Don’t Feed the Animals

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Today, I got sucked into a Facebook debate about Wisconsin’s bill banning shellfish for food stamp recipients. Of course, the bill doesn’t just ban shellfish — it also restricts “luxuries” like ketchup, potatoes, taco shells, and sharp cheddar cheese, to name just a few items. Anyway, as I think I’ve mentioned here, I tend to fall on the side of “feed the people, already”. I think that states can find better ways to spend their money than policing people’s food choices, and I also think that there are a zillion different situations out there, and food choices should be as broad as possible to cover all of those possible situations. And that’s what I was trying to express, when someone chimed in with the opinion that allowing people to choose their own food was”like feeding the animals — they become dependent and won’t fend for themselves.”

And that’s when I realized that I was making the wrong argument.

There’s absolutely no point in arguing that people who need food assistance should be able to make their own food choices and prioritize their own budgets when you’re dealing with the attitude that poor people aren’t people — they’re animals, begging for scraps. Later on in the conversation another commenter expressed that she felt that food stamp recipients should be “a little more desperate” than they currently have to be to qualify for food stamps, and also that, even though food stamp recipients get the same amount per month whether they buy steak or ramen noodles, so restricting their food choices doesn’t actually save anyone any money, she just “didn’t want to feel like she was paying for steak.” Not only do these types of people think the poor are animals, they aren’t even animal lovers. They want the animals to be closer to starving and get the bare minimum to keep alive.

Welcome to America, where corporations are people and hungry people are animals. Animals that aren’t desperate enough, no less. Maybe we should lobby to have food stamps declared a form of free speech.

How did this happen? Does it all go back to Ronald Reagan, with his (completely invented) “young buck buying T-bone steaks” and his (wildly exaggerated) “Cadillac-driving welfare queen”? Or is it deeper than that? Is it connected with the way we tend to demonize people of other races, ethnicities, and nationalities? Is it fear-based — perhaps related to the fact that most Americans are living one or two paychecks, or one medical emergency, or one natural disaster, away from poverty themselves? Do they think that if they convince themselves that people who need help are “the other”, then they can stop worrying that it will happen to them?

I don’t know. I wish I had the answers, but I don’t.

Here’s what I do know:

  • Poor people are still people. You can argue that a human being is a type of animal — and I’m on board with that — but a hungry person is not a different type of animal than a financially stable person. What’s more, from an evolutionary perspective, sharing is the smart strategy.
  • People deserve food, period. Whether or not a person works, no matter what you think of their life choices, there is no good justification for allowing a fellow human being to starve.
  • Poverty is not a moral failing. It’s simply the condition of not having enough money to meet basic needs.

Until people get on board with at least these three points, we’re probably going to keep seeing hateful petty bills intended to micromanage what the poor can have and do, and — not so coincidentally — make people who aren’t poor feel morally superior. Yay. And even getting everyone on board with those three points won’t totally fix it. I can think of a ton of other important points (such as “poor people aren’t automatically too stupid to budget their own grocery money”) that will need to be argued later. But none of them are even worth bringing up until the majority of society decides to agree that poor people are still people, that people deserve to eat, and that poverty is not a moral failing.

I don’t know how to bring anyone around to the idea that people who need help are people. Is it possible to infect people with empathy? Maybe I’ll make that my New Year’s Resolution. (I know it’s May, but I just had a birthday. It’s my New Year, dammit.) Figure out how to spread empathy. All I know is that people need food, and also a little respect and autonomy. And this “don’t feed the animals” attitude is what’s allowing politicians like the ones in Wisconsin to take food, respect, autonomy, and ultimately humanity away from their own fellow citizens and humans. It has to stop.

#DoFeedTheHumans

Give Gwyneth a Break!

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I’ve been reading some pretty harsh things about Gwyneth Paltrow lately. Let me interrupt myself, before I even get started, and just state for the record that I am not coming at this as a Gwyneth fan. I’m sure that Ms. Paltrow is a lovely person and good at what she does… or maybe she’s not; frankly, I don’t really know. I know her name and that she is an actress, but I can’t think of anything much she’s done that I like, other than her guest starring role in Glee. Previous to watching those episodes of Glee that she appears in, I mostly knew her as the actress that I get mixed up with Anne Heche. (I get my skinny blonde actresses mixed up frequently. There are just so many!) Wikipedia informs me that Gwyneth was in Seven, which is a movie I like, but I am neutral on her performance. Point being, I’m not following her tweets (does she tweet? I may tweet her a link to this) or sending her fan mail (do people still send fan mail?) and I’m not defending her out of any type of loyalty to an actress I like. I would have pretty much the same things to say right now about any other celebrity that found herself in Gwyneth’s shoes right now. (Especially Anne Heche. Because in my mind, they’re basically interchangeable)

Gwyneth Paltrow recently participated in the so-called “food stamp challenge”, an activity that is probably a lot less fun than it sounds. Here’s a Salon article ripping up her performance in this fairly ridiculous, but basically well-intentioned, competition. At least, I guess you could call it a competition – there don’t appear to actually be any winners, but you usually don’t take the amount of shit Gwyneth is taking without losing something rather spectacularly, so I’m going to refer to it as a competition. If you’re not up on the latest in competitively slumming it, the food stamp challenge is when you figure out how much your state would give you to eat for a week if you were poor – probably based on the average family’s food stamp amount rather than any specific poor person’s amount – and then try to live for a week off of that amount of money for food. It’s a rich people activity – if you’re poor, it’s not called “the food stamp challenge”, it’s just called life – or, if you’re listening to Republican or Libertarian politicians or zealots, it might be called something like “entitlements forcibly taken from the wages of Hard Working Real Americans™”. Anyway. Celebs and liberal politicians do this to raise awareness of how tough it is to live on food stamps, in an attempt to get people not to object so much to a teeny tiny percentage of their tax money going to buy poor people food. It is silly, but, as I said, they do mean well.

Gwyneth is in the hot seat partly because her food choices were somewhat ridiculous — why so many limes, Gwyneth?gwyneth

– and partly because, well, she quit after four days. And then said, well, it’s impossible to live off of this. And you know, I get it… she does come off a little tone deaf. What was she going to do with that one jalapeno? Nothing in that picture would be improved by a lonely jalapeno. But frankly, I don’t think this is such a bad thing.

The Salon writer I linked up there is personally offended because she’s actually awesome at being poor, and she finds it offensive that Gwyneth tried it – badly – for four lousy days, then gave up, then talked about how impossible it is to live on food stamps. It’s not impossible! Mary Elizabeth Williams of Salon is great at it, and it’s a skill, dammit! Gwyneth should have tried harder to develop that skill, and she shouldn’t assume that just because she couldn’t do it, no one else can either. Mary Elizabeth Williams of Salon is living proof that it can be done! Don’t denigrate her SNAP skillz.

Blah. I’m not going to list all of my poor person cred, because it’s 4:30 in the morning, I’ve been working for the last 10 hours, and I have a baby shower to go to tomorrow. I should be sleeping, but I decided  to write this first because I really want to be a blogger, dammit. But this is already eating into my valuable and limited sleep time. Suffice it to say that I know what it’s like to shop with food stamps, OK? I know what it’s like to shop with food stamps when you’re working 50 hours a week and still can’t make ends meet, but at least you can tell people you have a job and they don’t treat you like total scum. And I also know what it’s like to shop with them when you’re unemployed and desperately trying to find a job. And jumping through hoops for help. And holding all the things together that immediately start falling apart when your income stops. And handling crises that would be minor annoyances to a person with any sort of income. And still trying to put on a show for the kids to convince them that everything’s all right. And all while being told by your society that you’re the laziest scum of the earth ever – why won’t you just go get a job and stop stealing money from Hard Working Real Americans™? No, I’m not still bitter. Point being, I have poor person cred, so I can talk about food stamp challenges and food stamp shopping skillz.

Here’s what I think. One: Gwyneth achieved exactly what this challenge is supposed to achieve. You’re supposed to have trouble with it. You’re supposed to come away thinking that living off of that little money is hard, and tell other people that it’s hard. You’re supposed to hate it so much you’re ready to quit halfway through. That’s the whole fucking point! You’re not supposed to come away saying, “I lived like a king on a food stamp budget.” That’s the Republican version of the food stamp challenge. (I wonder why they don’t do that? Hmmm…)

Two: OK, yes, when you actually have to live on food stamps every month, you do develop skills to make the money stretch (although it still runs out before the month is over, for most.) I’m not sure I agree with Mary Elizabeth Williams of Salon that making the SNAP budget stretch farther is a skill to be super proud of. Sure, smart shopping is good for everyone, even not on food stamps, but, eh… “look, I’ve figured out how to eke out a living on my pittance from the government” is not something I’d put on my resume. But more to the point, I think Gwyneth demonstrated something here that often gets overlooked – sometimes you just need seven limes.

Here, “seven limes” means “something you’re used to having and don’t realize you can’t get anymore” or “something you crave” or “something that is available when better choices are not”. Usually, when people do the food stamp challenge, we get to see how they’re living off beans and rice and ramen noodles and peanut butter sandwiches. Maybe some expired meat. Most people do their research, or maybe they just follow a poor person around a Walmart, I don’t know. But the thing is, we (real people who use or have used food stamps in the past) don’t do our research on “lower priced places to shop or calorically dense, hunger satisfying items” before we apply for that SNAP card. We apply when we’re too damn hungry not to, not when we’ve completed a study of the shopping behaviors of the poor.

Some of us were never taught how to shop for groceries, while others were taught too well and want to buy the same tasty, healthy, non-damaged-or-expired food we grew up eating. Either way, you wind up with people who really don’t know how to eat like a SNAP recipient… most of us figure out by trial and error. Which means there are months when we buy the seven limes that used to be part of our regular grocery trip and end up hungry for three days. I don’t know about you, but researching caloric density wasn’t high on my priority list when my life was falling apart.

Also, sometimes we do it knowing that it’s going to fuck up the budget. Because we just spent the week filling out 50 applications. And we got three “don’t call us, we’ll call yous” from our recent job interviews. And the car popped a tire, and a new one is just plain out of reach because no money’s coming in, which means we have no way to get around efficiently, because public transportation sucks and city planning isn’t done with pedestrians in mind. And we had to tell our kid that they couldn’t go on their class field trip because we can’t pay for it. And we just got shamed by our other kid’s teacher for not contributing to the class supply of Clorox wipes that are so vital to our children’s education. And dammit, we just need some goddamn limes! (Maybe the limes were for a margarita? I know that I had poor days when I REALLY needed a margarita. You can’t buy those on SNAP.) Poor people are generally not unrelenting bargain shopping machines. They are human beings who crave treats now and then (and deserve them!) SNAP doesn’t include treats when figuring out what they’re going give you, so mostly you go without. But every now and then, you say fuck it, I need some limes.

Then there are the people who have no transportation and no nearby shopping, other than the lime store-and-expensive-produce store. (In actual poor person terms, this is usually more like a 7-11, but whatever — if you live next to an expensive lime and produce store and can’t get anyplace else, you will spend too much on limes and expensive produce, because that’s what’s available to feed yourself with. If you live near a 7-11 and can’t get anyplace else, you will spend too much on overpriced literally everything they sell, because 7-11 prices suck, but you still have to eat.)

Oh, and then there are the people who don’t have cabinets or freezers or stoves or any appliances, really, other than maybe microwave access, because they live in a car or under a bridge or maybe in a cheap motel room if they’re a very, very lucky homeless person. They are also going to eat lots of overpriced limes (or junk) because limes can be eaten raw (and junk can be eaten out of the bag/box/7-11 microwave) and they can’t store and prepare food. This is actually why you’re allowed to buy all sorts of things, including both expensive limes and overpriced 7-11 cheetos — because everybody’s situation is different, and even if we all had mad SNAP skillz like Mary Elizabeth Williams of Salon, we can’t always use them, because we live under bridges or just far away from any real grocery stores.

And pretty much everyone hates shopping with SNAP and wants to quit after four days. Because it’s not enough. Because you get shamed just for having SNAP. Because you get shamed for buying limes, for whatever reason. Because being poor just completely bites the big one, and no one in their right mind wants to stay that way.

In other words, I think Gwyneth’s purchases and SNAP endurance are (sort of) representative of plenty of SNAP recipients. Those who are new to SNAP shopping (or any shopping, sometimes) and are still learning. Those who just aren’t as accomplished at SNAP shopping as Mary Elizabeth Williams of Salon is. Those who live in food deserts and only have access to overpriced foods. Those who are homeless. And yes, those who sometimes say fuck it, I know it will blow my budget, but I really need some limes. And a lonely jalapeno. For those people, it is impossible to live on SNAP – for some of them it’s only impossible in the moment, or while they learn, but for others, it’s always impossible. And the whole point of the food stamp challenge is to point out this impossibility! So that those people don’t wind up with even less to work with! And Gwyneth demonstrated this neatly, more or less.

So shut up, haters. Shove your mad SNAP shopping skillz where the sun don’t shine, Mary Elizabeth Williams of Salon. Leave Gwyneth alone. She did OK. Maybe not outstanding, but OK. And as most of us that have been there know, some days when you’re poor, the best thing you can hope for is to do OK that day.