Warning: this post is more political than usual, but it’s not meant to be preachy. As always, I’m trying to post honestly about what I’m pondering. I’d welcome your comments and ideas.
A blog I read frequently linked up to a NYT op-ed by Nicholas Kristof that moved me considerably. In it, he asks those of us who are living lives of relative comfort to treat the less fortunate with more compassion by considering what it would be like to be born into struggle.
Successful people tend to see in themselves a simple narrative: You study hard, work long hours, obey the law and create your own good fortune. Well, yes. That often works fine in middle-class families.
But if you’re conceived by a teenage mom who drinks during pregnancy so that you’re born with fetal alcohol effects, the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against you from before birth. You’ll perhaps never get traction.
Likewise, if you’re born in a high-poverty neighborhood to a stressed-out single mom who doesn’t read to you and slaps you more than hugs you, you’ll face a huge handicap. One University of Minnesota study found that the kind of parenting a child receives in the first 3.5 years is a better predictor of high school graduation than I.Q….
For those who are well-off, it may be easier to castigate the irresponsibility of the poor than to recognize that success in life is a reflection not only of enterprise and willpower, but also of random chance and early upbringing.
Low-income Americans, who actually encounter the needy in daily life, understand this complexity and respond with empathy. Researchers say that’s why the poorest 20 percent of Americans donate more to charity, as a fraction of their incomes, than the richest 20 percent. Meet those who need help, especially children, and you become less judgmental and more compassionate…
I readily agree with what Kristof says, but it is easy to champion his words. It’s more difficult to take a look at my life and assess how much I give to those who need it. The same day I read the op-ed, I listened to a great program entitled “Why Millions of Americans Go Hungry and How to Address Their Needs.” There are more than 49 million people in America living in “food insecure households,” meaning the family skips meals often and cannot afford to eat healthily. On November 1, a temporary increase to the food assistance program (also called SNAP) which was a part of the Economic Recover Act, expired, meaning hungry families now receive five percent less SNAP money each month. Additionally, looking forward, Congress is rewriting Farm Bill, in which they consider additional cuts to food assistance. According to experts, the House version would result in 3.8 million people losing their food stamp benefits.
In short, hunger is on the rise in the U.S, and federal policy is resulting in decreased assistance. Even as a social worker who has spent many hours with families who rely on SNAP, I was blown away by these numbers.
With some extra time on my hands, I’m considering what I can do across the world both “on the ground” and on a more political level. The op-ed and radio show were much-needed reminders for me to look beyond myself during a season in which my MO is to focus inward and on my family. I would love to hear your ideas on how you support those in need, both over the holidays and as a regular practice.