One of the reasons I felt so compelled to act to help the food insecure is to combat the troubling attitude in the United States that people are in poverty through some fault of their own. Too often I hear, “What’s wrong with those people?” I guess the thought is that people are poor because they are lazy or have some other flaw causing their situation. Many Americans reason that if the poor only took responsibility for their lives or learned a good work ethic they could find work and their situation would change. All too often this set of beliefs is propagated by the media or our politicians.
My personal experience with those in poverty, however, is that most of them are at the point of needing assistance through no fault of their own. Many of them have lost a job or had to take a lower paying job. Several have been bankrupted by crippling medical bills. Then there are those who can not work–the elderly, disabled and children. The new face of poverty can be found in America’s suburbs where since 2000 the poverty rate has skyrocketed by 64 percent.
Believing that it is the poor’s fault that they are poor leads to further flawed thinking and myths. The other day a graphic showed up on my Facebook feed showing SNAP myths and realities. The realities seemed correct to me, but I decided to fact check them, since no sources were given. I found credible sources for all of the stated realities. According to the USDA, SNAP fraud is about 1% of benefits and this is an all time low, down from 4% over the last 15 years. My experience with people receiving SNAP benefits is that most who can work either are or are desperately looking for work, and this graph substantiates my experiences. The figure of 8-10 months that the average person receives SNAP benefits comes from USDA data. Finally, Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody’s Analytics, states that every dollar spent on SNAP benefits creates $1.76 in economic activity. He states that SNAP benefits are the fastest way to infuse cash into the economy because those benefits will get spent immediately and that spending will ripple into other sectors of the economy like paying clerks’ salaries.
The other night my family was watching the movie, Witness, from the early eighties, and depicted in this movie is an Amish barn raising. One of my sons turned to me and said, “See what can be accomplished when people work together.” He then asked, “Why don’t we (as a society) do that?” I didn’t have an answer for him. With regard to poverty, I think it might be easier to blame to the poor for their situation. To accept that they are in their situation due to circumstances beyond their control means that our system does not work. Since our system theoretically comes from the people in the form of voting, that puts some responsibility on us. We allowed the system to get broken and we are not doing all we can to fix it. It also means that maybe people in poverty aren’t too different than those of us who are not, suggesting we, too, could wind up in the same situation. That is a pretty scary thought for most people, so it is easier to believe that people in poverty are there because of something they did wrong.
Last summer I was listening to a Radio Times program about hunger in the suburbs. One of the guests being interviewed suggested that instead of looking at those in poverty and saying, “What’s wrong with those people?” we change our inner dialogue to, “What happened to them? What is their story?” I like that shift. Most people in poverty have a reason they find themselves in that situation. They are not in poverty because they are bad or lazy. If as a nation we can listen to the stories of the poor, we might come to understand their struggle and how we can help them, help themselves.