I recently had a heartbreaking conversation about the American federal food assistance program. It was asserted to me quite confidently that when someone who “actually earned their money” is in line behind a poor person at the grocery store, they shouldn’t have to wait for the cashier to count out each individual food stamp with which that person is trying to pay.
“Not to mention,” I was told, “food stamps don’t pay for just anything. They only work on certain food items. So when a poor person tries to buy something that their free money won’t cover, they have to choose whether they want to put it back or pay out of pocket for it. That takes a long time, too. It isn’t fair to me to have to wait.”
I was too speechless to voice my rebuttal to that ridiculous statement at the time, but after some careful thought, I’ve put together several reasons why the belief that helping underprivileged people is “unfair” is heartless and short-sighted.
ISSUE NUMBER ONE: MANY PEOPLE ARE TOO POOR TO EAT FOR REASONS OUTSIDE OF THEIR CONTROL. There are a million and one valid reasons why a person might not be able to make a living wage. Unavoidable illness, being laid off from work, going broke to afford other necessary things like housing, or the skyrocketing cost of being a student are all tragically common reasons why people need federal food assistance. Staying alive can be prohibitively expensive.
LESSON NUMBER ONE: DON’T JUDGE WHAT YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND. Perhaps the person using food assistance at the grocery store doesn’t have enough money to eat because of unavoidable misfortune. It’s not right to judge them if you don’t know their full story. For all you know, whatever caused them to live in poverty could just as easily happen to you.
ISSUE NUMBER TWO: EATING IS NOT A PRIVILEGE. To be clear, privileges are earned, whereas rights are deserved. Having food is every single human being’s right. Groceries are not a gift from the rich that can be taken away from the poor as punishment for having less money.
LESSON NUMBER TWO: NO ONE CHOOSES TO LIVE IN POVERTY. I’ve heard many middle- and upper-class people argue that poor people take advantage of government assistance programs in order to get free money. Yes, food assistance is free in a financial sense. However, it comes at the cost of living in poverty, which is never a privilege.
One more time: Poverty is never a privilege.
ISSUE NUMBER THREE: FOOD ASSISTANCE WORKS THE SAME WAY DEBIT CARDS DO NOW. In many older peoples’ experience, “food stamps” are physical pieces of paper that have to be meticulously counted out. However, the American federal food assistance program hasn’t worked that way in years. Now, it operates digitally through a card reader, which makes it just as quick as using a debit card. Not only does this system allow those with food assistance to pay for their groceries more discreetly, it also eliminates the wait for those in line behind them.
LESSON NUMBER THREE: EDUCATE YOURSELF BEFORE FORMING AN OPINION. Don’t be afraid to admit you’re not informed enough to have a valid point of view. As one of my favorite quotes goes, “It’s okay to say, ‘I don’t know enough about this issue to have an opinion on it.’” In other words, you must be educated before you can be opinionated.
In the end, the belief that people who need food assistance are privileged stems from a basic lack of empathy. If the wealthy weren’t so inclined to look down upon the poor, they might say “I’m glad food assistance allows underprivileged people to eat” instead of asking “How does food assistance slightly inconvenience me?” It’s your choice as to whether you want your worldview to be colored with prejudice or with empathy – but in the meantime, please, just give everyone the chance to eat.