For months, the 62-year-old woman waited anxiously for the letter from the District of Columbia government that she hoped would tell her how Reaganomics was going to affect her life and health.
A food stamp recipient, she had heard all the talk about cutbacks in aid to people like her, and it wasn't good. Already, because of a cut in local services to the needy, she had run out of heart pills and been reduced to using her insulin needles repeatedly. Already, she often was being forced to skip the high-protein diet prescribed by her doctor, because she was having difficulty keeping within her $351 monthly income.
Whatever the bad news, just to receive the letter would be almost a relief. Then, at least, she would find out what else was going to happen.
Yet, when it finally arrived and she read it, the woman was more bewildered than before.
True, the mimeographed letter listed five ways a recipient's eligibility might change. But the "answers" it provided in crisp bureaucratese really were not answers at all. While it noted, for example, that she might be affected if her "net monthly income exceeds the maximum allowed income for your family size as estimated by the U.S. Department of Income," there was nothing about just what that "maximum allowed income" might be.
And if that wasn't enough, her caring and compassionate government added a clincher: It could be as long as two months before the information would be available that the woman would need to determine whether she was going to suffer more.
After she finished reading the letter, she bustled around her one-bedroom apartment, with its thrift-shop studio sofa and the aquarium that belonged to her late sister. It was almost lunch time, and she had to dress hurriedly so she could get to nearby St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church to eat the hot lunch the church provides daily to about l00 needy seniors.
She decided she would ask the minister, the Rev. Jack Woodard, to explain what the letter meant. But he couldn't. "My heart breaks for you," was all he could say.
All across the city, food stamp recipients such as this woman nervously have been contemplating the future, waiting for definitive word on their fate. Many, like her, are elderly and live on fixed incomes; many more are women with children. For few did that long-delayed letter bring deliverance.
President Reagan warned that there would be pain and suffering. But no one imagined that this admonition included pain cruelly inflicted by a government too insensitive to realize the importance of keeping informed those likely to be affected.
The 62-year-old, for instance, has been forced to conclude the worst, thanks to the vacuum left by the letter: She believes she will lose her $58 monthly food stamp allotment.
For her, all the news recently has been bad. She has been the victim of two major cuts as, in the past two years, the city has continued to reduce Medicaid and SSI benefits. Today, her meager $314.50 monthly income must cover $225 in rent and $50 in utilities -- and still she must endure more reductions.
Now she believes her low-cal cheese and bran cracker snacks will have to go. She'll eat more canned vegetables, even though the doctor warns her against the high salt content. She's seeking a cheaper apartment, with the knowledge that there are long waiting lists for the desirable ones. She'll have to call on her children for more help, even though they have their own lives and families. And she balks at having to give up her phone.
"Without my telephone I don't have anything," she said. "You know, they try to say you don't need a phone, but I am alone and I do."
Apparently, the letter-writers expect the poor of the city to survive on the charity of churches such as St. Stephens.
It is not the generosity of private individuals and groups that is at issue here, but the compassion of government for the people it serves and the need for social justice. And there was precious little hint of those concerns in the letter.