Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Well fed white people...

Yesterday ended with me getting decidedly pissy because of things I was reading on Facebook.  Seriously, it's probably time I pulled the plug on social media and got back to living life offline.  But, like an addict seeking the next high, I go back every day for more.  Today's rant is mostly inspired by an article I read on Raw Story.  The subject of the article isn't new.  It's about yet another well fed white politician preaching about what poor people getting welfare benefits should be eating.  Republican Senator Patty Ritchie of New York introduced a bill targeting so-called "luxury food items" that apparently people receiving welfare benefits are buying a lot of.

Ritchie wants to make it forbidden for SNAP card recipients to buy steak, lobster, decorated cakes, energy drinks, and other items that are considered "high end" or "junk food".  The legislation would require the Office of Temporary Disability Assistance to come up with a list of prohibited items.  On the surface, this probably seems like a reasonable enough proposition to most people.  Or, at least it does if you are a person who has access to a kitchen, the time and skill to cook from scratch, and the ability to store leftovers.

Indeed, Ritchie sounds like she's almost concerned about the plight of the poor.  In a memo about the bill, Ritchie writes “At a time when our state and nation are struggling with an obesity epidemic, it is critically important that taxpayer-funded programs help low-income consumers make wise and healthy food choices...”  She continues, “Many of these items aren’t just unhealthy, they’re also expensive...  This legislation would not only help low-income families and individuals stretch their food budgets further and promote health and nutrition, it would also protect taxpayers from abuse of a program that’s intended to help those who have fallen on hard times.”

Wow... well, Ritchie sure makes it sound like she cares.  But I have to wonder how much she really knows about poverty and the real challenges that many poor people have to face when it comes to eating.  Does Ritchie realize that not everyone who has a SNAP card is unemployed with plenty of time on their hands?  Many people who receive welfare benefits have jobs.  In fact, many of them are juggling more than one job.  While I would love to see more people eating fresh, healthy, whole foods, the fact is that when you're working all the time, you don't always have the time or the energy to cook and eat from scratch.  And some people don't have the ability to "eat healthy" because they literally lack the facilities to transport, store, and prepare whole foods.

Last night, I was talking about this with Bill and he told me about what it was like for him after he and his ex wife split up.  Ex had come up with a divorce settlement that was extremely unfair and punitive.  It basically left Bill living on $600 a month.  He was paying her $2250 a month in child support for three kids, one of which was not even legally his responsibility.  He paid her $400 a month in alimony.  And he was also paying $1100 a month for the house she awarded herself in the divorce.  Granted, Bill made some big mistakes by agreeing to this, but at the time, he was broke, desperate, and unable to get legal assistance.  The upshot is, he lived in poverty for about two years.

Bill went to Kansas for his new job and was forced to live in a tiny, drafty apartment.  He was very lucky because the man who owned his building was kindhearted and more interested in seeing his units filled than making a lot of money.  So Bill managed to rent a place for $220 a month, unheard of in most cities even back in 1999.  He had a dial up Internet connection that he paid $20 a month for.  He paid about $65 a month for electricity and phone.  He drove a shitty K car that his ex wife deigned to let him have; Ex's father's relatives had given it to Bill because he helped pay for the man's funeral.  Luckily, gas was cheap in those days.  Whatever was left, he used for purchasing food.  He ate a lot of beans and rice.  Fortunately, during that time period, his job required him to travel and he got per diem from the military.  He never used all of the per diem, so he was able to pocket the excess.  That extra money supplemented him some months.

Bill never had to resort to welfare.  That's probably because he was in the military and got some perks that are not available to most civilians.  Also, he was making a good salary, it's just that most of it went to his ex wife and kids.  In the wake of his relationship with his ex wife, Bill experienced both bankruptcy and foreclosure.  I was around to see the aftereffects of his financial problems.  It's taken years for him to recover and recovery was difficult to achieve.

Bill told me about some of the apartments he went to look at that were affordable for him back in those days.  A lot of the rental properties that he could have managed to rent were "flop houses".  They had no refrigerators in them.  One potential landlord said he would allow a hot plate, but no microwaves.  Now, if you're someone who lives in a room with no cooking or refrigeration facilities, how are you supposed to eat well?  What if you don't have transportation available to you and you live in an area that is not served by a decent grocery store?

Bill also told me about how once in a great while, he would go to Sonic and buy a burger combo.  He very rarely eats fast food now and probably ate even less back then.  Fast food tends to make him feel sick.  But he'd see guys working construction go in and buy super sized combo meals.  The food was cheap and filling and would keep them going, even if they might have stayed healthier by eating a big salad.

Looking at Ritchie's picture on the Raw Story article, I see a woman who has no money problems.  She's white, well-employed, and clearly well-fed, as well as getting income from taxpayers.  She's promoting legislation that seems reasonable to so-called "working people" who are fortunate enough not to need welfare benefits.  However, I really don't think Ritchie has much of a clue about what some people are facing, especially as the news reports more and more big businesses closing their U.S. locations and shipping jobs overseas.  American people who used to have relatively decent jobs are finding themselves unemployed or underemployed.  Many of them need  more help affording life instead of more micro managing laws designed to make their lives even more difficult.

It's not that I don't think poor people should be eating healthy.  They should.  I just don't think this  so-called "problem" of SNAP card users buying steak and lobster is that widespread or common.  Besides, shellfish and beef are good sources of protein.  Someone who is fortunate enough to luck into a sale on meat or seafood should be allowed to take advantage of it, especially since things go on sale because they are close to their sell by dates and will be thrown out if no one buys them.

I think politicians have much bigger issues with which to concern themselves other than what some poor person on welfare is buying at the grocery store.  I also think government offices have better things to do other than coming up with lists of "forbidden foods".  Many people receiving welfare benefits are folks who are just trying to survive and would much rather have a job that pays enough that they don't need welfare benefits.  And, just like all self-respecting adults, they would prefer that others stay out of their personal business.

This bill pretty much insinuates that people who are unfortunate enough to be poor, for whatever reason, need special help from the government deciding what they should and should not eat.  There are people out there getting benefits who, at one time, were gainfully employed and able to shop at a grocery store without judgmental comments and disapproving looks from strangers.  Many of these folks know that it's healthier to eat fresh produce than a microwavable burrito.  But that burrito is going to keep them going longer than an orange will, even if in the long run, a diet of burritos and french fries will lead to higher healthcare costs.

It's not a crime to be poor.  Anyone who has ever had a paying job that required a 1099 or a W-2 has paid into the system.  People who have fallen on hard times should be entitled to a little basic dignity and respect, as well as privacy and self-determination.  Moreover, rather than wasting time on legislation that dictates what poor people should be eating "for their own good", I would like to see lawmakers tackle the bigger issues that lead to people ending up on welfare.  How about working on laws that make healthcare affordable, accessible, and available to everyone who needs it?  How about working on legislation that discourages American businesses from shipping jobs overseas?  How about legislators paying more attention to the average person who is trying to get by rather than special interest groups and corporations?

So yeah... I get why many folks who are not really poor think that Ritchie's legislation sounds reasonable.  But I don't think they get why this kind of legislation is not necessarily a good idea.  I hope, for their sakes, they never have to experience poverty and the many challenges that come with being broke.

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