Inequality and “understanding” the poor

Blog Action Day 2014

Founded in 2007, Blog Action Day brings together bloggers from different countries, interests and languages to blog about one important global topic on the same day. Past topics have included Water, Climate Change, Poverty, Food, Power of We and Human Rights, with over 25,000 blogs taking part since 2007.

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It seems like every day I see some new politician, or news personality, or celebrity talk-show host discussing their recent eye-opening, life-changing experience of living for a month on a “Food Stamp Challenge” – the simulated grocery budget of a family on food stamps.

0912_poverty_630x420Invariably, when the receipts are tallied at the end of the month, and the last journal entry, or blog post is made, the summation of the experience begins with a heart-felt, “I never understood before…”

First and foremost I want to say that I know that something is better than nothing. I appreciate the desire to help, and whatever compassion, or empathy, or social awareness (or whatever you want to call it) that comes along with this experiment.

I get that some good people are trying to make a difference, and I applaud that, but please don’t ever, ever…think that because they did a Food Stamp Challenge, that they understand.

Don’t think that someone can load up a couple of bags of cheap groceries in the back up their Outback, cruise on home to a nice house in the ‘burbs, and fix dinner in their modern kitchen…and know what it’s like to be poor.

Ask any police officer if a one-night “ride along” makes you understand what it is to be a cop, or any serviceman or woman if eating an MRE makes you understand being a soldier. Yes, people can spend a faintly uncomfortable month paring down their food budget, heck – they might even lose a few pounds and gain a little insight, but until they live in the same cheap apartments and ignored neighborhoods, wear their old clothes, feel their frustration and hopelessness, and lay awake at night with their fears…

All they’ve done is shopped like the poor.

Until they’ve have carried those groceries home a hundred times, through two bus transfers, and an eight block walk through a rainstorm, past the drug deal in the parking lot, and up two flights of stairs to an apartment that may or may not have had the electricity turned off, (and it’s January)…

Until then, they don’t understand.

Until they’ve faced staring down long years of an unchanging life, the absence of hope for a better future (not in 30 days, or 30 years)…years where things like new cars (or any cars), nice restaurants, vacations, etc., anything beyond the grinding out of daily survival, are as far off the radar as a trip to the moon; watching their children grow up never “getting”, until finally they stop asking, until they begin to come to an understanding that these things are not meant for them, and they begin to harden…

Until then, they don’t understand.

Until they’ve looked at all the things they cannot buy for their kids, cannot experience with them, cannot give them, and realize that while they can’t have things so many other children take for granted…but that the simple joy of a cheap fast-food meal, or a sugary soda pop, or junk-food snack, or hell…even stupidly spending every penny they have for a ridiculously priced pair of tennis shoes…is a single moment of happiness that they CAN give them (and themselves) now, as a momentary reprieve from the unending grayness of life.

That the cheap sugar and salt and fat bomb will, for a moment, eclipse all of those lost hopes and dreams they had as a parent, and numb the crushing guilt and helplessness they feel every waking moment.

Does it make them feel like a bad parent?

Probably. God knows they get enough judgement and derision on the subject.

But then, they feel that way every morning when sending their kids off to school in clothes they hate, on a breakfast of watered-down milk, every winter night when they tuck them into a cold room because they don’t dare turn the heat on…in fact, they feel like that all the time, and at least they get a smile from those french-fries. At least they can give them something besides the constant, bone-wearying, broken-record response of “No, we can’t afford that.”

A brief blink in their day where they don’t feel like a failure…like if God really loved their children, He’d have given them to someone else.

(Btw – that’s not dramatic prose talking – I was told that by a woman in a soup kitchen, who was living with her three children in a tent.)

Until they’ve been ground down by year-upon-year-upon-year of life at the bottom of the well.

Until then, they don’t understand.

You see, I grew up with a woman who knew these things. A divorced invalid, raising a child in Portland’s ghetto neighborhood of Rockwood, spending the last weeks of many-a-month living on potatoes and government cheese…my mother knew these things very well. She understood.

And the assumption of understanding, based on a month of mild inconvenience (often with the an underlying smugness of “Well, it was hard, but it wasn’t that hard”…) disrespects a lifetime of hardship and sacrifices that she, and all of the parents like her (and some much worse off) went through, and go through every single day.

Frankly, it pisses me off.

Don’t get me wrong, by all means please help…but do something tangible.

Sympathy without action is worthless.

Empathy, or even sympathy, without action is worthless…worse that worthless, it’s counter-productive, as others will follow your example. I don’t need to have cancer to comfort an old friend who does, and you don’t need to “live on assistance” to help people who do.

Volunteer at a food bank, contact a local ministry or non-profit and be part of an outreach program, give to local charities, become a constant, burning, unyielding, pain-in-the-ass advocate to your local politicians and decision makers…and God bless those of you who do these things…I hope you don’t take offense at anything I’ve said here, as it wasn’t directed at you.

If, however, people want to know what it’s like to be poor, so they’ve “been there, done that”, I wish they’d do me a favor…do it for a year, in my old neighborhood, on foot, in the cold and dark, with their children…no life-lines…and I may begin to take their “experience” seriously.

Until then, no…they don’t understand.

-Chef Perry

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