It’s clear that something has to be done about income inequality in America.
And at least on the surface, income inequality and poverty are things that people in power today have said they care a lot about.
Some of it is good news: there is legislation that serves to destigmatize the circumstances of those that are impoverished, such as Los Angeles’ newest law that will increase the minimum wage to $15/hr as of January 1st, 2020.
And then there is legislation that seems to further humiliate those living at and below the poverty line, such as the HB813 bill introduced by Missouri state Rep. Rick Brattin this year, which would make it illegal for SNAP recipients to use their benefits “to purchase cookies, chips, energy drinks, soft drinks, seafood, or steak.”
Legislators like Brattin claimed that this would promote “economical, healthy food choices.”
But I’m not convinced. Why?
This way of thinking is based on myths and misinformation. (Who’s actually buying steak and seafood with their SNAP benefits? Very few, as it turns out.) And these kinds of laws make life harder for people who are living in poverty, and receiving government assistance.
Brattin’s law may seem logical—even though the bill isn’t going to be passed this year—but think about it in terms of impact: the law itself doesn’t do anything to ensure that those on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) are faring better in terms of health. But what it would do is a lot more troubling.
This new law feeds false stereotypes, such as that of the “welfare queen”—the idea that welfare recipients live off of taxpayers without self-accountability in finding and keeping a job themselves.
The myth of the welfare queen came about during the 1970s, when Ronald Reagan gave a speech where he vilified a single Chicago woman for scamming the government:
“She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare…[for a] tax-free cash income…[of]…$150,000 a year.”
Although Reagan didn’t make up the woman—Linda Taylor—he certainly stretched the truth. In reality, the woman “bilked the government out of $8,000 using four aliases.” That’s a major difference from what Reagan asserted. The “welfare queen” was a “convenient villain” for Reagan to sell voters on his cuts to public assistance spending.
And most importantly, Taylor’s abuse of the system is a rare exception to how people have actually used public assistance programs and to how these programs operate.
Make sure you learn the truth about welfare recipients
First off, the idea that SNAP is rife with fraud and abuse is simply not true. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “SNAP has one of the most rigorous quality control systems of any public benefit program,” with an error rate at an all-time low of less than 3 percent.
It is also a misconception that SNAP recipients are lazy or lack integrity. Most SNAP recipients work. As outlined by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “Among SNAP households with at least one working-age, non-disabled adult, more than half work while receiving SNAP—and more than 80 percent work in the year prior to or the year after receiving SNAP.”
It is also a complete myth that welfare programs aren’t effective. In 2013 alone, food stamps helped lessen the burden of poverty for 4.8 million people. Welfare programs are essential in helping many people get back on their feet.
So how can we think about uplifting and inspiring people instead of criticizing and controlling them?
1. We must address the need for nutrition education assistance.
Many people living in impoverished communities struggle with the reality of food deserts, in which wholesome groceries are simply not available locally. Given that much of this demographic is struggling to keep up with minimum wage, blue-collar jobs, they may not have the same time and resources to be able to access the right grocery stores.
Some say that this situation explains the consumption of cheap junk food, and the burgeoning obesity problem in poorer neighborhoods. So then it is irresponsible to restrict food purchasing without also providing nutrition education assistance—and ending food deserts for good.
How can you help?
The Healthy Corner Store initiative is another example of a way to increase the availability of healthy foods in food deserts. It partners with corner store owners to increase the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables in underserved communities. In the past, The Healthy Corner Store has also partnered with the city’s Get Healthy Philly campaign. Do you have one in your city or town? You could be the leader in bringing one to your community.
But SNAP recipients aren’t the only group that needs better education assistance. Americans from all economic classes and backgrounds suffer from high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, etc. Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign tries to educate all Americans by offering guidance and instruction on physical activity as well as food and nutrition. The important thing is that the audience is all Americans—not singling people out
2. We must address the larger structural concerns of health and poverty.
Poverty isn’t just about not having money—it affects every facet of your life, including physical and mental health.
For example, low-income and minority Americans live in areas closer to industrial plants that emit harmful particles. Researchers say that bad air quality is connected to kidney problems, lower birth weights, higher levels of infant mortality, and kills 2.5 million people every year.
Economic insecurity is also known to have devastating effects on mental health. Mothers who are stressed during pregnancy are more likely to have children who are predisposed to developing diabetes.
How can you help?
Of course, supporting the right legislators and legislation is crucial in ensuring we don’t make life harder for those living in poverty. It’s also important to support legislation that assists people in coming out of poverty.
But aside from that, one of the ways you might be able to see more immediate results in your community is by supporting start-ups and organizations that care about people’s holistic health and well-being. Healthy food isn’t the only thing that people need to live healthy lives. Consider making art to help progress climate justice (like through Our Power Campaign), or push in your community for a living minimum wage, with the Fightfor15.
Neerali Patel is a graduate student of sociology at the George Washington University. She became committed to studying socioeconomic inequality and stratification after a volunteer teaching experience in the slum communities of Ahmedabad, India. You can find her thoughts on inequality, interviews with thought leaders, and some of her poetry on her website.