I am often perplexed by the tone conversations take surrounding issues of poverty in the USA. Otherwise compassionate people can become defensive and thoughtlessly unkind when topics such as food stamps arise. Cynically, one might think this is because people, who are on the lower end of the spectrum of wealth, have little power and so make easy targets on which to vent our frustrations. Or one might think acknowledging the great numbers of people, who find it difficult to put food on the table through no fault of their own, would mean we are morally bound to help them. We might have to sacrifice some of our own comfort in order to do so. Perhaps a more sympathetic explanation might be a version of compassion fatigue. We feel powerless to help and therefore it is easier to pretend those struggling in poverty are morally inferior or have earned their suffering. Otherwise seeing such suffering is frustrating and troubling. Still even such a charitable explanation does not justify the vitriol which sometimes surrounds discussions of poverty.
There are interesting statistics about who struggles financially in the USA. I found some about recipients of SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) on a website of the USDA: http://www.fns.usda.gov/ora/SNAPCharacteristics/default.htm. It is tempting to quote such statistics in hopes of decreasing hostility toward such programs. But upon further reflection, one can see in statistic whatever one wants to see. For example, I look at the statistics and see the majority of households receiving SNAP have at least one person who has worked in the last year. Someone else would look at those statistics and point out there are some people on SNAP who haven't worked at all in the last year. Statistics are bandied about a lot, yet statistics don't change attitudes. No matter how many statistics say many of the poor are children or the elderly, no matter how many statistics say many of the poor are hard working, we will continue to steam roll over that majority, burdening them with unearned and crushing shame, in order to ensure minority slackers don't take advantage of our hard work.
"...take advantage of our hard work." Perhaps this is the crux of the problem: our society's understanding of work. If we see work as a sacrifice we must make in order to survive, then the thought of anyone dodging that sacrifice is a personal affront to us. If we see work as a necessary burden, we resent work and doubly resent anyone who might use the rewards of our labors without the appropriate sacrifice. Then steps must be taken to assure such grave injustice does not happen. We have to make sure there are "incentives" to work and punishments (even the capital punishment of starvation) for any who don't work or who might blow their money on something like illegal drugs.
What if we think of work as a blessing, an opportunity to contribute to the world around us? Whether we are flipping burgers or performing brain surgery, we are doing work which needs to be done. We have a chance to contribute. We have a chance to be useful in a tangible way. Then those who are struggling can be seen without provoking defensiveness. We can see the many who work and still cannot afford the basics. We can see those who are unable to find a job. We can see those who struggle with addiction, mental or physical illness, limited life skills, or even perhaps some who are just plain lazy. We can see all of these and hear their voices without the value of our own work being threatened. Then we might see and hear clearly enough to be helpful.
Such a view of work could also make it possible to value contributions which don't necessarily come with a pay check such as raising children, taking care of family members, volunteering, caring for a plot of land, and so on.
So perhaps in the argument over SNAP and other similar programs, it is not the beneficiaries who most need to change but rather our society as a whole and our understanding of work.