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.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?
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.
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.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.
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...
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 eye-opening...to 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.