Dignity for the Hungry

So there I was, perusing Facebook early on Saturday morning, when I stumbled upon this picture in my feed:

We all have different political beliefs, I get that.  Many of us feel passionately about our own beliefs and we are all free to express them without fear of recrimination. My objections to the picture above have nothing to do with freedom of speech.

Usually when I stumble upon someone else’s beliefs that are completely opposite of my own, I just shrug and go about my day.  God knows that just because I believe something doesn’t mean I’m right. And I’m not so arrogant as to think that my beliefs are one-size-fits-all.  I know and love many, many good people whose political or religious beliefs are wildly different from mine.

And no, I’m not a saint.  When I come across an opposing view, I can be just as judgmental as the next guy (usually only in my head). But I try hard to remember that our society is based upon opposing ideas pulling each other to a – hopefully balanced – middle.  A free exchange.  An open, impassioned, important, ongoing dialogue.

So in the spirit of believing we are all in this life, this country, this humanity together, I tried to let it go. I took deep breaths.  I distracted myself with my normal Saturday routine: playing with the kids, drinking coffee, starting the laundry.

But no matter how busy I got, I couldn’t get that picture out of my head. I was angry and inexplicably sad.  A few moments later, a friend of mine from college posted this:

*reprinted with permission

I saw this and thought, “Wow, I’m not the only one who is bothered.”

And then, “Thank God.”

I get that some people believe the food stamps program has failed. And while I disagree, that’s not what bothers me about this picture. What disturbs me is how easy we find it to create an “us” and “them” mentality when talking about our fellow Americans, our fellow humans.

What disturbs me is that this picture isn’t really about criticizing food stamps.  It’s about ostracizing and ridiculing the people – our people – who need help to feed their families. It’s about assuming that those who use government assistance are lazy and entitled, with no intention of changing their situation.  That’s quite an assumption.

Why is it a surprise that in our crippled economy, people are out of work or underemployed and struggling to put food on the table?  Why are we afraid that helping under/unemployed people, or any people, will create dependency?  The graph below shows the relationship between poverty, unemployment and the SNAP Program (the new name for food stamps).

Source

People who use food stamps are not some nameless, faceless ‘them’. These people live in our towns and cities.  They are our neighbors and friends and countrymen. These people are doing exactly what we would do if we feared our children would go hungry – they are using the system that’s been put in place for them.  For us.

I wonder if the people who created the picture above would be surprised to see the demographic makeup of food stamps recipients, as surveyed by the US Department of Agriculture in 2010:

  • 48% of recipients were children
  • 15% of recipients were elderly
  • 19% of recipients were “non-elderly disabled” people.
  • Per household, the average gross monthly income was $731

Source (Pp 19-20)

Let’s rethink that bear at the picnic table.  I wonder if it reads the same when that bear represents a 9-year-old kid with 2 siblings in a single parent household earning $750 a month (before taxes).  Now let’s imagine yelling “STOP FEEDING THE ANIMALS!” as that kid eats a meal purchased with government-assisted funds.  Let’s tell that kid to buck up and get a job so that she doesn’t become dependent on food help.

Feels a little different, doesn’t it.

I’m not saying there aren’t problems with food stamps (now called the SNAP program).  There are problems with every government program.  My goal is to elect people much smarter than me to iron out these kinks.  But just because there are problems doesn’t mean that the whole system isn’t fulfilling its purpose.

Most importantly, don’t we owe it to our friends and neighbors struggling to make ends meet to at least treat them with dignityWe need to be better than this glib picture, America.  We need to see the faces and hear the stories of the people struggling.  When we do that, we can’t fail to put a human face on the problem of poverty.  And hunger.  And all of the other big, scary problems that are happening RIGHT HERE in our country.

I don’t know how to solve for these huge issues – but I do know that the solution starts by getting rid of this imaginary line between those that have enough and those that don’t.  By using the word WE instead of THEM.

WE are not wild animals.

WE deserve to have enough to eat.

WE are all in this together.

 

Hunger is a serious problem in this country and in the world.  It deserves our attention.  And those who are impoverished or hungry or both deserve our respect.  And our help.  Period.

“Compassion is always born of understanding, and understanding is the result of looking deeply.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

 

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If you’d like to donate to the Central Virginia Food Bank, you can do it here.

If  you or someone you know could benefit from food stamps, you can sign up for the food stamps/SNAP program here.

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