This is why it angers me so much when people think it is fine to judge what poor people buy with their food stamps. I read another article this last week about this very thing: about how so many Americans see no problem in judging what poor people buy in the grocery store. Even though the average food stamp recipient gets roughly four dollars a day (which on a yearly basis is less than half of what I received for college), people still feel they have a place to judge how that meager money is used.
Which is why this part of the article stood out to me:
"Why do people think they’re entitled to decide how food stamps, in particular, are used? Not all government benefits elicit such feelings. When we give people assistance through the home-mortgage interest deduction, we don’t feel entitled to tell them what house to buy or what neighborhood to live in; when we subsidize a college education through student loans, we don’t tell students what school to go to or what to major in. When we tax capital gains income at a lower rate than income made from labor, we certainly don’t tell those stock pickers what to do with the extra cash."
She goes on to say that much of this has to do with the fact that food stamp use is so visible, whereas so many of the other benefits are hidden in the form of a tax break, credit to a college account, or other such "behind the scenes” activity. While I agree with this, I think there is another reason as well: there is still a belief in the US that poverty is a moral failing.
I think there are very few people that would admit to believing this, but - like so many other unjust beliefs and practices in this country - it has woven itself into the fabric of our culture. The belief that, for the most part, hard work equals success. That those who are poor must, in some way, be responsible for their lot in life. They must have done SOMETHING wrong, or else they wouldn’t be poor. And you know what? We want to believe this. Because if we were to admit that, maybe, the poverty and and houselessness in this country is the result of something larger than individual decisions, then we will have to admit that our own economic success might not be the result of our own talent, hard work, and good decision making.
Which brings us back to food stamps. You can see why people get so angry when they see someone buying candy, or soda, or steak with their food stamps. It is not just because of tax money. It is because, deep down in our culture, we don’t think poor people deserve those things. We think that a luxury like soda should be reserved for those who deserve it (read: those who have made a certain amount of money). We see those things as something we deserve only after a certain amount of hard work.
I know this is so ingrained because I can still feel it in myself. I have spent the last three years working with, and learning from, folks who live outside. I know how much this stuff has hurt them. The shame they feel when the use their food stamp card, or get criticized (sometimes to their face) for how they use that money. Yet when I am in a store, and I see someone buying a 6-pack of Coke with their food stamp card, I can feel a twinge of annoyance. Followed by a good dose of guilt for feeling that way. But it is there, built into me by our culture.
This is obviously about more than food stamps. It is about our culture that sees people in poverty or living on the street as failures, morally as well as financially. I am not saying that bad decisions play no part in how people end up on the street. Of course they do sometimes. But even then, we don't have the right to shame people. And when we judge people for what they buy at the grocery store, it only adds to the shame that people in poverty already feel. And that shame is often a huge hurdle for people trying to escape poverty or get off the street. As Brene Brown says, “Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change."
And if we as the church are to every truly stand with those living outside, we have fight this culture of shame and judgement in every way we can. People are not failures because they live outside. They are human beings, created in God’s image. They are worthy of our love because they are people. Because as Dorothy Day says, “The Gospel takes away our right forever, to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.”