Two notable giveaways have occurred in our town in recent days, and they may be metaphors for our situation in this harsh winter of 1982:
The District of Columbia government gave away 18,000 pounds of surplus cheese to thousands of the city's poor. The cheese distribution was authorized by President Ronald Reagan.
Nancy Reagan, the president's wife, is giving away some of the surplus $1,500 and $1,800 dresses and gowns that have been loaned to her by top American fashion designers to American museums.
Without overdramatizing the plight of the city's poor, and without harping on Mrs. Reagan's much-criticized taste for life's finer things, the contrast nonetheless is a stark one.
In the first place, the response of Washington-area jurisdictions to distributing the cheese became a telling commentary on why citizens are so cynical about government. The city had people line up in the cold outside six city churches and undergo lengthy documentation. It became a humiliating way to claim the cheese for many of the thousands who got in and for the hundreds who went away mad and empty-handed.
But at least our city acted with reasonable haste. Maryland and Virginia at first couldn't seem to figure out what to do with the cheese or how to distribute it. Here was a crying need--hunger--and a partial solution--cheese--and these governments' first response was to contemplate the trouble they were going to have getting the cheese to the people.
In a deeper sense, the city's long cheese line was a reflection of the tragedy of black unemployment with its awful social costs in this bone-chilling winter. In December, with the nation's jobless rate at 8.9 percent, white unemployment stood at 7.8 percent; among blacks, it was 17.4 percent. And things will get worse as the recession deepens and drastic cuts in job and social programs continue.
Social worker Janice Johnson, who was helping distribute the cheese at a church last week, said, "These people would rather have jobs. If I had my way, I'd take all this cheese to the White House and tell the president to shove it."
It was against this backdrop that Nancy Reagan's giveaway seemed a little ludicrous. This surplus was in her overflowing clothes closet. The dresses by Adolfo and Galanos that she will wear "on loan" and then give to museums are "surplus" in that she won't need to wear them again and there is no end in sight to the supply.
Some previous donors of clothes to museums have used them as tax deductions, but the White House assures us this project was not a way to avoid declaring such clothes as gifts.
Now, certainly not even the poorest American would want the first lady either to dress in tatters or to fail to complement the president or the dignity of his office. But the image she sets seems inappropriate at a time when 9.5 million Americans can't find jobs and people are so hard up and dispirited that they stand in the cold for hours for a little box of cheese.
And there is the issue of why the surpluses, of cheese and designer dresses, exist in the first place. In the case of Nancy Reagan, her surplus exists at least in part because she enjoys collecting clothes. To many, she seems overly preoccupied with the subject. As a friend of mine put it, "I wouldn't mind the clothes if she was only doing something when she goes around in them."
It is the height of irony, meanwhile, I that the cheese surplus exists because it was accumulated under the federal dairy price support system. A traditionally protected sector, comprising dairy farmers, is having its protection enhanced by a demeaning handout to one of society's least protected sectors, the poor. The poor are so desperate that they accept the handout gratefully.
It seems just a while ago that we were lamenting that the reductions in food stamps were making it impossible for the poor to afford hamburger. The standard no longer is ground beef. Now this is becoming a society in which processed American cheese is becoming a luxury. The poor are so desperate that they may complain, but they accept the handout anyway.
And however good Nancy Reagan's intentions, the poor don't understand a surplus of Adolfo.