May 27, 2007

Food Stamps: Not a Lifestyle Choice

It was encouraging to see the congressional food stamp challenge, where four members of Congress tried to eat for a week on $21 per person, the amount per week on which people receiving food stamps are supposed to be able to feed themselves. Three dollars per person per day, no partaking of the kind of free food that's often available in their offices or at events they attended.

Then they got to go back to their regular diets. Which is all right, people shouldn't go hungry. Especially not in the richest society in history. We're supposed to be very advanced you know. You'd think we could figure out a problem like how to make sure that everyone got a reasonable amount to eat, particularly the fresh produce that's such an essential source of nutrients.

Instead, in our infinite wisdom, we allowed a food distribution to become entrenched in our society that made basic fresh fruits and vegetables a luxury item for too many people. While efficiently manufacturing huge quantities of just-barely-food priced just right for those among us who are one turn of bad luck away from having nothing at all.

So for some people, a food stamp grocery budget is just normal:

The food stamps are officially gone. I spent my last few dollars on milk, eggs and margarine. I have a loaf and a half of bread (white--ewww) in the freezer, and still have some polish sausages, turkey legs and wings, some chicken legs, some bacon, and perch. Also have a bit of salami and bologna left. One half of a tomato.

What I don't have are any vegetables, except for the infamous cans of peas & carrots that I refuse to either eat or give away (remember, if you won't eat it yourself, why would you give it to the poor?) ...

I already know I'd fail to thrive on a $3/day food budget; it wouldn't take too long before I'd be sick all the time like I used to be. I can barely imagine it anymore.

When I was a teenager, I applied for food stamps one month when I just couldn't find any work. I wasn't yet particularly good at finding work, or at interviewing, and my resume would have fit on an index card. I was living with someone who was willing to share with me, but it was the only way I was going to be able to get anything on my own. I remember being fingerprinted like a criminal, being cross-examined like I was on trial, and a maze of paperwork. Visitors to the welfare office don't get free coffee and snacks while they have to sit for hours waiting for their numbers to be called. It was a humiliating way to be treated and I never wanted to do it again. I was lucky enough not to quite have to.

I made it out. Not everybody does. But they still have to go on living. If they have families, they still have to take care of their kids. There may come a point for them where the energy to just get by takes up all the energy they might have had to get ahead.

Someone once said that the poor would always be with us. It's probably true. Some people just aren't very good at capitalism. Some people don't know how to make powerful friends and grease the system or rig it in their favor. Some people can work hard all day at something they're good at and that people need done, but just never manage to earn very much. And then they have to go shop for food like everybody else and very often, they have to make do with the leftovers that the rest of us wouldn't eat on our brokest days.

It's not a moral failing to be bad at capitalism, because it's not a moral system. It isn't immoral, either. It's just a system, a game. Like chess, poker, or Monopoly. It's a good game for distributing resources efficiently, but if it was the ultimate arbiter of personal worth, then it would be the near-saintly among us who'd be rich and the near-demonic who were poor. And everybody knows, if they think about it at all seriously, that this just isn't the way things are. It's why we don't call the Great Depression the Era Of Complete Moral Breakdown Among The Untermenschen.

Yet popular culture often demonizes the poor, calls them lazy, treats them like criminals. People so untrustworthy that they're made to go through a half mile of paperwork for an extra $3 a day to spend on food. Nobody wants to put up with being treated that way, or living with that little, so if public attitudes towards the poor were at all rational, they wouldn't include the sorts of tedious platitudes that can be cut through by a half minute thought exercise.

Lee Raymond, former chairman of ExxonOr a look at Lee Raymond, former chairman of Exxon.

Like so much else, these attitudes aren't grounded in rationality at all. Like so many other destructive things, they come from pure fear. Just as we fear the shiftless hordes of slacker immigrants who are coming here to ... (drum roll) ... steal all our jobs.

Everyone knows that the poor have it bad and that, more, they're treated badly. And good gods, but no one who isn't extremely poor or can at all pretend that they aren't wants to think that it could mean them. If the poor are a class of alien others, a congenitally lazy species only loosely related to the rest of us, well, no need to worry about being poor and being treated as society treats the poor.

People who can't be trusted. People who don't know how to work. People who won't work. People who are stupid. Bad parents. Venal. Slutty. Uncouth. Don't deserve to breed. Greedy. Trashy. Liars. Criminal. Lazy. Immoral. Worthless.

People who don't deserve to eat.

People who aren't like me.

Because I'm not like that. Because I don't deserve to be treated that way. Because if I was poor, people should understand that it was just a rough patch and temporary, and I'd be trying like hell to get out of it. Right.

That's a lot of fear talking. The perfect fear that casts out brotherly love, that casts out compassion and a sense of shared humanity.

As John Ikerd notes in Sustainable Capitalism, the statement that "all men are created equal" is a moral proposition. The document in which it's included says unambiguously that we should all have equal access to the blessings of liberty and justice, while our moral journey as a nation has been to expand our conception of "all men" farther and farther past its original meaning of 'all white, male property owners.' However, the market doesn't and can't treat all people as equal. That's explicitly not the point of a capitalist economy. And that's why we have a democratic government, to express the moral and collective will of a nation's citizenry in cases where our individual efforts just aren't going to cut it.

If a society's sense of right and wrong isn't twitched by hunger or malnourishment, are the poor really the ones with the serious moral failings?

Posted by natasha at May 27, 2007 11:17 PM | Human Rights | Technorati links |

ccokzblog:Riots ahead of g8

Posted by: ccoaler at May 28, 2007 10:10 AM