What’s wrong with this picture: Food Stamps

I’ve been seeing this picture around Facebook a lot lately, unfortunately. The picture is of a piece of newsprint which states that the Food Stamp Program has the most enrollees ever and they are proud of it, while the Department of the Interior asks people to not feed the animals so they won’t become dependent on handouts.

There are so many things wrong with this that I’m not sure where to start.

The comparison itself is a truly awful one. Wild animals most likely have plenty of their own food sources available to them, all for the price of a hunt. If they don’t, then they may very well be endangered and people will be worried about their prospects. Also, notice that no one complains about the zoo animals’ unhealthy dependence on humans; there, you’re not supposed to feed the animals because it screws up their diet. There’s more to this than just “animals will grow dependent on handouts”. Human beings in the United States, on the other hand, need money to pay for food, and in order to have money they need to have a job. They also have to worry about transportation, and housing, and utilities. Jobs can be difficult to get, even when you are qualified or over-qualified. When a person has a job, it may be one that pays poorly. Or it could be that the person recently experienced an unexpected reduction in income, and their financial commitments are now too large for the income but may be hard or impossible to escape. Whatever the reason, money is tight. The person is most likely perfectly capable of working, shopping, and cooking; it’s a question of how much opportunity there is to do those things. Yet somehow, a lot of other people don’t care a whit about these situations, unlike in the animals’ cases. To compare a poor person to a lazy animal is insulting and inaccurate. It’s a bumper-sticker “explanation”, and the only thing it does is harm.

Poverty is a complex issue. It can hit even the most well-educated, hard-working, upright people and leave them applying for food stamps and welfare. Poverty is not a respecter of persons. It is a grating experience, and once you’re in the cycle it can be incredibly difficult to escape. This is doubly true for those who grew up in poverty, especially if the poverty is accompanied by low levels of education. These combined can make it hard to get a job, as this blog post explains. Poverty is losing your job because your car broke down, you couldn’t afford to fix it, you couldn’t get to work, and you got fired. Poverty is working multiple minimum wage jobs and having a large portion of your wages go to subpar daycare. Poverty is having no recourse to credit cards in an emergency and having to resort to loan sharks. (For more, see Nickel and Dimed.) And guess what? It could happen to you. But if you’re reading this, you’re probably better equipped to get out of it than a lot of people.

I’m sure there are “welfare queens” – but I’m equally sure that the vast majority of people on government aid have it because they need it, or because they qualify and they’re taking advantage of it because it makes life easier. Yes, they may be spending their money poorly. The answer to that is not to take away their money, or to make a burdensome list of requirements to get aid, or to automatically disqualify anyone with anything remotely nice (computers, iPods, etc.). The answer is to educate people on money management, and why they want to change their spending habits.

The most important thing, though, is to listen to people’s stories. Understand where they’re coming from. Don’t distance yourself and be satisfied with leaving the poor to be the “other” – the lazy welfare queens of your imagination. Treat other people as *people*, not stereotypes. Maybe then things could be changed, a person at a time. And when you see a person with an iPhone pulling out her food stamp card in the checkout line, think about it: maybe it’s an iPod that someone gave her. Maybe she’s bound into the contract, doesn’t have another non-smart-phone to switch to, and buying that non-smart-phone would cost more than she can afford, so she’s stuck paying that extra $20 a month. You don’t know, so perhaps you should stop judging.

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