I know of an immigrant couple who, as cliched as it may sound, came to this country seeking the American Dream.
The husband and wife, with third- and sixth-grade educations, arrived and immediately found jobs. He as a bus driver, she as a factory worker. A year after they married, the wife discovered she was pregnant and gave birth to a mentally retarded daughter. Two years after that, their son was born.
The wife, now with two kids, one of them mentally disabled, stayed at home while the husband worked 12 hours a day to support the family. Life was hard, but manageable.
There was, however, a problem.
A two-pack-a-day smoker, the husband began feeling sluggish and developed a cough. He thought it could be the cigarettes, but when he finally sought medical help, there was a spot on his lung. It was tuberculosis.
Because the disease is highly contagious, health officials quarantined him in a state hospital for men. His wife – who had been exposed, but showed no signs of the disease – was sent to a facility for women. Their mentally handicapped daughter was placed in an orphanage and the 6-month-old infant son entered the foster-care system.
Nearly 18 months later, when the husband’s treatment ended and he was released from the hospital, the family began its struggle to reunite. First, the wife returned, then after wading through tangles of red tape, her little girl came home. Her infant son, by now a toddler, had stronger ties to his foster mother than to her. And the husband? Ravaged by the tuberculosis, he was too weak to work.
The only way this family could survive was by resorting to what they considered the shame of public assistance, and relying on occasional bags of groceries left at their front door by caring neighbors.
These immigrants did everything right. They worked hard, bought a home, had kids and sought the American dream, only to be slammed by the New World, where they sought a better life.
That was 60 years ago and, eventually, my father’s illness faded and my parents survived. Eventually, they retired to Florida. My sister and I grew up, although my sister died nearly 20 years ago in a state-subsidized New Port Richey group home that kept her from descending into homelessness and the streets.
Things might have been much different if not for the public assistance that fed and housed us when my father couldn’t work; if not for the state-funded medical care my father received to treat his tuberculosis; and the government assistance that barely prevented my sister from becoming a bag lady.
As for me, I was fortunate enough to graduate from college, funding my education with a combination of government-sponsored work-study programs, and government-guaranteed student loans, which I paid in full 10 years after graduation. While in school, I worked summers and semester breaks, and, yes, my mother and father helped when they could.
During the intervening decades, I married, became a father -- and grandfather -- and started two successful businesses with my wife. I’m also on the Corporate College faculty at the University of South Florida.
You could say my family has a comfortable life because we worked hard to get it, and that’s true. But I never forget that my parents worked hard to give me a leg up, and that the government gave them a leg up when they fell on hard times.
It’s what a civilized – and civil – society does. We pay it forward. As such, programs like those that saved my family aren't entitlements. They're investments in people, and in our future as a nation.
A former award-winning journalist, John Heagney is the founder and president of John Heagney Public Relations and on the faculty of USF's Corporate College.
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