The other day, as I was scrolling through my Facebook feed, I came across a reposted blog entitled Poor People Deserve to Taste Something Other Than Shame. In the blog, the author relays her reaction to and feelings about her mother bringing home a Boston cream pie one evening after work. At the time, the author, her mother, and her brother were living in poverty and receiving food stamps. As I read the author’s recounting of the event, I understood from the title what she was going to end up emphasizing, but was certainly surprised at her reaction, as a child, to that unexpected treat. After some some reflection I wondered at my surprise. Wasn’t her reaction to the treat coming from the same place as the apology we often get at the food pantry from clients, the apology to us from the client because he or she needs to come ask for help? Both reactions result from a feeling of shame and both reactions break my heart.
I believe that most people consider themselves compassionate, willing to help those in need as much as they are able. And luckily for organizations like food pantries, many people do give, not only food and other items, but also time and money, to help those in need. I wonder, however, how many of those people give without question or judgement of the person needing help or the reason he or she is in that situation. I imagine very few do. Unconditional giving is difficult, especially if you have had to work hard and sacrifice to have what you do. I will be the first to admit that I am not always free of judgement, even though it is important to me to remain open minded and learn the story behind the situation. Remaining non-judgmental is even harder if you are told by others that most of those in poverty find themselves in that situation solely because of bad decisions or that they are lazy, and when you help them you are allowing them to take advantage of you and/or the system.
When you hear this message enough times, spoken by people with authority, like politicians or the media, the message becomes internalized, whether you are person giving the assistance or the person in need of the assistance, and the repercussions of hearing this message are negative for both groups. Those who are inclined to give may give less to charitable organizations assisting the poor or support politicians who advocate reducing assistance provided by the government, as a result of internalizing this message. Additionally, when they do give, they may give with an attitude that the recipient should feel grateful for what is given, regardless of their taste for the item (think food), the condition of the item, or their preference/need for something else over the item given. For those in poverty the repercussions of this message are disastrous. Not only do they have to cope with the reality of shrinking assistance, whether that is governmental assistance like SNAP or local charitable assistance like food in a food pantry or non-food items like winter coats, but they must struggle with the knowledge that many in society view them as a pariah, which undoubtedly causes feelings of shame and failure.
I am very aware of society’s current attitudes toward those in poverty. Each time I launch a drive for a special item, like coffee and tea or cookie and brownie mixes, I brace myself for pushback from readers. I worry about comments like “These items are not necessities.” or “Coffee (tea, brownies or fill in the blank) are luxury items, indulgences.” followed by “Why should I use my hard earned money to pay for someone else to have a luxury?”. Luckily for me, I have yet to receive any of these comments. Any person questioning my choice of these items for a food drive would be correct. The items I have chosen thus far are not staples, and indeed are indulgences, but that is exactly why I have chosen them. At the food pantry, and I would imagine the same is true for most food pantries, we do not focus on the reason for the need, only that there is a need. Because we receive state and federal food items to distribute, we do have regulations we need to follow as to who qualifies for assistance and how much we can distribute to each household, but once these requirements are met, all those in need are treated equally with dignity and compassion.
In addition to being non-judgmental and compassionate, however, we try to offer kindness and restore a little bit of dignity to those who are struggling daily with the weight of poverty. When we learn about a client facing a particularly difficult situation, we try to brighten that person’s day. For the grandmother who is raising some of her grandchildren or the caretaker of an ailing family member, we try to slip in a brownie mix or some other special treat if we have them. We keep on hand some birthday gift bags filled with all the fixings for a birthday party for households where a child is celebrating a birthday, but there is no money for a celebration. For clients who are cancer patients we give scented lotions and soaps donated from a local store when they rotate their stock. I can tell the aim of offering these niceties is successful in lessening the burden of shame these people carry by the look on the recipient’s face and the thank yous, often said repeatedly, we receive when we let them know about the item. And this is why I have chosen the items I have for my food drives. I wanted to pick things which would be a treat and would, if only for the amount of time it takes to drink a cup of coffee, allow someone in poverty to put down the weight of shame society has asked them to carry and and live like a person worthy of dignity.