, except that climate change is going to force her to move somewhere as a refugee.

Who are you to criticize if this real person or her made-up granddaughter-grown-old wants to use their tax refund to self-medicate with a marijuana cigarette? If you cared so much about not subsidizing her drug use, why didn't you help make a productive life possible for her?

I left my hairdresser a bigger-than-usual tip. If she wants to put it toward meth or, more likely, ice cream to feed her husband because it makes his swollen gums feel good, that's her business.

You aren't any less guilty, Joe, because you scuttled Biden's bill. You don't get to feel good about keeping a needle out of a few arms because you are keeping food out of many more children's bellies. You, with your yacht and your coal mines—how dare you criticize people like this?

I'll admit to a certain amount of hypocrisy, which I'll relate as an anecdote: mid-90s, living in Berkeley, I walked past many homeless people on the way to the train. I had money in my pocket. I gave to some of them, not others. For about two months, because of a loophole that was about to be corrected, the East Bay had no housing for single men with children. You see, some women abandon their families—it isn't only men who do this. It was winter. It was cold. I saw several men out on the streets with children who looked well-cared-for. The men were collecting enough money for the cheapest hotel room in the city, and when they had their $32, they left with their children. And when Berkeley's city council rectified this situation, I never saw them again.

There were also people out on the streets begging who looked drunk or stoned. I made a moral judgment and chose to give my money to the single men with kids rather than the clearly impaired men without kids.

And you know what? With my money, I get to make moral judgments. You're a public servant, Joe. You don't get to make the opposite moral judgments with MY money. I'm a citizen—I pay your salary. The vast majority of this country wants to help families with children. Hell, Mitt Romney's alternative bill is more progressive in many ways than what Biden is proposing, and he also proposes handing these families money. Mitt's a conservative Republican, Joe. Moreover, virtually every industrialized country in the world makes payments to poor families.

We're coming up on Christmas, Joe. Now, I'm not a Christian, but I imagine you have beloved family traditions. I imagine it warms your heart to think of your constituents in this holiday season. You're not going to be Santa—you've made it clear that would offend your sense of morality. Still, with your family business, you can play an important role in the lives of those kids from whose mouths you've taken food. Indeed, you're essential.

Without you, there would be no coal for these kids' Christmas stockings.

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