There has been a lot of talk lately about food stamps and other government programs. One notable story is Gwyneth Paltrow’s failed attempt at eating on $29 a week. Much criticism has been laid at her feet for what she bought, but there has also been criticism for her, and anyone, doing this challenge at all. Wealthy, or relatively wealthy, people can put on poverty like the latest fashion trend, and discard it just as easily. By slumming it, the argument goes, they don’t really understand what it’s like to be poor. In an ideal world we would listen to the people already living this struggle and believe them. The reality is though, we don’t. Collectively we as a nation ignore the poor, decide that they simply aren’t trying hard enough, and disregard their plight.
At numerous points throughout my life I’ve been on one, or many, forms of government assistance. I remember getting government issued food from WIC while in kindergarten, the giant cardboard can of peanut butter that was so disgusting I had to be starving to choke it down. The “checks” of varying denominations from food stamps — when I was in middle school — so that if our total came to anything and change my mother would always pay the change with cash, saving the $1 checks for bread or milk runs in the near future rather than lose part of a dollar. I remember living in Wisconsin, I was probably about 17, and my mother telling me that we were getting dinner that night at a soup kitchen. I remember being horrified, arguing that we weren’t that poor, it wouldn’t be right to take food from the people who really needed it. I remember being told we were that poor and I could eat there or not eat. I sat there, mortified, picking at the food I was convinced was old and would kill me. I thought I was better than that experience, than the other people sitting there. I’ve eaten at soup kitchens numerous times since then. The last time while I was pregnant, we were out running errands, I was starving and we had no money so we popped into a soup kitchen. It was pasta (it’s pretty much always pasta) and French cut green beans. I hate French cut green beans, so I gave them to my husband and felt guilty about it. We got our coffee and left. I would’ve eaten at one more recently but my daughter has dietary restrictions and I’m breastfeeding so I can’t. They don’t exactly check credentials at the door, but I am poor enough to eat there and always have been.
When I started dating my husband he lived in government housing. The same street of homes that my family and I had seriously considered moving into only a year or so before. I was in college at the time and speaking about him with a professor. She lived in the same town as him and knew the reputation of the area. She insisted that he was probably a drug dealer selling to little kids, she told me I was slumming it by dating him. And that’s the whole point. I was in college, excelling in college! He was poor and needed help to get by. I was one of “us,” he was one of “them.” The poor other. It never occurred to her that the two categories could overlap. It doesn’t occur to much of the country that poor people can be more than a nuisance.
This is exactly why people need to fail at food stamp challenges, and visit the “bad” section of town. This is why we should all eat at a soup kitchen. It is neither perfect, nor complete, but it does make us see people we might not and what they go through. None of us are “better” than that. There is no magical thing that makes someone above anyone else. I have a B.A., I won awards and scholarships, I had a magnificent GPA, I’m certainly not afraid of hard work and have given my all to the jobs I have had. I’ve lived in some of the nicest parts of the country, surrounded by wealth. And I’ve eaten in soup kitchens. I’ve used almost every form of government assistance there is. I regularly fail the food stamp challenge because I’m on food stamps and still often need to dip into what limited cash I have to make sure I have the basics. Until we all understand that none of us is better than the worst off of us then we will always devalue the poor. We as a country will continue to collectively demonize them. And when I say we I mean you, when I say them I mean us.