Americans typically celebrate Thanksgiving by gathering with friends and family to cook and eat bountiful feasts. We tend to think of it as a day of abundance and sometimes overindulgence.
But Deb Haaland recalls one year when her experience was far from typical or joyful.
Thanksgiving Week about 15 years ago, Halaand, staring at a near-empty cupboard of pinto beans and flour for tortillas, decided she would apply for emergency food stamps. She’d long resisted applying because, she says, “I didn’t want to take away from somebody else who could use it more than me.” But Haaland wanted to provide her daughter with a traditional holiday meal.
When she got to the counselor’s office though, she discovered she “had too many assets” to actually qualify for assistance, she recalls.
There in the office, Haaland broke down and cried at the thought of having to tell her daughter she wouldn’t be able to provide a Thanksgiving meal.
“And we just ate like we normally would,” she says. “I didn’t make a big deal out of it to my daughter. It wasn’t Thanksgiving dinner, though.”
Haaland, now a freshman Democrat from New Mexico and one of the first Native American women elected to Congress, grew up in a military family. She attended 13 public schools across the United States — California and Virginia among them— before graduating from high school in Albuquerque. She and her three siblings were raised by military parents — her dad, a Vietnam veteran who served in the Marines, and her mom, who served in the Navy.
She gave birth to her daughter, Somah, four days after graduating from the University of New Mexico in 1994 before launching a salsa business, which she sold by driving across the state with her daughter.
In the mid-2000s, she decided to pursue a law degree.
For a single mom working her way through law school, those were some lean, challenging years, Haaland says. One of which included finding a steady place to live.
“My daughter was like, ‘Mom, we were actually homeless,’” she recalls. “And I was like, ‘Oh my God, I guess we were.’ But I never looked at it that way until I realized, ‘Yes, it is.’” While Haaland didn’t have to sleep outside under a bridge, several times she had to stay at a friend’s house because “we just didn’t have any money” to pay for an apartment of her own.
For Haaland and Somah, “things went south” while sharing a two-bedroom apartment with a roommate in Albuquerque. She had a week to “move all of my stuff out.” That’s when she had to lean on her friends for shelter. Many times she and her daughter had to share a bedroom together.
But Haaland says she was determined to stay strong for her daughter.
“Because I had to keep my chin up, raising my daughter to stay positive and make sure that she doesn’t realize that things are awry,” she says. “It’s hard. You have to assure your children through these hard phases in your life.”
Haaland says her financial situation has improved. Still, at age 58, she is paying off student loans. But even with her own obligations, she also feels some guilt that Somah’s childhood wasn’t as carefree as Haaland would have liked.
“Quite frankly, now that I have a little bit of money, and there were so many times when my daughter could have benefited from a better paycheck, and she sacrificed right along with me, so … I tried to help her out, too,” she says, her voice cracking.
Haaland says her struggles as a single mom continue to guide her as a lawmaker in Congress. She supports “Medicare For All” and is working on a bill that would force “gig economy” companies such as Uber and Lyft to pay into Medicare and Social Security for their drivers. She also signed on to an “anti-lunch shaming” bill with Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar that would no longer “humiliate children and make them stand out just because their parents can’t afford to pay for their lunches,” she says.
“I’m always gonna fight for folks,” Haaland says. “I think it’s any government’s obligation to make the lives of people better. That’s why we pay our taxes. We want good roads, we want solid bridges. We want nice playgrounds for kids to play in. We want safe communities. We don’t want our neighbors to go hungry. I know what a nice neighborhood is like, and I want people to be able to find success.”