From the Bottom of the 47 Percent

Sean Davis came from the poorest of the poor, from the white-trash, from food stamps and toys made from boxes of government cheese—and he has a message for America.

My mother was a sixteen-year-old child when she found out she was pregnant with me. She had me at seventeen. My father was nineteen and already an alcoholic and drug abuser. Five years later he left her with three children and didn’t pay child support. Imagine yourself right now, 22 years old with three toddlers, on your own. She moved close to my maternal grandmother who worked at a cannery in the Bay Area, California. My grandfather was a 101st Airborne veteran from WWII and he drove cabs, trucks, worked at the Mint, and drank too much as well. They watched us when they could.

We lived in a one-bedroom apartment and my mom worked three jobs. She worked three jobs. Three jobs: waiting tables, making pizzas, cleaning hotel rooms. She was hispanic and never graduated from high school. Even with her three paychecks we still qualified for food stamps and welfare. My mother drew the wheels and little windows of buses and cars on the boxes the government cheese came in, and that’s what we played with. When I was seven or eight my mom would get home from a graveyard shift and sometimes send me to the store with food stamps for milk or cereal for us to eat. They weren’t the credit card they have today. The food stamps were bills, the bigger the value, the bigger the bill. The only way the store would let me buy anything was with a signed letter from her giving me permission to use them. Picture an eight year old child struggling to set a gallon of milk on the store counter and then unfolding a note from his mother with the big food stamp paperclipped to the corner of it.

She didn’t make enough money to pay federal income tax. In fact, tax time was her favorite time of year because we received a refund and she could finally catch up on buying us Christmas and birthday presents after she fixed the piece of shit car, because every year it needed something—tires, alternator, new battery.

Two years later she couldn’t do it anymore. The only way out was to give my brothers and me to our paternal grandparents. They were retired and lived off a modest pension and social security. My grandpa was a flight medic in WWII, left the service and started as a dog catcher in South City, San Francisco.  A little less than thirty years later he was the head of public works and would dine regularly with the mayor of San Fran. They retired and moved to the Cascade Mountains of Oregon, into a trailerpark for couples 55 and older. They took us in. They didn’t pay income tax either.

Years later my alcoholic father came back in the picture and my brothers and I bounced from trailerpark to trailerpark with him. We were the worst of the white trash. Dad sold his foodstamps for half their value to buy booze. He worked under the table or at job just long enough to get fired and collect unemployment. Occasionally he paid taxes, but for the most part he used the system. He was the worst part of what Romney identified as his 47%. I can’t deny that.

I say this for a reason. Here’s my point: I lived both sides of the spectrum, and in the middle. My grandparents somehow survived with three small children on their meager income without asking the government for anything. My mother tried, but even with welfare couldn’t do it. My father abused the hell out of the system and for most of my childhood I was the filthy, white-trash kid that someone like Mitt Romney would look at and dismiss as a waste, someone who would never, never do anything with his life except be a draw on society. The sad part is that he would be right about the majority of people I grew up with, but not me.

As a Junior in high school I lived on my own in a one-bedroom house, went to classes during the day, and stocked shelves at the supermarket at night. I joined the military young and traveled the world. I defended democracy and saved lives in Haiti in 1995. I stayed in the military and had two amazing children then left in 1999. I enrolled in college and used the GI Bill, but before my second year, I left to join the military again the day after 9/11. I fought in the Iraq War and was critically injured, receiving a Purple Heart. My platoon of 30 to 40 men won the Presidential Unit Citation for their actions during that war. That is the same fucking medal they gave Seal Team 6 for killing Osama bin Laden. Later, I volunteered to save lives again during Hurricane Katrina and I did. I did save lives. After leaving the military for a second time it took me only five years to get my Associates, Bachelors, and Masters Degree. Now I help manage a national company and I have, myself, hired over 30 veterans this year.

No one, no one, can tell where the good people will come from. No political consultant, no politician, no human being should be allowed to dismiss any part of the population as being useless to America.

My parents and my grandparents were the very bottom of Mitt Romney’s 47 percent. I would have been what Mary Matalin calls a parasite. I grew up with the poorest of the poor.

My point is that no one, no one, can tell where the good people will come from. No political consultant, no politician, no human being should be allowed to dismiss any part of the population as being useless to America. Isn’t that what the American Dream is? Isn’t it?

I’m not a registered Democrat. Being 39 I’ve only voted in a handful of elections and it’s been on both sides of the board. I voted against Clinton for Perot. I voted against Gore, and I’m sorry to say, for Bush the first time, for Kerry the second time. But my vote for President Barack Obama was the proudest one I cast. I saw a man who wanted to change what is wrong with the system and in these last four years I’ve seen him put into policy what he said he would, against incredible odds. It hasn’t happened yet, I know. As an employer I see it. I can’t pay people a living wage right now and it breaks my heart, especially when I see how these people live. They have roommates all the way up to their sixties. I know we are hurting. I see it every day and if there was a better way I would vote for it, but Romney isn’t it.

I will vote for President Obama again. I will do everything I can so he can finish what he’s started. I believe a president has more of an opportunity to get his policies passed during a second term. I know that my choice isn’t popular with some of my war buddies, some of the people I respect more than anything else in this world, but I need to do what I see as right. This is the best country on the planet. I know, I’ve been to many of the worst. In this country even the poorest kid, white trash, black, hispanic, even the poorest kid has a shot at becoming great. We’re all Americans. Let’s stop dividing the country into percentages and work together to move forward.

Also read The Breech, Sean Davis’ haunting first-person account of the humanity (and inhumanity) of war.


Photo of Purple Heart courtesy of Shutterstock. Photo of Sean Davis with kids courtesy of the author.

About Sean Davis

Sean Davis is a Purple Heart recipient who served in the army infantry for fourteen years; during his time in the military he served on numerous deployments including a revolution, a war, and three humanitarian missions. He left the military to go back to school and received his Bachelor's from Portland State University and his Master's at Pacific University. He lives in NE Portland with his beautiful family and Great Dane/Mastiff.


  1. Thank you for your service … but a quick note about America.

    We are a free country but so is 180 of the 207 sovereign states. We are 7th in literacy, 27th in math, 27th in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, 3rd in household median income, 4th in labor force and 4th in exports. We are number one in incarcerated citizens per capita and number one in defense spending which is equal to the next 26 countries combined and 25 of them are our allies.

  2. Richard Aubrey says:

    Not sure what Romney’s 47% has to do with the story.
    In the old days, see Himmelfarb and Olasky, society divided the poor into the “worthy” and the other. “Poor but honest” was a common theme. See the old kids’ book series “Luke Larkin”. One was titled, in the old fashion, “Struggling Upward”.
    When a guy came to a shelter a hundred years ago, he would be told to cut so much wood for his meal. If he did, he ate and the shelter had the wood. If he didn’t, he didn’t need to eat badly enough to take that meal out of the supply when somebody else might need it.
    Now we have generations on welfare, $30k to $40k annually in cash, kind and services on the sole condition they don’t get caught committing honest employment.
    ’bout twenty years ago, I discovered that food stamps could be changed in my area for 70 cents on the dollar. That is, you brought a hundred dollars worth of food stamps to the dusty little grocery and got seventy bucks in cash. You wouldn’t do that if you were hungry; swap a hundred dollars of food for seventy of something else.
    A year ago, more, or less, I read of a grocery in north Georgia getting busted for laundering $6.4 mill of food stamps–that we know about–at seventy cents on the dollar. Twenty years and a thousand miles and the exchange rate is the same. This makes excess food stamps the most stable currency on the planet.
    Can’t happen without a large, predictable and consistent supply of excess food stamps. These people aren’t hungry. They don’t even know anybody who’s hungry. If they did, they’d get the food and give it to the hungry, or take it to a food pantry.
    Point is that the poor, like everybody else, differ one from another.
    Some are poor because they make bad choices. My sister-in-law works with a woman who took a long time to understand that grocery shopping at a gas station is not the way to stretch your budget. But coupons and sales remain the back side of the moon.
    Some are mentally ill. Some are addicted.
    Some have no discernible example of being employed in their family or on their block and have no idea about the entire thing.
    One social worker said that, for some young women, after the unachievable ideal is crossed off the list as unachievable, pregnancy is the best option. Get your own file, your own place, WIC, food stamps, Medicaid….
    One of the things Romney said was that about 47% of the population wouldn’t vote for him under any circumstances whatsoever. Looks like it’s true.
    One Iowa congressman said he had some businesses in his district which were trying to hire some folks. But the folks’ unemployment hadn’t run out and they weren’t interested. The business knows when the ninety-nine weeks is over for each prospect and they hire at that point. Incentives, one way or another, have an effect.
    Figure if you’re getting–to pick a number–$250 a week in unemployment. If you get a job for $400 per week, you do $400 worth of work for a gain of $150. Would you do it for $150? $100? $50?
    Helped out at a Gleaners operation a few times, talked to the folks in line. It’s surprising what kind of work can be done for unreported cash, especially if you have some blue-collar skills.
    As I say, the poor are different, one from another and talking about one does not necessarily apply to others, nor should it be taken as a broad statement unless specifically so.
    Oh, yeah. See Dalrymple, “View from The Bottom”.

  3. Sean, you’re pretty inspiring in a quiet sort of way. Thanks for your service, and for this nicely written piece. I agree with your assessment of Mitt’s comments—they are not out of context. They are perfectly in context with the man that he is.

  4. Thanks for your story, thanks for your service, and thanks for your spirit.

  5. I like to play devil’s advocate, hence I posed those questions. Its not that I think socialized healthcare is an evil thing, I have friends from Italy who get coverage even in the states, I have family covered by healthcare and my own daughter is covered under subsidized coverage. But european citizens income is taxed appropriately to cover healthcare in a way I don’t think capable in the states, but no other medical system in the world is like the USA. When we switched on Medicare in the 60’s, it drastically changed the costs of healthcare here. People used to be able to afford a home visit from the doctor. What probably changed it more would be the liability insurance our doctors now have to pay due to substancial litigation with outstanding rewards. People became “sue happy” and we had lawyers chasing ambulances to discuss how someone could sue everyone under the sun. The problems in america are astronomically wide and deep. I think healthcare SHOULD be a non-profit organization, handled like police or fire protection in communities. But those things are better managed at a local level than a national level. We don’t need 90% of the pharmaceuticals available on the market today but there is so much money and corruption tied into our political system that I don’t see a feasible way that our country can return to exaltation! I am a supporter of legalization of marijuana. I’ve never done it, not interested in ever doing it, and I really don’t think I ever would if it were legal and presented the opportunity. But I know that it helps people. Its more than just utilized for recreation. My father was disabled since he was a teenager when his fathers car was hit by another car and killed my grandfather and put my dad in a wheel chair. While on medicare, the doctors would prescribe oxycontin and other debilitating drugs for his pain, but they were addictive and made him sick. He could have a puff of a joint and have hours of relief! Corrupt corporations corruptted and bribed our politicians to make a natural solution to many of our problems illegal, because you can’t patent it! Our healthcare system is so damaged that our hospitals really do charge $100 for a bandade or a bar of soap. An ambulance ride can cost $1000. The USA is being raped of its glory and prosperity by economically backed political elites. I cannot even postulate an outcome, but I imagine it will be terrible for a long time. Greed has destroyed greater nations in our worlds history, and we’ve learned near nothing. But, since things like the Icelandic Revolution thats been taking place for the past couple of years and NO mainstream media outlet has been covering it, I imagine there will be many different outcomes globally.

  6. Are we better off than we were 4Trillion dollars ago?

  7. I describe myself as a socially conscious fiscal conservative. I think everyone should have to work hard to get what they want/desire. While the disproportionate fate of the economically desperate (the poor or bottom [random number]50% of citizens) and the “wall street fat cats”, as soo many liberal mouths like to label them, -top earners in this country and the rest of the world (because honestly, America isn’t the only place with a Greed problem!) is egregiously disheartening of our capitalistic system. This isn’t something that the government can easily control, and its quite debateable that the government should even TRY to control wealth and earnings. The “top dogs” in the companies should have no say in how much they make, at least not in a publicly traded company. The investors should decide. But what about the companies that are owned by that top guy. He has a salary of [random number]$1Billiion and pays his lowly factory workers $30k salary. This is where ethics SHOULD come into the equation of the whole failed trickle down economics theory that I have for so long held near and dear to me. While in essence this SHOULD work, greed at the top prevents that surplus from trickling down to the bottom. While production and sales increase +20%, salaries only increase 1-5% for those little guys. Then, the Fed prints its Fiat money claiming that they’re keeping inflation at a steady pace of 1-2% and that is well within “acceptable” standards. But, your food also increased by about 5% in cost to keep up with inflation and fuel costs. What’s not spoken of is the fact that the weight by volume went down also. So, now $.90 of 2011 food costs $1.05 in 2012 money. Effectively a 17% increase in price on your 2% decreased in value money that you only get 5% more of this year to spend on that obesity causing high fructose corn syrup laden cereal that you just bought for your toddler that will later in life cause health maladies that will cost more in healthcare fees. That isn’t even touching on the 40% increase of the healthy whole foods from your market or grocery store caused by increased inflation and fuel costs. We’re just getting unhealthier as a nation, while its getting more expensive to live and live healthy. Its true that our government could fund all of the public housing, public welfare / food stamps, etc. with a fraction of the money we spend on illegally policing the world and preventing people from bringing shampoo onto planes, etc… But why would any of us want to give up that safety and security… we dont want to give up the processed foods that keep making us unhealthier, that keeps driving up healthcare costs, that pays for the lobbying the government, that allows us to be one of only 2 countries in the world that allows pharmaceutical companies to advertise to us ailments that can be fixed by their drugs, because nothing natural in the world exists to help heal them, or prevent them, or relieve them… No, we’re a country of blind fools…. There is more wrong with our country than is right! But to feel safe, we give into all of the bad to pretend that we are fully enjoying the available good…

    • Problem is processed foods are often cheaper, and I believe in America corn-based foods are subsidized too? Bring on artificial meats, I am hoping they come sooner rather than latter as I truly believe they will reach a very affordable status and can make a large portion of our diet but be tailor made to be healthier. Cheap protein would be a godsend, especially to the poor I think.

      • Processed foods are cheaper because they are nutitionally devoid of substance. Corn is subsidized, that is why the FDA will not recognize the negative effects artificially created high fructose corn syrup is having on the average citizens who so enjoy its cheap sweetening effect. Artificial meats will never be as healthy as a naturally grown counterpart and are personally frightening. Genetically modified foods have already been linked to increased occurrences of certain diseases that aren’t present in aboriginal societies.

  8. Tom Matlack says:

    Thanks Sean. This is what the Good Men Project is really about IMO. Blunt, hard truth based deeply in personal experience. Whether the reader agrees or disagrees politically with your conclusion no one can take away what you went through and why you have a unique perspective on this issue. Thank you for contributing this piece.

  9. Is it really the best country? It’s one of the few in the modern world without socialized medicine is it not?….
    Great story though.

    • Is socialization really the answer? How does that make a country “good”, “better”, “best” for having it? If we socialize medicine(healthcare), where does it stop… meds(pharmaceuticals), transporting the meds, the fuel thats needed for those delivery trucks, the laboratories that create those meds… Do you really think the government could better manage such a program? The same government (as it is) that pays $1000 for a hammer or $15/muffin… Do you think our government could afford that service? Our government that thinks its doing a good job when it runs $2Trillion over budget, year after year… Are countries with socialized medicine really better off? Many of those citizens disagree… but I’m sure many of them don’t mind…

      • Excellent point. By the way, the same government that’s run us $16 trillion in debt.
        I think people are taking Mitt Romney’s statements out of context. What Sean Davis talked about is what many call the American Dream. Mitt Romney is fighting to preserve that. Four more years of Obama would not end poverty. It would not end suffering. But it would end the American Dream. Nobody wants to live in a Nation where the government supports you from cradle to grave. Where the people serve their government rather than the goverment serving the people. Think about it.

        • I think strongly that regardless of who wins this election, we’re heading into an extreme economic depression some time in the next 5 years. Every bump up in the economy has only corresponded with an injection of money from the Fed. Our unemployment rates are based off of how many fewer people are collecting unemployment, which is a very inaccurate count, simply because many people are simply falling off their eligibility cycle and cannot collect anymore. I think that the Republicans are well aware of all of the economic factors that are pointing at a double dip recession, or what I think will turn into a depression, and they are losing this election with a weak candidate so as to blame the democrats for the next 20 yrs. Our government hasn’t been serving its citizens for over 2 decades at this point… its been serving corporations!

      • I’ve never heard of a single person in Australia who went bankrupt over hospital bills. I recently had cancer and socialized medicine took care of all the bills completely, my tax covers it. When helped is needed, it is there. It doesn’t kick you off for pre-existing conditions.

        Your same argument can be said to deny people police coverage unless they pay, ambulance, fire brigade, all sorts of things.

        If your government pays 1000bucks for a hammer then that is a problem with corruption, not socialized medicine/etc. Why is it other governments handle it fine?

        Where does it stop? When you have healthy people, who aren’t putting off seeing the doctor because they can’t afford it and then have health problems that cost more in the long-run, so when they get help they can actually work more productively with better health and pay more tax.

        I dunno why so many American’s are so scared of socialized essential services, what are they afraid of? Poor people getting excellent health cover? There are better ways to ensure tax comes in to help pay for it all. You don’t have to coddle people from cradle to grave, but having a safety net is the best idea I’ve ever seen for the security of a people. Maybe my impression of the healthcare in the U.S is wrong but quite frankly what I see scares the shit out of me and is partly the reason I’d never ever want to live there. It’s not the best country, the quality of living is better in places like Norway.

        All I’m sensing here are people afraid to help out others for fear the cost will balloon big-time for tax. Well, maybe America needs to cut down on military spending? $1000 for a hammer? Maybe they need to find out who’s corrupt and why medical bills cost so much. I’ve never heard of a $100,000 hospital bill in Australia. My surgeries cost maybe $5-10k each, money I will easily pay off again in my lifetime through tax.

        I can understand reluctance over welfare, which is why I think a model like Australia has is probably a good idea. If someone isn’t applying for jobs, studying or making an effort to better themselves they get their welfare cut unless they are on disability and can prove they are disabled. But I seriously can’t understand the reluctance to have excellent healthcare affordable to all people, with no limitiations due to past illness. But hey, I firmly believe in preventative care.

        • AnonymousDog says:

          Don’t know why Americans are “scared of socialized essential services”? Well, it might be that Americans suspect that such government services will be used to reward political supporters of the people in power and withheld from political opponents as ‘punishment’. Chicago, Obama’s home town is a one-party town because government services (street repair, trash pick up, etc.) are routinely denied to anyone who openly supports the “wrong” political party. And of course, if you want to apply for any public job in Cook County, or bid on City construction or maintenance projects, your politics better be the ‘correct’ kind.


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