Free Food–But First..

By A. G. Moore 10/13/2013

 There Were No Crops This Year, Author Unknown
 From the National Archives and Records Administration
 Wikimedia Commons, Publlic Domain Work of U. Government Employee

I applaud everyone who tries to alleviate suffering. But sometimes those efforts may be poorly designed. And so, I believe, is the case with the Mathew Tree Project (MTP), highlighted in a June 2013 Guardian article We hate to be called a food bank.

Because this subject has such personal resonance for me, it’s taken a while to articulate a response to the Guardian article. I remember my own mother walking toward our apartment with a cart full of free food. This food was courtesy of the U. S.government. My mother always hid the fact that she carried packages marked US Government Surplus; it was embarrassing to be poor.

So I was stung when I read that MTP distributes food conditionally–that its food parcels are handed out with strings attached. Childhood wounds, long put aside, reopened as memories were stoked by MTP’s description of its food policy.

MTP explained that its intentions are noble, although to me the methodology does not seem charitable. On the contrary, its procedures seem patronizing and degrading. While the stated goal is to reduce a culture of dependency, what’s actually going on is that the organization is making demands on desperate people who have no choice but to comply. That’s not kindness; it’s condescension. The idea that the poor, as a class, can significantly improve their lot is hard-hearted and unfounded.

With a meta-analysis, one can see that the poor, taken as a whole, actually have little control over their economic fortunes. But the discussion about food insufficiency, carried on with interesting parallels in both the US and Britain, rarely reflects this reality.

An ironic development in both countries is that, as the incidence of food insufficiency grows, discussion escalates about how to place limits on food distribution. In England, food banks apply quotas; in the U. S. Congress slashes subsidies. Parallels between the U. S. and England do not stop here; other trends in these countries correlate with the toughened posture toward the poor.

For example, when it comes to income distribution, both England and the US have seen a disparity between rich and poor increase steadily for more than twenty years. In August of 2013, Money News published a piece which declared, among other things, that income of the top 1 percent rose by 135 percent in the United States and United Kingdom from 1980 to 2007″. Meanwhile, in the U. S., the same article suggested that those at the bottom of the economic ladder saw an increase in income over the same period of just 3%.  Across the pond, in England, according to an analysis performed by OXFAM a similar trend may be seen. OXFAM reported that if current economic policies continue, “the gap between rich and poor…could become greater than that in South Sudan.” .

Another trend in both the US and England keeps people in poverty: a decline in social mobility. In 2012, The Guardian published a report that contained this stark claim: “Britain has some of the lowest social mobility in the developed world”. The report goes on to assert that the only developed country with less mobility than Britain is Portugal.  In the U. S., meanwhile, a comparable decline in social mobility is evident. A 2012 New York Times article revealed the results of a large study. According to this study, “42 percent of American men raised in the bottom fifth of incomes stay there as adults“.

The reports on social mobility and income distribution are strong evidence that people born into poverty–or those who fall into poverty–are very likely to stay there. This is a societal issue, not a matter of individual failure. In light of this clear truth, it’s not only unrealistic, but cruel, to place limits on food distribution so that incentives may be provided for people to pull themselves out of poverty.

It is clear that income imbalance and social rigidity are dynamics that impose limits on opportunity. There is another emerging societal trend that tends to cement people into a lower economic status: academic achievement. A 2013 survey by the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) revealed that youth in both the U. S. and England fare poorly when compared to youth in other developed countries.

Mathew Hancock, UK Minister for Skills and Enterprise, said of the OECD report: “‘This shocking report shows England has some of the least literate and numerate young adults in the developed world”.  In the U. S., the New York Times described the OECD findings: “…young adults in particular fare poorly compared with their international competitors of the same ages — not just in math and technology, but also in literacy”.

If we are to judge by the three measures described so far–income distribution, social mobility and academic achievement–both the U. S. and England have failed to provide mechanisms through which the poor can lift themselves. As individuals, a few may break through, but it is not practical, nor is it fair, to place upon the poor the burden of solving a problem that has deep and entrenched causes.

There is a final report I will cite to counter the argument that responsibility for poverty rests with the poor: the OECD’s Life Satisfaction Index. According to the OECD website, this index “captures a reflective assessment of which life circumstances and conditions are important for subjective well-being”. Not surprisingly, neither the U. S. nor England fared well in this survey, although both have more abundant material resources than nations that were rated higher. The U. S. placed well below the top ten in citizen satisfaction and England placed even lower than that.

It might seem to some that I am being hard on MTP; perhaps there is some merit in their policy of condition-based food distribution. But, unlike many who run charities, I have been poor–though it has been many, many years since I received free food. What I recall of my youth is that it was a good education, encouragement from family and teachers, and positive role models that showed me the way out of poverty. Humiliation and degradation were only psychological impediments to be overcome as I sought to assimilate into the middle class


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