I was on facebook the other day, and I saw something that really bothered me. A friend of mine posted a photo of a grocery receipt, along with a disapproving comment. The receipt included a list of “luxury foods,” such as lobster and steak. And it was paid for by food stamps.
Go ahead – get it out of your system. I understand. I mean, I am guilty. I am guilty of – many years ago – thinking not-so-nice thoughts about the two women in front of me with at the checkout line, wearing nice clothes and buying high-end groceries with food stamps.
It’s easy to immediately think, “Why do they get to eat that stuff and I don’t? I work for my money!” And that’s pretty much what I did. I judged their jewelry, their manicures, and the contents of their grocery cart. And I’m ashamed to admit that it took me a long time to realize how wrong I was.
The sad thing about this attitude it that it’s just so easy to have it. We’re all struggling. We all have problems. And when we have problems, sometimes it just feels good to have someone to blame – to take our frustrations out on. And often times, it’s easier to blame people who seemingly have what we do not than to blame the true cause. Because the true cause is often the hand that feeds us – the people who make our laws, the people who hold our money, the people who sign our paycheck, the people who make the products we need (or think we need) to survive. We’re a country of the rich and powerful holding the poor and meek hostage. And we hostages are all in the throes of Stockholm Syndrome.
But once I opened my eyes, I realized how wrong I was to judge those women, just as my friend was wrong to judge. The feelings that drove me to feel the way I did were based on envy, on frustration, on misinformation. The people truly responsible count on these feelings to keep us believing in the myth of the “Welfare Queen.”
But you know what? Regardless of whether they are paying with a credit card, or their paycheck from Kmart, or their trust fund, it simply is no one else’s business what they spend it on. Is it a wise decision to spend a good portion of their assistance on a small number of luxury items? Perhaps not. But I am pretty sure that every single one of us has splurged on something when we couldn‘t really afford to: A dinner out when we have just had an exhausting day and can’t muster the energy to cook dinner for our family. A book or movie when we just needed to escape from our hectic lives for a little while. A new purse or shoes when we just needed a pick-me-up. A little surprise for the kids, when we’re feeling guilty about how our busy lives keep us from doing everything we want with them. We have all done it. If you truly haven’t – good for you. You should teach a class or something. but the rest of us aren’t immune. Who knows why the person that receipt belonged to was buying fancy food. Maybe someone in the family just got a clean bill or health from their oncologist. Maybe a son or daughter is coming home on leave from the military. Maybe they just want to – for one damned night – to feel like they aren’t living in a bottomless pit of debt and despair.
Maybe it’s not a wise decision. Maybe they’ll find themselves struggling at the end of the month to make ends meet. That’s a problem, but it’s their problem – their choice to make. They will suffered the consequences with our without our disapproving looks.
Why do we – as a society – feel that we should be able to tell them what they can buy? Oh, you’re poor, so you’re only allowed to eat pork & beans or ramen noodles. And these people can’t win. If they eat crap, we bitch that they aren’t healthy. If they eat well, we bitch that they aren’t responsible with their money.
So before we jump all over them for being “welfare queens,” for eating better food, wearing better clothes, having a better phones, let’s remember that each of their spending decisions have consequences. Consequences that they have to live with – not us.
We can’t claim that they choose that life, when often, the other “choices” are not choices at all. “Get a job” is a favorite war cry of the political right-leaning. But if the only option of a job is one that can’t possibly provide for a family, then it’s not a viable – or even reasonable – choice.
I know people who will criticize me for being a working mom & spending so much time away from my children. But if I were to quit my job, giving up my salary and benefits, my other choice might have to be public assistance. And then I’d be criticized for mooching off the government, even thought I was home “raising” my kids. We/They just can’t win.
How about instead of attacking the people in the system, we start looking with a critical eye at the system itself. Give people a better than choice than rock vs. hard place. Give people a chance to earn enough that they don’t need the system anymore, by raising minimum wage to something that isn’t shockingly below the poverty line.
And in the meantime, while we’re waiting for the changes to happen, let’s give people the benefit of the doubt, rather than the harsh judgment. Let’s embrace kindness rather than judgment, acceptance rather than divisiveness. Nothing will change until we do. Poverty spreads like a wildfire – quickly and without warning. Few of us in the middle and lower class are safe. Many of us are only a paycheck or two away from public assistance or even homelessness. None of us would enjoy being judged the way we are judging others.