So. This is Valentine’s Day. How’s your heart?
Mine is a seething volcano of wtf- is-the-matter-with-otherwise-sensible-people-today, which is probably why I’m breaking a nearly yearlong blog silence to give you some true love in rough fashion.
First, let me establish my stake in this discussion.
I grew up with off and on food scarcity. Another way to convey the reality of that statement might be to illustrate with a story about being eight, playing football outside with the neighborhood kids, and realizing I felt lightheaded and wobbly. We’d had grits for breakfast. As we’d had grits for supper the night before. I went inside to tell my mother I didn’t feel well, but I passed out instead. When I came to, I was in my mother’s bed and my older sister was feeding me a can of Campbell’s mushroom soup because she insisted on going to the store and getting me something to eat, and the creamed soup was the richest, most caloric thing she could find for the literal pocket change she had to spend. The soup did the trick, and about a third of the way through the can, I was able to sit up a little. By the time I’d finished, I felt much steadier. You wouldn’t think it might work like that, but the sodium alone probably propped me up a bit. When you’ve been hungry for a while, every bite matters.
To further illustrate, I was later a young adult who relied on food stamps to get through two years of underemployment after I was fired from a job on the day my probationary period ended and I was due for a raise and insurance coverage. Why was I fired? Reread the previous sentence. In those days, this was a common practice, and I’m positive nothing much has changed even if some current labor laws look better on paper. Employers still work hard to skirt providing for their employees. Maybe you would like to picture me biking—yes, biking because people with no money often have transportation problems, too—with my backpack of whatever I thought would last and last so I wouldn’t have to go back to the store and endure the humiliation of another cashier’s shaming look when I forked over my fist full of government granted monopoly money. Maybe you’d like to hear the food I “purchased” was all generically branded and wholesome.
But I don’t really want to tell you those stories. You don’t need hardship porn to help you see straight. Or, if you do, get it elsewhere. Right now I want to talk to you about your very reasonable heart.
Note—I am going to continue to use the “you” voice, but this isn’t really about you. Or maybe it is, which is okay.
By now, you’ve read about Trump’s SNAP food boxes, haven’t you? This is the idea that replaces our already woefully inadequate federal funding of food stamps (EBT cards) with boxes of canned food, powdered milk, and processed starch.
Today, I have watched oh so many posts on social media about how the “real problem” with this idea is that it would be expensive (it would) and distribution costs would strip away fiscal savings (they would).
I’ve read carefully your thoughtful hashings-out. Here are just a few of the fun ideas reasonable people are having today:
- “I just think maybe it’s a good idea to do something about making the food stamp program aimed at making healthy choices, expand it, but focus it on fresh veggies and lean meats! What we really need is reform!”
- “I understand that kids ask for sugary cereals and stuff, but if you’re on assistance, it’s probably a good idea to help these kids figure out those things are for a time when you can afford to splurge.”
- “It would even be good, because kids would learn to make healthy choices!”
- “(I buy) cheaper store brands. Soda, candy ice cream etc…while delicious are not NECESSITY…”
- “Why should people on food stamps have the option of buying stuff I can’t afford with my own money? I’m careful, so why shouldn’t they be careful, too?”
Remember my stake in this discussion? Here I claim the agency to plant that stake.
- No one in power is currently talking about expanding food stamps or about delivering fresh veggies and lean meats to the poor. They are talking about finding ways to reduce what we as a people do to ensure that others of us don’t go hungry, an endeavor we already SUCK at. Stop side-tripping. Stay focused. Because while you’re polishing your Blue Apron for the poor ideas, Trump & Co. are hoping the poor starve, die of diabetes related illnesses, or at least feel too shitty to vote. Stop being irrelevant and oppose this box of scraps for the needy idea head on. Head. On. I was raised, in part, on government commodities and the lasting health and emotional effects of that shitty diet will never end until I do.
And this: Reform is a code word for making things harder for people who already have it hard. No one cries for reform and then makes things better for the poor. Never. You already know that.
- You expect more out of an eight year old than out of your president. Okay. Got it. Cool.
- How much do you love it when people pitch in to tell you what values your kids should learn? That much? Let me explain something to you—the ONLY thing kids are going to learn from a once a month box of canned peas is that they are shit, and you and this country think it’s fine if they get shit, eat shit, know nothing but shittiness. It’s fine, apparently, except that it’s not. Every single soggy pea to slide down a throat will root in in the gut and grow into self-loathing, shame, and anger, full bloom.
- Bully for you. But here’s a true thing—I don’t know what you need. Do you know what I need? If you said, “Why, yes, actually…” then you are an asshole. That simple. When you say you want to “encourage responsible spending”, I hear, “make the poor suffer because it’s their fault they’re poor!” When you say, “encourage responsible choices”, I hear, “deny comfort.” Now, I could go on and on about how it’s the rich, not the poor, who are sitting like dragons on vast and stagnant wealth that ought to be plumping up the economy and making your life and your hard work more meaningful, but you’d tune me out and call me a socialist. And then I would say you are insulating yourself from reality and projecting your own feelings of shame and inadequacy onto others to make yourself feel more secure. And then you’d say something about “personal responsibility” as if you were saying abracadabra, only I refuse to disappear. We’d be at this for days. Move on with me.
- Being poor means you already make a million degrading choices a day. You do not need to be told that you aren’t worth a candy bar or that a moment of pleasure is out of reach and rightly so. People make bad choices. So what? When it’s your turn to be god, feel free to fix that. Until then, people who have parental delusions about telling others what to eat and how much should take a step back. Sometimes, one delightful, normal mouthful of choice–the right to make that choice, the power to make that choice–can help you make realizations about what else you can do. And sometimes, of course, it’s just a mouthful of chocolate and how dare you think you get to withhold pleasure from someone else because it makes you feel important to do it.
See, I think you’re mistaken, misled, misidentifying your position in all this. I think you make judgments about the poor because the power to make judgments about the poor can feel like a blanket, like a barrier. I think you have been wooed by the idea that there is a huge, discernable line of demarcation between you and food scarcity, between you and poverty, between you and Trump boxes. I think your reasonable judgment calls and fiscally prudent debates about what other people should have the right to purchase and eat is a way to tell yourself a story about how different than them you are, how hard you’ve worked, about the enduring value of that hard work, how it will make all the difference in your life, and you’ll never have to cross that line where people can’t buy deodorant or Bengay or toothpaste (already true) or chocolate or donuts because those aren’t necessities.
I think I get you. You think you know what people who need food stamps should be able to buy. You think you know how they should have “the necessities” and how they should be “encouraged to make responsible choices.”
I also get that you are under the illusion that to be one of the knowers is something earned, deserved, and therefore stable and lasting. I do not and never would wish sudden surprises on any one. But I might encourage some eye opening. In a country where hungry children are offered canned peas and powdered milk—if they are offered anything at all other than a side-eyed look of disgust—you, yes you, are one denied insurance claim away from learning something dreadful about the fragility of lines in the sand.
I ask again, how’s your heart on this Valentine’s Day, 2018? Because from here, it looks small and hard and in peril, unprepared.