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MCCULLOUGH: Being poor isn't a crime

Nate McCullough

Nate McCullough

In my earlier days I worked in the grocery business.

I started out in the seafood department at the now-closed Kroger at U.S. Highway 78 and East Park Place. From there I moved to another store. Then in college I worked for another chain in Athens and made my last stop at a store in Snellville. In my time in the grocery business I saw a lot of food stamps.

I saw young pregnant women on the WIC program. For some reason, they could never manage to get only approved items.

I saw some poor people get really creative in getting as many staples as possible to last them until their next allotment.

And yes, when I was a bag boy I loaded multiple cartloads paid for by the taxpayers into a luxury car on more than one occasion. One family in the Snellville area used to get four or five carts at a time. A woman in Athens always got two carts loaded with ribs, steak, seafood and lots of popsicles. Her Cadillac was gold.

But I saw some really hard cases, too.

I remember this one family above all others. A man, woman and a little boy. They would come in the store in filthy, tattered clothes, but they weren’t “trashy” people. They were very nice and polite, just dirt poor. They looked tired all the time, almost skittish, like they were wondering what kind of bad news was going to rain down on them next.

And I guess they didn’t know how to play the system like their Cadillac-driving brethren because their allotment of food stamps evidently didn’t get them very much. I used to see them Dumpster diving.

They would get their groceries, put them in maybe the most beat-up, old, junker heap of a truck I’ve ever seen (which the guy would often be working on in the parking lot just to get it started), and then drive around back to scavenge from the Dumpster.

Whenever I saw them I would try to time a trip to the Dumpster with out-of-date produce, bread and the like so I could just give it to them. That is, until I was told to stop.

Even though the store is going to throw this stuff out anyway, I couldn’t just give it to them, I was told by management. I might give them something and then they might get choked on it or get sick. They might sue us.

I, of course, needed clarification. I don’t remember exactly how I said it, but it was something like this:

“So this lady who comes in every month and loads filet mignon and lobster tails into a Cadillac on the state’s dime, that’s OK? But this family that hasn’t got two nickels to rub together, that sometimes comes in wearing shirts that look like Swiss cheese, we’re OK with taking a little more of their dignity by letting them crawl through a nasty, greasy, grocery-store Dumpster just so they can have enough to eat?”

The answer I got: It’s not right, but it’s how it is.

Having learned a great deal of what I know about right and wrong from “The Andy Griffith Show,” not only did I not stop giving them expired food, I tried to make it easier for them. I just didn’t hand it directly to them anymore. I put it on top of the Dumpster, sometimes on a metal tray. If I’d had one of those froo-froo things you use to serve pheasant, I’d have put it under glass to keep the flies off.

The point is, there are rules, and then there are rules. Some shouldn’t be broken. Some most definitely should be bent.

The Republicans in Congress who are trying get rid of fraud in the food stamp system have my full support as long as they remember one thing: Don’t focus so much on the women in the Cadillacs out front that you forget the families out back scrounging in the Dumpster.

It should be a crime to defraud the system. It shouldn’t be a crime to be poor.

Email Nate McCullough at nate.mccullough@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Fridays. For archived columns, go to www.gwinnettdailypost.com/natemccullough.