Disparaging the poor seems to have become a mainstay of our societal discourse, perpetuated and inflamed by media personalities and politicians alike.
The growing number of families and children who need assistance just to get by is being portrayed as a direct result of an increasing and unjustifiable dependency on government and, instead of seeing food stamps as a hallmark of a society that cares, we deride the program as “an entitlement for the lazy.”
According to “No Kid Hungry” more than 16 million kids live in households that struggle to put food on the table — that is one out of five kids. One out of five. Nearly half of all people who use food stamps are children, yet we expect these kids to go to school and perform at the same level as children for whom hunger is not an issue. We denounce educators and school administrators for not achieving unreasonable standardized test scores while ignoring the fact that a large number of their students are sitting at their desks worrying over the availability of their next meal.
These attacks on the needy are often rationalized by isolated anecdotes; “I saw someone try to buy a candy bar with their foodstamps,” or stereotyping those who receive SNAP by race when nearly half of participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Program are white (U.S. Dept. of Agriculture). Hunger knows no racial boundaries.
The current obsession with sequestration focuses on damaging cuts to the military when the real losers are the poor and elderly. Across the country there are governors and legislatures demanding that anyone seeking government assistance must pass a drug test despite the fact that a wealth of statistics indicate that welfare recipients are no more likely than the general population to abuse drugs. A Florida court recently rejected just such a law because the state of Florida hadn't shown a “substantial special need” for such drug testing. The ruling, authored by Circuit Judge Rosemary Barkett, added that "there is nothing inherent to the condition of being impoverished that supports the conclusion that there is a 'concrete danger' that impoverished individuals are prone to drug use."
Being poor is not a crime and the war on poverty is being perverted into an irrational and cruel war on the poor.
Anyone doubting the legitimacy of hunger and need afflicting so many children right here in our town (the physical embodiment of income disparity) need only visit the local Head Start program. No, you will not be greeted by a morose scene of outward poverty and despair, instead you will see classrooms full of happy children who, thanks to this program, have food in their bellies and smiles on their faces as they sit down to learn. Or ask your local school superintendent just how many kids qualify for their free breakfast and lunch programs — the numbers will astonish you. And if you think it is easy for a family to admit need and accept help, just think of yourself in that same situation. It could happen.
The growing number of families in need is not confirmation of a society more and more dependent on government, it is the direct result of a devastating and lingering recession, a changing job market, the loss of manufacturing jobs, outsourcing, and a government more concerned with subsidizing corporations and ensuring the continued prosperity of the prosperous than with creating jobs and elevating the poor. We must remember that the ranks of the poor includes those who once proudly occupied the ranks of the middle class.
I do not believe that we have grown callous and uncaring. Most Americans give what they can. Throughout the country, and right here, there are a number of public and private foundations who work daily to combat poverty and eradicate hunger. Their missions, however, are not made any easier by a struggling economy and a growing resentment of those less fortunate. This disturbing trend of belittling the needy is being fueled by media and political extremists who use these troubling times to promote an agenda of hate and intolerance. The deafening chorus of those who insist that “Government is not the answer,” has overwhelmed the discussion and further victimized those who did not choose to be hungry or poor and for whom a trip to the grocery store with food stamps is often a humiliation beyond what they could ever have imagined for themselves.
I begrudgingly admit that I am often overwhelmed by my own troubles and unmindful of my own good fortune and the hardships of those less fortunate. We are all guilty of this unjust oversight, but condemnation of the those in need is the worst kind of cruelty.
“Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well- warmed, and well-fed.” ―Herman Melville