This week the Trump administration released a new idea for domestic food aid. They want to send boxes to people who are recipients SNAP/food stamps, while slashing about half of what they can use via Electronic Benefit Transfer cards at grocery stores.
The administration's idea brought back a lot of memories for me. When my sons were first born, we applied and were accepted for WIC (Women and Infant Children) in our city.
While I am so grateful for the program and its benefits to families like ours who are scraping to get by, I can’t tell you how embarrassing and shameful it was to walk through the line at Walmart to make sure the things I was buying fit the WIC requirements I’d been given.
I’d have to check all the lines and pray that the person behind me was gracious and understanding of a process that often took extra time. I prayed that the clerk didn’t stereotype me as an unfit mother who couldn’t feed her children. If one of the items was the wrong brand or size, we’d have to run to the right aisle and grab the right item until everything matched the items on the WIC receipt we’d been given for that month, as I listened to the sighs of the people in line behind me and the clerk standing in front of me. For people of color, the stereotyping is even worse.
In an effort to avoid the shame of shopping with WIC, I would shop at the smaller Walmart store on the other side of town because it was likely to be less busy, which meant that I could peacefully walk the aisles and choose the correct items on my list. It meant that I would hopefully have a clerk who was compassionate instead of hurried. Most of all, it meant that my shame was a little less visible because I wasn’t surrounded by parents who could afford anything they wanted for their children.
We’ve created a society in which the poor are cloaked in shame, and it doesn’t even take words to relay a message that they are to blame for their economic situation.
It seems that in America’s climate today, we’re looking for ways to make privileged, white culture more comfortable, and perhaps that means keeping the poor out of our grocery stores.
Perhaps that means there will be no more waiting in lines for the parent who is trying to match the right items to the right list in order to feed their children.
But these are real experiences of real Americans, and we need to be aware of that moving forward. Instead of the government cutting costs to food programs and sending families a box of pastas and canned vegetables, we need to be investing in these programs, and also investing in the care and time it takes to see people as humans and not as walking advertisements of what poverty must look like.
After sharing my reaction to the government’s proposed plan and my own story on social media today, others began to share theirs.
This idea is not wholly different from what indigenous peoples go through with reservation commodities or food programs, in which food is distributed to the poor, often in horrible conditions. These foods may not be healthy for families, but they are cheap for the government and easily distributed to the people thought of least in society.
Ideas like the one proposed by our government take money away from programs that help the poor, while also taking away their choices, leaving them with a box of food they cannot use because it's not what they need.
But it also sends a message: if you're poor, stay out of our stores. We'll send the food to you.
We cannot help but be aware of the Jesus of the gospels, who spent his time with the poor, diseased, outcast, and distressed.
We cannot help but remember that he did not shame them or tell them not to shop in the marketplace or worship where they wanted to worship.
We cannot help but remember how he cared for them and scolded those who didn’t.
So if we are willing to fight for the rights of the poor to choose the food they need for their families, we must also be willing to fight stigmas, stereotypes, and shaming that come along with those decisions.
Instead of shaming people who need such programs, let’s talk about a faulty economic system that keeps people in poverty and the rich rising at every opportunity to become richer, including the leaders of our government.
If we cannot admit that we’ve always been a country that builds itself on the backs of the poor, people of color, and indigenous peoples, we cannot make it to the realization that we perpetuate cycles of poverty and shame at an alarming rate.
It’s time to be honest.
“There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we have the resources to get rid of it.” —Dr. King, Nobel Lecture, 1964