Of food stamps and a revolutionary life

This is a personal story about food stamps.

When my stepfather, Vince Copeland, was at home and dying of cancer in 1993, his sister tried to get food stamps for him.

She lived in Manhattan. He lived in Hoboken, N.J. The nearest place to apply for the stamps was the welfare office in Jersey City.

She spent several weeks going back and forth to the welfare office, waiting in line, finding out what forms to fill out, tracking down the necessary documentation, waiting in line again, and finally turning in the application. Then we waited for more than a month before the first check arrived.

It was for $12. It was the only food stamp check he ever received. He died before the month was out.

I don’t know how much money the agency spent on processing his claim, but it was certainly much more than $12.

He had lived on a meager Social Security check, small not because he hadn’t worked hard all his life but because most of what he did was unpaid.

In 1950, he had been fired from his welding job in the Bethlehem Steel plant in Buffalo, N.Y., after he led a wildcat strike.

He had helped to build a strong caucus of Black and white workers in the union to fight racism and demand plant-wide ­seniority.

Some 18,000 workers walked off their jobs trying to get him back, but in the repressive climate of the McCarthy witch hunt against radicals and the war against Korea, the firing stuck. He was red-baited for days by the Buffalo Evening News, the sole evening paper in the city.

He found various kinds of jobs after that, but mainly he put his energies into organizing on behalf of the most oppressed workers. He and his comrades in Buffalo, for example, led a successful struggle to get surplus food distributed to the unemployed — a precursor to the food stamp program.

He was one of the founders of Workers World Party in 1959 and the first editor of this newspaper.

He inspired many young people coming into the struggle in the sixties and seventies with his vast knowledge of history, combined with his hands-on application of Marxism to the struggles of the day.

Much later, after moving to New Jersey, he gained the respect of many in the community for his militant efforts to keep open the Jersey City Medical Center.

In recent years, especially when the stimulus program was enacted to boost the economy after the 2008 financial crisis, it became somewhat easier to get food stamps — you could even apply for them online — and the amount paid out was more than in 1993. But as poverty in the U.S. grows, almost 50 million people depend on food stamps, most of them children.

And now a strong push is being made to cut them or even eliminate them. The Republicans are leading the charge in Congress, but they cite Democrat Bill Clinton’s destruction of welfare as a precedent. And they are right about that. Both capitalist parties are doing what the superrich demand of them: colluding in the whittling down of social programs won over more than 75 years by workers’ struggles.

Back in the 1950s in Buffalo, progressives like Vince Copeland fought to get surplus food to those who needed it. Today, the productivity of agriculture in the United States is many times what it was then. There is no reason that anyone should go hungry, be malnourished or have to jump through bureaucratic hoops to get a meal.

My stepfather never got much from the food stamp program. He died after one measly check. But he led a life rich in struggle and solidarity. And he left behind a legacy of confidence in the revolutionary ability of the oppressed and exploited to eventually erase the wrongs of capitalism and rebuild this suffering world.