If we’re not going to do anything to alleviate the causes of poverty, the least we can do is help reduce the damage it causes. Among the least controversial (or so I thought) things we could do is provide food to poor people. About one in every ten households has received food stamps, and they average about $120 per month for food. That’s The total SNAP budget is about $81 billion. To put that in perspective, it looks like we’re budgeted to spend $85.6 billion on Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan this year. Yet the recently-rejected House farm bill included a $2-billion-a-year *cut* to SNAP. So apparently we owe it to soldiers to stay the course, even when the course was disastrously conceived and executed, but we owe the poor nothing even when their poverty is our fault (e.g., your skin color consigned you to an officially inferior station with limited voting rights until at least the 1960s; your father ended up in jail as part of the country’s catastrophic war on drugs; the Federal Reserve cares a lot about inflation but not so much about unemployment).
I’m reasonably happy that House Democrats opposed these cuts to SNAP; I’d be happier if anyone’s imagination extended to *expanding* the program. But no; the Senate, which *has* passed a SNAP bill, cuts the program by $3.9 billion. The best we can come up with is to cut this program — just like the best we can come up with when it comes to Social Security is to cut benefits by using an alternate measure of inflation, even though Social Security pays retirees only about $15,000 a year, and even though Social Security is the *sole* source of income for one in five people over 65.
I don’t know what we’ve lost: the imagination that allows us to think our society can achieve great things, our feelings of brotherhood toward our fellow-men, or our ability to experience outrage. Whatever it is, it is sad as hell.
We continue to act like a poor country — like we’re going broke and can’t afford to guarantee a minimally good life for our brothers and sisters. I continue to lament this; the more I think about it, the more I know that I need to write a book about it. We’re not poor. We’re the most prosperous nation that the world has ever known. We’ve just chosen to redirect much of the massive increase in real incomes since the 1960s into the wrong things. What’s even more worrisome than that, however, is that we’ve made the mistake of believing that our “poverty” is baked in, rather than the result of an explicit choice. But it was and is a choice. It’s a choice that we make anew every single day, when we decide that we don’t have a society filled with people who owe something to each other, and instead decide that we’re each on our own fending for ourselves.
I see this in myself, and have to fight it constantly. “Save until it hurts,” I tell myself, “because when the time comes, no one is going to be there for you.” Or I consider how much I’ll have to save for my notional future children, in the expectation that well-funded public universities won’t be there to help them.
So that’s the plan on my end: write up where we came from and how we ended up at this particular sordid state, make it clear to our society that our “poverty” *is* a choice, and try to recreate the social imagination that we so desperately need.