Lately, there have been some really fabulous pieces considering issues surrounding food stamps, the culture of entitlement and nonjudgmental regard for the poor. Elizabeth Scalia links them together through her own reflection on the subject, here. In response to comments from a respected thinker and friend of mine, I’d like to throw in my few cents.
Per my friends’ complaint about these pieces, I would like to propose these points before moving onto the issue of food stamps.
– Different types of writing exist, logical debate is one, reflection pieces are another. Reflection pieces use the author’s personal experiences to provide the foundation of understanding leading up to their personal revelation or insight. They have value and a place among the internet and non-digital Canon.
– Sweeping generalizations are never good (words like everyone, no one, always, never are good ways to get readers immediately defensive because they falsify the statement).
– In general, personal anecdotes are not necessary to make a logical point.
– There is a current in our culture that demands personal experience as evidence, but it is not true evidence, merely illustrative of an idea or explanation for one’s perspective.
– The internet provides a forum for very insightful people to share their experiences, so we, the readers, get an overload of anecdotal writing and a dearth of plain, clear, unheated logical argument.
That is my defense of pieces like Simcha Fisher’s really excellent post about her experiences and insights derived from those experiences.
From these posts, the points that I found poignant were as follows
– Many who are on food stamps live with an incredible lack of dignity often due to circumstances totally beyond their control (Fisher).
– If a person who can afford lobster has lobster in his or her shopping cart, is it appropriate to say that they deserve to eat lobster and the person who is on food stamps does not deserve to eat lobster? (Fitz)
– This brings into question what food we consider extravagant (Fitz, Scalia).
– There are practical problems with the government specifying what food can and cannot be purchased on government assistance (Fitz). For example WIC limits what types of food can be purchased. Peanut butter can be purchased. Natural peanut butter without added sugar or salt cannot be purchased. Who decides what is too much for the poor? I suspect that some in the position to regulate those purchases might consider organic products to be too expensive to justify their purchase. Others would disagree. Allowing the receiver of benefits to decide gives them the power to choose how their food stamps are used, it trusts them a little to decide intelligently, as it would trust those in the power of regulating to decide intelligently.
Now let’s consider the question at hand: should those on food stamps buy typically expensive food?
For the sake of space, we’ll call this Premise A: I would propose that it is better to live more simply on a day to day basis than to live extravagantly (this provides exceptions for major celebrations). It is not good for anyone to eat lobster or Filet Mignon daily.
It appears that some would like to assign a moral value to the purchase of expensive or extravagant products with money from food stamps.
That takes us to Premise A, which applies to everyone. So let’s consider the purchase of less extravagant, but still expensive products on a more regular basis.
I argue that other issues come into consideration beyond just charitable money paid for by taxpayers and extravagant living.
Pope Francis linked the issue of unemployment to the dignity of the worker. Fisher addresses wide varieties of indignities the poor suffer. Many could supply many anecdotes to support that.
If there are legitimate reasons for the poor to buy more expensive food, that would diminish the moral weight of the question at hand.
Some of the poor struggle to maintain their dignity, and eating healthful foods like “normal people” or being able to celebrate a major feast is the way this person/couple/family have found to keep their morale up.
Because of the major effects of depression on one’s ability to parent, act as a spouse, and function in society, I view this as a legitimate reason for a family to purchase things they otherwise might not have been able to, given their current income.
Without in-depth interviews, it is not possible to morally evaluate at the state or federal level, each participant in the food stamps program (nor should this be done).
Therefore each participant should be accountable to himself and his Creator, following the basic guidelines of the program (it is illegal to sell food purchased from food stamps, changes in income must be reported).