Monday, February 4, 2013

Food Stamps Are Not "Fun": Is the "Food Stamp Challenge" Just Live Action Role-playing for the Privileged Classes?

After I wrote about Cory Booker’s decision last month to take the SNAP Challenge – to take “a view of what life can be like for millions of low-income Americans” – I couldn’t get the idea of it out of my head. The challenge is simple in concept but demanding in its execution: see what it’s like to live for one week on a food budget equivalent to your state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program’s (SNAP) benefits.
Participants can use their existing spices and condiments, but no other foodstuffs, nor they can accept food “from friends, family, or at work.” Because I live in New York, I’d have a slightly more generous allowance than New Jersey’s Booker got – a total of $36.86 for a week of eating.
And because my two daughters are awesome, they said they wanted to do it too as I soon as I mentioned it to them. So for the past week, we’ve been eating on a little over five bucks a person per day.
The emotion of empathy is critical if we are to have a Good Society. If we cannot understand one another's struggles--at least a little bit--and try to reach across the chasm of human experience, how rich and full a life will we have really lived? And what will our world be made into?

Yet, we must also ask what are the limits of understanding?

I understand the various tools in the social justice kit for helping the privileged understand those less so, or for unsettling the standard assumptions often held by those folks who are defined as "normal" or the "in-group" about the Other.

The privilege walks, the "homeless on the quad" exercises, and the be "black/brown/female/fat/disabled" for a day experiences, are common rituals in multicultural, post racial, diverse, post civil rights America. At our colleges, as well as many corporate retreats, these rites are conducted in order to make "us" feel more empathetic and sensitive about "them."

Power can be insidious and tricky: it is slippery and seductive.

These types of exercises often reinforce the very privileges which they are designed to subvert, expose, and call out. The person pretending to be blind for a day will be able to see tomorrow. The woman in the fat suit gets her svelte figure back in a few hours. The homeless coed camping on the quad gets to go back to his or her dorm and their calorie filled food plan along with its "second dinners" and fourth meals of the day.

Save for experiments such as Black Like Me, and Sister Jane Elliot's decades of anti-racism work, these "awareness" raising exercises are (at their worst) a bad live action role-playing game--what is in essence "larpping" for the privileged.

When done right they can make a person think outside of their comfort zone: but, the very essence of privilege still applies as this is a temporary condition both chosen by, and forced on oneself, in a moment of politically correct self-flagellation.

Salon offered up a preeminent example of this dynamic in its piece "Our family’s week on a food stamp budget." While Mary Elizabeth Williams's heart is in the right place, there is just so much wrong here:
My daughters and I spread the shopping and stocking up for the challenge over several days. We bought oranges and potatoes, vegetables and milk and a chicken and some flour. We bought things that are delicious, and you don’t need to be a genius to prepare. And when the first day – Sunday – arrived, it came with a flourish and a big stack of pancakes. Over the past few days, I’ve made soups and sautéed sausages. I’ve baked bread and made yogurt and jam. I’ve sent the kids into the kitchen to make chili.
These things aren’t hard to do. They take a little thought and work, but why shouldn’t nourishing yourself take a little thought and work? And what concerns me is that I suspect my daughters and I are eating a more healthy, balanced and pleasurable diet on a food stamp budget that a lot of families with a whole lot more to spend.
It hasn’t all been fun and easy...  
Poverty is not fun. Living in a food desert and not being being able to find health eating options is not fun. Being dependent on public transit, when in places like Chicago for example, such services are being cut while simultaneously going up on fees, is not fun.

I have been so blessed. I grew up working class and never knew hunger (we were close once when my father was very ill, but my godparents showed up with an envelope). If anything, my parents tried to hide our precarious class position where we, like many are today, were/are one or two checks away from the street (filling out my FAFSA for college was quite say the least), by over-indulging on restaurants, and eating expensive cuts of meat during the holidays. Lest we forget, in America everyone is middle class, with a penny in the bank, or millions in the checking account.

Material poverty, real or imagined, can mess you up by altering your hopes and dreams, creating anxiety, and quite literally marking your psyche with fears that you did not have before said experience.

I have never been poor; but, I have been unemployed for an extended period of time.

During that year of going to the movies everyday to feel like I had a routine, working in the library, going into debt with the local blood merchants on a substantial personal loan to stay afloat, and begging employers to expedite (as politely as possible) their travel reimbursement checks for jobs I did not get (and which would have changed my life overnight), I was a few moments away from applying for food stamps.

I should have. It would have saved me money. But my own working class pride and the thought of my father's shame, looking down on me from beyond, as when he was alive we never went on the dole or "down the street" to "that place" as my mom called it, stopped me. I was privileged enough to not have to go on food stamps because I had friends that I could hit up if needed, skills I could find a way to market, and family I could impose on if I had to. Those are real privileges.

Ultimately, I worry if those who can "slum" for a week on food stamps as an exercise in empathy understand how privileged they really are.

As I have seen with white students who become transformed after learning about "white privilege" from reading Brother Tim Wise or doing an in-class exercise (and can now "understand" black and brown folks...and in some cases "speak" for us), I hope that Mary Williams, and others like her, do not dare to consider themselves authorities on what it means to be poor in America. If so, the food stamp challenge and other such exercises, while well-intended, are actually reinforcing the systems of inequality and privilege they are ostensibly intending to overthrow and challenge.


Paul Sunstone said...

I agree with you that empathy is valuable to understanding others, but not when it lacks humility. These role playing games seem to come with the assumption that, once you have completed one, you know all about what it's like to be in the shoes of someone else. For one of my college courses, I was required to read the papers each day and to keep a journal in which I responded to the news as if I were a Native American. But the more I tried to think like what I might imagine "a Native American would think" about the news, the less certain I became that I wasn't just BSing myself. In the end, the thing I most took away from the assignment was the likelihood that I was deluding myself, and the importance -- not of believing I could "think like a Native American" -- but of simply listening to Native Americans.

grumpy rumblings said...

I've often wondered this myself, but you're the first person to voice it.

I do think it provides empathy for the people who in the end can't do it (like the politicians who have tried it out).

But when personal finance bloggers do it... with their ability to buy things wholesale, their big kitchens and freezers and storage areas, and so on... the glee at how doable it is sends the wrong message. The majority of the people on foodstamps are not in the same situation as the bloggers who play the game.

And no foodstamps for us, but I do remember government cheese.

Daniel Goldberg said...

There's an active literature in disability studies on the problems of privilege and power posed by "cripping up." It is of course well-meaning, but is deeply problematic because it really conveys almost nothing of what it is like to LIVE as a disabled person.

In fact, in some ways it exacerbates ableism b/c able-bodied people typically imagine that being disabled is the worst thing in the world (and hence are often unsurprised when a disabled person seeks legal recourse for assisted suicide). Cripping up actually intensifies this belief and conveys nothing of how disabled bodies can and do adapt to changed life circumstances, and how sufficient social support can help even severely disabled people make meaning in their lives.

So yes, power, privilege, and intensifying entrenched structures. There are better ways to exercise the moral imagination.

chauncey devega said...

share more on this in the disability studies literature if you would. "crippling up" could have some parallels with the "performance" of racial marginalization by otherwise well-intended people.

chauncey devega said...

It was like going camping, in the super market, and then using sleeping bags on the floor...with the lights sort of out.

chauncey devega said...

"I responded to the news as if I were a Native American. But the more I tried to think like what I might imagine "a Native American would think" about the news"

Insert fingers into mouth and induce vomiting.

Paul Sunstone said...

Indeed, Chauncey! Some college assignments deserve to be publicly burnt on the quad.

quiet-reader said...

wow, that quote from the Salon article is disgusting. I'm a student and I spend under $4 a day on food... because I can spend the time to cook big portions of lentils, rice and veggies once a week, my parents taught me how to cook from a young age, I live near stores that have reasonable prices and fresh produce, I have a freezer, I don't work manual labor or anything else that would leave me hungry at unplanned times, and I live a fairly relaxed life with a fixed schedule and no 2nd job. Plus, I can afford to occasionally treat myself by splurging on a nice piece of cheese or going out to eat, and with any luck this beans and rice phase will be just that... a phase in my life.

Somehow it never occurred to me to think of the way I choose to budget my time and money as some kind of "SNAP challenge" or to compare myself to people living in poverty. This is just what I do. No other aspect of my life is in any way similar to the life of someone on food stamps. I live in a nice, safe neighborhood in a newly renovated apt., I have great medical insurance to treat my chronic health problems, I am in my dream graduate program, I'm young and fairly contented with my life.

And MEW is just giving this a try for a week? Lady, shopping and eating like that takes mental discipline and saps your time budget. Do it for a year. Do it for three years. And at the end you still won't have any idea what it would be like to do it for thirty years.

quiet-reader said...

Here's the thing about the politicians - they have hectic, inconsistent schedules and not much time to think about food. I think that actually makes their attempts to live on food stamps more realistic and empathy-inducing.

As for the bloggers, why on earth are they patting themselves on the back for being able to live in a thrifty manner. Anyone with their resources would be able to cook good meals on the cheap! It's not an actual accomplishment!

quiet-reader said...

I should've added... this budget also flies out the window the second my boyfriend comes to my town for a visit. I can make myself live on cottage cheese and fruit for breakfast and legumes, rice, tofu and veggies for lunch and dinner every day, but when you eat with someone else, sometimes you want it to be fancy. Something tells me that if these bloggers stuck to a strict budget for more than a week, their partners and/or children would get sick of it and they would end up thinking twice before inviting friends and relatives over for dinner.

Daniel Goldberg said...

Oh it do, it do. Like many of the most robust critiques in DS with which I am familiar, it has significant parallels with race, power, and privilege. It comes up most in theater and film, where able-bodied people remain most commonly cast in the roles of a disabled person, instead of just, you know, actually hiring a disabled person. It is typically compared to "blacking up." But the performance of disability by able-bodied persons also comes up in medical contexts, of course, with medical and allied health learners.

Same or similar problem, IMO.

Dumb in the District said...

Well said. I've had so many of these same thoughts as I've seen privileged high school (particularly) groups "live" as hungry or homeless for a night and then feel entitled to dictate how others in these situations are feeling and thinking because they "understand." There may have been a point in time when empathy play was valuable and people truly were ignorant (though I doubt it and assume, rather, that it's always been about the same as now), but with contemporary knowledge of poverty and privilege, there's no need to pretend that playing these games are the only way to know that folks are struggling or to romanticize the idea of poverty, which I think is a prominent activity within privileged culture. Nobody can truly understand someone in a situation different from their own, which should not limit compassion, and I'm not sure that these games engender nearly as much compassion as they do a reinforcement of privilege.

rihana c. said...

Middle class people are mostly clueless about poverty, what it's really like. They've never been disrespected by some lady who stands between you and your kids and the food stamps. I have slowly come to believe that the chasms that separate people in this country by class are almost too big to bridge. Some middle class white lady with her two kids lived on a food stamp budget for one week and now she "gets it"? I want to see her article after she does this for 10 years, takes the bus every time she has to grocery shop, and stands in a LONG line of people to get her government cheese and butter. Oh, and does this with her four kids in tow. In shitty weather.
BTW, great column, Mr. De Vega. But yours usually are.

chauncey devega said...

I think the longer term problem is that these "games" actually leave participants, especially in our ego driven narcissistic facebook culture, that such situations ain't that hard so anyone can overcome them. There must have been research and some empirical data on the impact of these types of exercises. If anyone would like to share, please do so.

chauncey devega said...

Being poor is expensive. That is the paradox few get.