On a Tuesday last November I was in a planning meeting with some executives of a local social service agency who were talking about the problem of food insecurity in Houston. It is a growing problem and an interesting discussion, but I said nothing, partially because I was late but mostly because I was exhausted.
I get up early Tuesday mornings to open up for our weekly food distribution at Casa Juan Diego. I really was not in the mood to talk about the theoretical aspects of food insecurity, because I have a front row seat to how it plays out in real life. Just an hour before the meeting, I was literally up to my elbows in squash goo, handing out some very ripe produce from the food bank to a long line of people.
Since the November cut in food stamps, the number of people showing up has increased by about 100 a week. Our posted hours for the food distribution are 6:30- 9:00 a.m., but we often run out of fruits and vegetables, so people have learned that it is best to get in line early, some by 4 a.m., and that’s a long time to stand in the cold and the rain. Not everybody acts as you would like. Being insecure about such a fundamental survival need has crippling psychological effects that some are able to cope with better than others. There will be David (all names have been changed) who will try again (and likely succeed) to go through the line more than once. The same elderly women will take a roll of toilet paper from the bathroom (and also go through the line more than once). A few people will take two loaves of bread instead of one, which looks like entitlement but is really shame, shame that they have been brought so low.
We spend a lot of time at Casa Juan Diego in the work of distributing food. The most obvious is the weekly food distribution, but people come every day, all day long, for food. It is one of the first skills you learn as a new staff member, how to think about and gather food for a “food insecure” person or family. What do they need for a week? What would I need for a week? How many meals are in a package of spaghetti? Did I give them too little, so they won’t make it through the week, or maybe too much, so that we won’t have enough for the next person that comes to the door?
And then there are the families that we know well, that are a part of the growing sick, injured and aging list that our Directors, Mark and Louise Zwick, carry around with them, literally on a piece of paper, figuratively like a great yoke of responsibility for the suffering it represents. Packing up food for the stroke victim, the diabetic, the family of eight with a paralyzed father, all require concentration and intention. There is Joshua, nearly blind from diabetes – he needs low carb, high protein. Susanna who is recovering from a brain tumor needs fresh fruits and vegetables. Edgar who has Parkinson’s disease needs easy-to-open prepared food. The list goes on and on. Being poor and undocumented is bad for your health.
I’ve heard people say that prosperity will trickle down – if the rich get rich enough, they will create jobs for the rest of us, so everybody will benefit. I haven’t seen much of that here at Casa Juan Diego, but I can tell you for sure that cuts to the safety net trickle down. Take food stamps. You wouldn’t think that cuts to that program would hurt the undocumented, since they aren’t eligible in the first place, but these cuts hurt. Often somebody in their family or extended family is eligible, and they share, and the cuts mean that everybody has less to share. So the anxiety about not having enough to eat trickles down.
The rationale for cutting food stamps, and unemployment insurance, and all the other assaults on the safety net seems to be the assumption that the help leads to dependence, that insecurity is good for people, it makes them work harder. What it does, in my experience, is make them desperate. Adding to the already harsh anxieties and stressors of life cripples the mind and spirit. It does not set you free or encourage you to pursue a better job, or to work harder. It stifles all that.
We try to use our food distribution to lower the stress on families so that they can focus on other issues that they need to survive, to nurture their children, to work their difficult jobs. We give out food not just because people are hungry, or are insecure about their next meal. We give out food because the poor, and particularly the undocumen-ted poor, are insecure about everything: their housing, their jobs, their lack of medical care, their transportation, the safety of their children. But if you can’t feed your children – well, for most people, that is the worst insecurity of all.
Almost everybody I talk to gets that, and I have never heard a single person say that we are doing the wrong thing at Casa Juan Diego by feeding the poor, that we are doing more harm than good by making them dependent. (Apparently it is just when the government helps people that it hurts them). But many good people are uncomfortable about us feeding the wrong poor. It seems to them that we should be making more of an effort to make sure the poor we help deserve it, that is, act the way we think they should act, as opposed to those who do not deserve it, those who are poor because it is “their own fault.” Or who do things we don’t like, such as taking a roll of toilet paper when we are giving away only food, I guess.
Recently I was having a conversation on this topic with a colleague at my University. She is such a kind woman, and maybe because of her kindness I noticed something that I had not really seen before. I am accustomed to the talk about the deserving poor, who we should help and who we should not, from people who are not really eager to help the poor of any type. But as my colleague talked about the problems of social service programs, she was so obviously torn, going back and forth between a genuine desire to help others but at the same time needing to be assured that people who receive help do what we want them to do with it. What if some people trade their food stamps for cigarettes and lottery tickets? What if some of the people getting food from Casa Juan Diego do not really need it?
Truth be told, in the end, despite her obvious good will, what she did to help others was … nothing. How could she, so torn between her generous nature and her insistence that others do the right thing? If we must have assurances that the people we help have been doing the right thing before we help them, well you guessed it, we won’t help them. We can never have enough assurances, no matter how often we drug-test them or make them fill out forms. So we set up programs with so many regulations and requirements that people either give up or else submit to the implied notion that something is very wrong with them for needing help. Or, as in the case of the undocumented, we make them ineligible for assistance from the get-go, since they are all, young and old, hungry or not, undeserving, by definition.
The Catholic Worker movement has always rejected this notion of the deserving vs. the undeserving poor. Who are we to judge? More than that, the very idea that some people deserve to be hungry, others don’t; that some people deserve medical insurance, but not others; that some deserve a first rate education for their children, but not their neighbors’ children, violates the social teachings of the Church, and, at least for me, the voice of conscience.
So, instead of engaging with my colleague in that futile theoretical discussion of who deserves what, I should have said this: “Just ask yourself, ‘what is the right thing for me to do,’ and the way seems a bit clearer, less complex. To end as much suffering as we can in this world, that is the right thing for me to do.”
And I’m sure she would have agreed.