Wednesday, October 5, 2016

An Open Letter to my Friends Who Engage in Food Stamp Recipient Shaming

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Dearest Friends,
My husband and I have had a rough life. We have been on food stamps, have received Medicaid for many years, went without a car for about five years, and even went with no heat and no hot water for a few years. At one point, we were actually homeless. Yes, it's true. Homeless.
Poverty, it seems, has many faces --some that you might not expect.
We relied (heavily) on the charity of others. It was painful to ask for help. You cannot possibly know the shame involved in asking St. Vincent de Paul for yet another stopgap and having them ask you if you're working. You may not realize what it's like to be told, "You don't really need this. Go get a job! Who do you think you are?" I truly hope you don't know the shame of knowing that your pastor thinks that you are less than worthy of his time because you're "just using the church as an extra income."
We did not just sit around and wait for people to hand us things. We went to work. Every. Day. In all places we found ourselves, we tried to make the world a little better.
Yes, we did make stupid decisions, but we made smart decisions occasionally, too. We moved from place to place, hoping that this time we would be able to make it work, but only recently has that been the reality. We worked hard, but we also had moments that could be characterized as lazy. Or maybe that was the depression that set in when we realized that our family was relying on us and we couldn't make it work.
Why am I telling you this?
I see so many people in my Facebook thread passing around a nasty little meme that likens those who receive food stamps to animals in the National Parks.

Stop it.

Charitably, I have decided that you don't really think that my life and the lives of my children and husband are only worth as much as animals in a park. I would certainly hope that anyone who knows me, personally, would believe that I was worth more to them than a raccoon, or an opossum, or even a bear. Again, charitably, I have decided that you don't really think that people who are poor are expendable.

But maybe you do; maybe I'm wrong about you, my friends.
When you engage in this kind of argument --an argument that casts people as something other than human beings, be that Skittles or wild animals --you turn those people into objects. I don't really believe that you do view all creatures as objects, but be aware, that if you do, then you are subscribing to a philosophy called Preference Utilitarianism. Here's a quick and dirty breakdown of this Philosophy:

1)    There are things that are right and wrong.
2)    Decisions of right and wrong are made based on the amount of happiness they cause.
i)      Right = Greatest Amount of Happiness
ii)     Wrong = Lesser Amount of Happiness
3)    Happiness is a satisfaction of preferences.
4)    The more preferences that are satisfied across a population (and that population could be as small as a couple or as big as the whole world) the more right the action is.
5)       It is your moral responsibility to satisfy the majority of a population's preferences, even if it doesn't satisfy your own preference.
Well, now this is all very logical. Let's apply it: Allowing refugees into the US doesn't satisfy many people's preference for safety, so we keep them out. Many of them die, but that's okay, because our population's preference for safety is satisfied. We are fulfilling our societal obligations and moral responsibilities by satisfying those preferences for safety. If we don't have to think of refugees as human beings then it makes it much easier to ignore their suffering.
Paying taxes that are redistributed as money for food doesn't satisfy many people's preference for being able to hang on to more of the money that they worked hard for. Studies have shown that those who are raised in homes where food sources are not stable are about twice as likely to suffer cognitive disabilities due to poor nutrition,and will likely be impoverished as adults, but that's okay, because our preference for having what we want is satisfied. If we think of food stamp recipients as animals in a park, then we can ignore the fact that 1 out of 4 children are going to bed hungry tonight. (I have other arguments attached to this about educational reform and hunger affecting the long-term preferences of society and the fact that by not considering these folks as having preferences, we dehumanize them even further --but that's a whole discussion on its own.)
All of that said, Preferential Utilitarianism is a big problem if you're Catholic. When we follow this philosophy all the way to its logical end we'll discover it's the root of what has caused the problem of abortion. If we don't have to think about the fact that a fetus is human, then it makes it much easier to "get rid of". Right?
Let's go a step further: You find out that a child you are carrying is going to live, but will be severely disabled. This child will be on governmental assistance programs to help care for them. This is a burden on society and also the family. Under this philosophy, you have a moral responsibility to abort this child because it satisfies the majority of the population's preference to keep more of the money that they earn. Further? If the child is already born and will be a drain on society's resources, it is incumbent upon you to kill the child.
Wait, first we were talking about food stamps and suddenly we're talking about infanticide? Yes, it does go that far. In all respects, this philosophy removes the human aspect of a creature and treats everything as equal, (animals, people, Skittles) insofar as they satisfy or don't satisfy preferences.
So, if you are arguing that food stamp recipients are like bears, you have embraced this form of Utilitarianism. Is that really what you think? This is completely counter to the teachings of the Catholic Church.
Maybe we amuse you. Maybe we inspire you. Maybe one of us is useful to you in some way. But do you care about us? Do you love us for who we are, not what we offer you?
Please do let me know. I would hate to waste any more of your precious time and resources. I will not unfriend you. I will probably not block you, but I will try to convince you that I am worth something more than a wild pig or a coyote.
Yes, I was a government assistance recipient. I got off of it and it was hard work, but it happened. So, no, we don't become dependent like hand-fed animals.
Yes, I am a human being with feelings, thoughts and a will to live as are many, many of the other government assistance recipients out there, and yet, I, and the thousands of others who have to rely on the government for food each month, have something to contribute to the well-being of this world. Even if that contribution is only an opportunity for you to practice charity.


  1. You are awesome. My family relied on public assistance most of my life. My mom was on her own, spoke no English and had a grade school education. She experienced addiction and we lived in homeless shelters throughout many states. I was fortunate to go to college, live oversees and now have my own home and want for nothing. I've gone from eating bread from dumpsters to opening my own coffee shop. If it weren't for public assistance I likely would have starved. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Congratulations, Joel, and I mean that sincerely. Having had dumpster meals myself, I know it is not easy to overcome all those obstacles, but you certainly have! Thank you for sharing your story with me.

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