My immigrant grandfather, Morris “Moe” Loebman, came to America from the small town of Bolechow, in Austria, and lived long enough to marry, father two children, and work his way up from salesman to owner of three small mom-and-pop shoe stores in The Bronx.
He was a young man on the go, and then suddenly he wasn’t. He was 29 when he died of kidney failure, just as the Great Depression was kicking in. His daughter was four years old. His son was a month old. His wife — my grandmother, Ruth — did whatever she could to keep the family together, but within a year of Moe’s death the three little shoe stores were all gone.
“In the Depression, who had money for shoes?” my grandmother remembered half a century later. “We sold galoshes out of the store for five cents a pair. We sold shoes for 25 cents or half a dollar. But nobody had half a dollar.”
I think of this now because of food stamps. They’re the kind of food stamps that kept my grandmother, and my mother and my uncle, alive during the tough years. They’re the same kind of food stamps that President Donald Trump now wishes to withhold from immigrant families – legal immigrants, such as my grandfather Moe’s family.
The new regulation, known as the public charge rule, is set to go into effect in two months. It’s seen as a gesture to slow legal immigration to the United States and as a political signal to Trump’s base: no food stamps for these grabby immigrants, and no government-subsidized housing either. Enough with poor people arriving here, enough with that Statue of Liberty poetry, we want our immigrants arriving with some money in their pockets.
The immigration records show that my grandfather Moe had $6 when he arrived here. But he found jobs all through school, and he had some family here, and he worked hard right up until his kidneys went.
The humiliation of poverty stayed with my grandmother and her children for years. On relief, but too ashamed to shop with food coupons herself, my grandmother would send one of her young children – my mother, Selma, or my uncle, Richard.
Many years later, my uncle told me, “My mother would say to me, ‘Get a half of a quarter-pound of cream cheese.’ Those were the instructions, ‘a half of a quarter-pound.’ I’d go to Mr. Cohen’s grocery store in The Bronx. If the check hadn’t come yet, Mr. Cohen would put a mark in his little black book: ‘Loebman, six cents.’”
What’s the difference between yesteryear’s immigrant families and today’s? Somehow, in the midst of a terrible depression, America had enough heart to help out those who were struggling. Somehow, in today’s far more bountiful time, the official American heart turns to stone.
What’s the other big difference? Today’s immigrants are mostly dark-skinned. This president has done all he can to demonize such people. I will not list all the ways, since we’ve all spent nearly three years listening to his bullying rants, and we’ve choked on his strident, divisive adult history.
These immigrant families aren’t so different from my grandfather’s. They come here to work, raise their children in a safe place. Sometimes people need a little help. The food stamps and the subsidized housing are temporary gestures of good faith from a nation that understands the richness that will be given back in the years to come.
The food stamps kept my immigrant grandfather’s family together. My grandmother found a job and got off the food stamps and made a decent living as she raised her children.
My mother, Selma, married and watched my father, Liney – he, too, was the son of European immigrant parents — go off to fight in World War II just months after they wed. My uncle, Dr. Richard Loebman, had a devoted chiropractic following in Baltimore for nearly half a century.
Thank heaven for the food stamps that helped keep them alive. How pathetic that our leaders have forgotten the huge heart that used to symbolize our entire nation.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, most recently “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).