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.