I never really understood why or how people manage to monitor the grocery shopping habits of other people in their line. Yes, I might glance in someone’s cart while waiting my turn in line, but I tend to look away – sort of good manners dictating that I not stare at what people are purchasing. And beyond idle curiosity, I really don’t care.
But there’s a persistent group of bullies in our society who use grocery shopping to exert moral pressure on poor people to prove they “earned” the right to choose their own groceries. I use the term bullies with some thoughtfulness because its not just an analogy – the behavior of these people, from the lady in line at the Giant Eagle to Congressmen has a very real impact on the welfare of our neighbors including many, many children.
Fact: Food stamp (SNAP) fraud is very low – so low in fact that it is literally not worth investing more money into fraud prevention. Because it works. The people using SNAP at the Giant Eagle or Wal-Mart have already proven they deserve the benefit via an application and verification process.
Bully Spin: “My <insert relative/friend/coworkers> won’t get a job and gets $1,000 in food stamps.” Thus I am choosing to believe that the facts are wrong because of one person that I know. Or used to know. Or know through a friend.
Fact: The grocery stores are clear on what can and cannot be purchased with food stamps. Food can be purchased. Items like soap, paper towels, cleaning supplies, deodorant, shampoo, tampons, and tooth paste cannot be purchased.
Bully Spin: I choose to ignore that this adult cannot buy soap and tooth paste and focus instead on how I imagine she’s misusing my money. I can’t control Wall Street or corporate fraud or even how my own elected officials conduct themselves – I feel helpless and frightened for my own financial future, so I’m going to find SOME way to control something. Kicking the dog will suffice when I cannot kick the boss back. After all, it was my money that paid for the dog.
Fact: Most people on food stamps are working, disabled, retired or children.
Bully Spin: Maybe if I shame them, they’ll work a little harder. At least I’ll feel better.
Fact: Judging other people based on what you observe in one trip to the grocery store is not fair or reasonable. It is also usually not how our faith communities teach us to conduct ourselves. When you behave like this, no matter how subtle, you hurt someone – yourself. You lessen yourself as a person by casting judgment. Your kids notice and follow in your footsteps. The kids being judged notice and absorb it and feel it. The retired or disabled senior is reminded of a shame and stigma associated with not being self-reliant. You do this when you roll your eyes and mutter.
Bully Spin: I don’t care. I don’t think about the consequences of my reactions because I’m so concerned with day to day life. It isn’t fair that I can’t buy those things, that we have to scrimp, that our jobs are in jeapordy. I don’t have that kind of cell phone and my kids have never had crab legs. It has to be someone’s fault that I’m so tired and worn down from taking care of my family and still can’t get ahead. It must be someone’s fault.
This is what Huffington Post explored in a recent poll asking Americans how people should spend their food stamps. The results are dismaying – is it okay to buy junk food? is it okay to buy expensive organic vegetables? is it okay to buy meat? cake? or crab legs?
How about asking – is it okay that a family with two working parent has to rely on food stamps AND a food pantry to feed their two kids? Is it okay to pay people with debit cards so they rack up fees accessing money they earned by working? Is it okay that a disabled person or a senior citizens is supposed to live on $900 a month?
In Pittsburgh, we call our shopping carts “buggies” so here’s a story of a Buggy Bully from a Pittsburgh Giant Eagle via the Huffington Post:
Janina Riley noticed a woman muttering behind her in the checkout line as she paid for food at a Giant Eagle grocery store in Pittsburgh last April.
“I can’t believe she’s buying that big-ass cake with food stamps,” the woman said, according to Riley.
Riley, 19, had just used a government-issued debit card to pay for most of her groceries, which included a cake for her son that said “Happy First Birthday Xavier” in a theme from the movie “Cars.” She glared at the women for a second, then decided to confront her.
“I was just like, ‘Shut the fuck up,'” Riley said. “You don’t know what I’m doing with these food stamps.”
But many Americans do not want to let people on food stamps eat cake. This sentiment is particularly prevalent among conservatives in Congress. Cash register resentment of the sort directed at Riley feeds Republican animus toward the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Now I would like to applaud Ms. Riley for leaning in and pushing back against a bully. I’m not sure that’s always the best response (or effective) but I think it catches people off guard to hear people actually feel dignity and self-worth in spite of the relentless bullying.
But standing up to bullies requires allies – it requires all of us to say “Shut the fuck up” (in our heads maybe) and then point out “You don’t know!”
You don’t know the person’s story or situation or circumstances. You don’t know how they ended up here or where they are headed. You don’t know why or how they have an iPhone or a nice watch or dress in smart clothes. You don’t know why they came to the store in a car nicer than yours. You don’t know why they have 3 or 4 children with them.
You DO know that this is a human being, a neighbor, a person in your community – and they deserve your compassion and respect, regardless of how they are paying for their groceries.
What more do you really need to know?
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