Dear Mr. O’Reilly,
I watched the segment that you had last week about hungry children in America with Kristin Powers. I know that there has been a huge backlash because of your comments and I have to say that unlike many on the internet I am not mad at you. Instead I am sad that someone who is so knowledgeable on so many topics, would be so uninformed about such an important issue.
I’d like to think this is an opportunity to have a larger conversation about hunger and poverty in America, especially as it relates to children. You asked Ms. Powers to produce one family who was going hungry. Contrary to your beliefs there isn’t one family, but millions of families who deal with this issue. I know firsthand based on my own experiences and see it firsthand on a regular basis in the advocacy work I now do in my free time.
A large part of my childhood was spent battling hunger, food insecurity, poverty and sometimes homelessness. These experiences as a child profoundly impacted me and made me someone I would not have otherwise been as an adult.
I spent many days’ hungry, scared and not knowing where my next meal would come from or where I might be living on a particular day. When I was young I didn’t understand what was happening to my family, but I knew that it wasn’t how people were supposed to live. It felt like we were forgotten by the world. This feeling was only rarely interrupted when we would meet someone who treated us with respect. Like the workers at the rescue mission where we would get two meals a day when we were homeless, or the food pantry volunteers that would give us groceries when there were more days in the month than there was money in our pockets.
Hunger limits you in a way that is difficult to describe. You are constantly thinking about getting food, keeping food and not knowing when you are going to eat next. It’s a vicious cycle. You want something better but you don’t know how. Food and housing are so fundamental to the human condition that not having those things paralyzes you and keeps you living hour by hour instead of thinking about what you would like to accomplish in a day, week, month or year. Hunger, poverty and homelessness stole my childhood. It took away my innocence and my sense of security. And to think that I was one of the lucky ones.
I not only survived, but learned to thrive. I had many failures along the way but in the end found success with the help of many people who came into my life. I may have accomplished my childhood dream of being a lawyer and I now run my own firm, Law Office of Nikki Johnson-Huston LLC., but there are so many millions of people who continue to struggle like my family struggled. It’s evident that we as a country aren’t doing enough when influencers in the media are denying that these problems even exist.
There is a narrative out there that giving people access to the social safety net including food, housing and medical care takes away the incentive to work and to live a better life. I disagree. People want something better for themselves and their children but sometimes because of circumstances — and yes, sometimes because of poor decisions — they end up in a bad place and need help. There is no shame in asking for help and trying to better yourself.
I experienced poverty for my entire childhood and I can tell you I hated receiving food stamps and living in government housing. It made me feel ashamed and not good enough, but living on the streets for several months and eating at soup kitchens was worse. Not only was my stomach empty but so was my spirit. It was hard to believe that I could have a better life for myself when I didn’t know where my next meal was going to come from.
After I was taken in by my disabled grandmother, she needed the social safety net to care for me. I remember I would hide my face in the grocery store when we would have to use food stamps because I was so embarrassed. My grandmother refused to let me hide because there was no shame in accepting help when we needed it, but she also told me to remember that feeling so that when I got to be an adult I could make better choices and not need food stamps. I have remembered that feeling many times as an adult and I have been fortunate enough to not need food stamps, welfare or Section 8 housing as an adult. At the same time I make no apologies for needing those things as a child and using them to make a better life for myself.
I know there is a very real concern about creating a permanent underclass of individuals who lack ambition and who will live off the government for their entire lives. There will always be a small minority of people who don’t do the right thing, but the vast majority of people who get government assistance are hardworking people who have fallen on hard times and want to use the help to gain a path to self-sufficiency. The 2008 recession has shown us that even educated, middle-class professionals can lose their jobs and need help to care for their children.
My mother should have made better choices in her life, which I think she would freely admit, but we as Americans have stated that we will not allow children in the richest country in the world to go hungry. That sense of community makes me proud of this country and I will always be grateful for the role our nation at large played in my upbringing. We have to ask ourselves, would it have been better to punish my mother for her poor decisions by not providing aid to our family? Or was it better to make sure that I was fed, had a stable roof over my head and a chance at a better life?
I have worked hard and had the support of my wonderful grandmother but, without charity and the social safety net I would not have been able to achieve my dreams. I needed school lunches, welfare, health benefits, food stamps, Section 8 Housing, subsidized applications for college, financial aid and student loans. No one makes it alone; everyone has help in some way. The lucky among us have families who can provide for their needs, but for the less fortunate those things need to be provided by the social safety net and non-profits. The benefits that were given to me and my family were an investment by the taxpayers in my future and I believe that I was a good investment.
We have a choice to make as to who we want to be as individuals, political parties and a country. Are we going to continue a legacy of investing in our children in a way that allows them to live in dignity and have the opportunity to achieve their own dreams? Or should we revert to shaming and ignoring the least among us while making it harder for them to improve their station in life?
Mr. O’Reilly, by denying the problem you are denying the reality of millions of Americans and you show yourself as out of touch from your own viewing public. You can’t solve a problem if you fail to acknowledge it even exists.
Nikki Johnson-Huston, Esq.
J.D./M.B.A./ Masters of Law in Taxation
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