Social justice

‘The Rich Men Need Our Food Stamps’: The Relative Value of Twenty-Five Bucks

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My sister posted a link on her Facebook awhile back that the state of New Mexico was cutting low income seniors’ Food Stamp allotment by $25. Twenty-five bucks. When we think of taxation and all of the complicated formulas that go with it, the numbers can be dizzyingly difficult to understand, especially as you get into millions and billions and trillions.Twenty five bucks, though, we get.

Who, after all, can understand what a million dollars looks like in your hands? And while you might be able to reasonably figure out the purchase power of a million dollars applied to your life, when you get to ‘billion’ and ‘trillion’, it is impossible for the average person to really understand in concrete terms what that means. It stretches the imagination to even wonder what on earth you would do with that money, and how on earth it would benefit you.

Let’s add another factoid to the discussion. A recent study has shown that once a household gets to about $75,000 per year (a nice chunk of change, don’t get me wrong) the returns in terms of personal happiness diminish to essentially zero.

On the other hand, if you’re a senior living on Social Security and maybe a small pension, twenty-five dollars is a very significant amount of money indeed. It is concrete and defines something immediately useful or even critical for well being. It might even be (literally) the difference between life and death.

Right after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast in 2005, John Scalzi, partly in response to the victim blaming that was going on, wrote the post Being Poor on his blog, ‘Whatever.’ He got 436 comments before closing comments, and the piece has been passed around ever since. Many of us have lived some of the conditions he describes, and the ones added in the comments, in our own lives.

Take the time to read it and all of the comments, and you begin to see how nearly universal the state of not having enough has been in society, even a first world society like the United States. In my own life, being poor has meant waking up in a hospital bed after an accident and not getting followup care for a head injury for over twenty years, and it meant almost losing my teeth in my late twenties because I couldn’t afford a dentist for so long.

This is not an exception. Most Americans have had either periods in their lives where they were impoverished, or periods in their lives where they would have been had family and/or friends not picked up the slack. Since we can’t choose our parents, and our friendships come in large part from the social class we were born into, this is a difference that is nearly purely an accident of birth.

Somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty percent of Americans use food stamps at one point in ther lives. Whether you’re at a tea party gathering or at a football game, look around. Half. Every other person you see. For those people, twenty-five dollars are a very big deal.

Twenty-five dollars can:

  • Buy enough filling but not necessarily nutritious food to last a single person a week.
  • Buy enough gas to get to and from a job or medical appointments
  • Buy enough second hand clothes for your kids for the school year
  • Pay the co-pay so you can see the doctor
  • Convince the electric company to keep your lights on (if you’re lucky)
  • Make the difference between gifts and no gifts for your loved ones on their birthdays

More importantly, though, is that the buying power of twenty-five dollars has become so limited that there isn’t all that much else it can do. It can buy one medication or feed you or ensure you can get to and from work or buy clothes for the kids – but it can’t do all of those things. In other words, twenty-five bucks can stave off disaster for a moment, but it isn’t even enough to begin solving the problem long term.

And yet. And yet state governments all over the country, not only in New Mexico, but elsewhere, are cutting back by bits and pieces, twenty-five, thirty, fifty, a hundred dollars the lifesaving entitlements for the poor and often previously middle class that have sunk into poverty during these poor economic times. We’re not raising these supports, as would seem logical in a world where investment in citizenry is a staple of the rhetoric, but lowering them and simultaneously blaming those who are losing them.

And who is benefiting? Those who are wealthy, who already make enough personal income not only for their entire lifetimes, but to sustain that lifestyle of luxury for several more lifetimes. These are the folks that we are being told, by our leaders, desperately need that twenty-five bucks and can’t have it cut from their incomes.

In this population, twenty-five dollars:

  • Is a tip for a good meal at ‘the right’ restaurant for one. Not necessarily even a good tip.
  • Is spending money for your seven year old when they whine at the store – and when they whine again, there goes another twenty-five.
  • Is hardly worth thinking about.
  • Is what they might pay their chief housekeeper or personal assistant per hour. Perhaps.

Choices that can be life or death at $2,000 or less a month are negligible at $2,000 a day. And we’re not even talking about corporate taxes yet. We’re talking about basic, individual quality of life. If you believe that every human being deserves a measure of dignity and security in life, then you see the harm.

What a progressive tax does, in a societal sense, is the equivalent of giving a wealthy person a haircut and using that hair to build an artificial limb for a poor person. Those who talk about the harm of taxation to the wealthy and use it to justify (literally!) starving the poor on the basis of an ideology that equates property with life are not talking about the rights of the unpropertied. They are talking about the inconvenience to the wealthy and equating it to loss of freedom at a fundamental level, without even a thought to spare at the innate loss of freedom to a person who must choose between competing basic needs on a day to day level simply to survive.

Sometimes it’s explicitly stated, other times not, but in the libertarian viewpoint of property as equated with life, if you weren’t fortunate enough to be born to the correct parents, have the correct genetics, been given the correct opportunities, and then (and only then) parlayed those unearned privileges into a ‘wholly earned’ middle class or wealthy existence, you’re not really human and you don’t fit in the equation.

Sure, there’s a lot of hand waving about charity, but we all know it’s phony, and so do they. Charity is not a sufficient institution to systematically provide those who are born with less advantages a way to move up the ladder into a comfortable existence. Charity is haphazard and advantages those with ‘sexy’ problems over those whose problems are more complex and difficult to understand. And charity assumes that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the individual and not with the society that left him or her stranded.

So here we stand, grandma in line with twenty-five less dollars in food stamps than she had last month, and, say, a rock star or publisher or politician not able to put quite as much money into high end entertainment as they did last month. The grandma is feeling horribly guilty for needing that twenty-five bucks, and strongly believes, because it was the way she was raised, that she needs to find a way to ‘just make it work’, as she loses ten pounds she couldn’t afford to lose – or gains ten because she had to switch to less healthy food.

Meanwhile, the millionaire goes on about her business in her gated community and lives in blissful ignorance of the plight of most of us, filling her ears with Beck and Hannity and O’Reilly and assuring herself that her ‘retail therapy’ is morally righteous. After all, (ignoring all the advantages she had and those who greatly contributed to the success of her business) she earned it.

Who is more harmed? Who does it benefit?

Who does it harm? Who does it help? Are those harms and helps equivalent?

The poor – grandparents, children, single mothers, college students, addicts, people caught in ultra rural or ultra urban pockets of poverty, those who have mental or physical disabilities, those who made a felony mistake at eighteen or sixteen or twenty-five – each and every one of those people are humans, and each a life worth honoring, supporting, and providing dignity and hope for betterment or peaceful retirement to. Simply because they’re humans.

And those of us more fortunate, those for whom twenty-five bucks is not that big a deal, or those in that rarefied company where it doesn’t matter at all, we need to gain perspective. What cost to us to have our taxes raised, to contribute to the well-being of our fellow human beings? What cost to us to build a stronger foundation for our society, where those who will never be able to care for themselves have dignity and peace of mind – where those who want a route to the middle class and have the means to benefit from it have that ladder extended.

Further, what cost to us if we don’t? Human infrastructure, like physical infrastructure, crumbles if not maintained. These basic services we’re cutting to maintain the lowest tax levels in nearly a hundred years are essential to the well being not only of the poor and middle class, but to the rich as well. If only they knew it.

 

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