Slumming Lords Spinning Stories Out Of Suffering


New York City – “Doing the slums” – A scene in the Five Points / from a sketch by a staff artist, Policeman leading upper class people through the Five Points neighborhood, Published 1885; December 15, 2010. Source: http://memory.loc.gov/service/pnp/cph/3c20000/3c22000/3c22600/3c22660v.jpg

In July and August ’83, my family’s first summer on welfare, then US Secretary of Agriculture John Block decided to do an experiment involving food stamps, at least as reported by USA Today at the time (unfortunately, USA Today’s archives only go as far back as ’87). He had himself and his family “live” off of food stamps — $58 worth — for a week.

Official Secretary of Agriculture Photo, John R. Block, December 15, 2010. Source: http://news.siu.edu/news/April04/040104pr4039.htm

Mind you, Block didn’t move them out of their comfortable home in NW DC to live in SE Washington or off North Capitol Street and New Jersey Avenue. They didn’t stop buying clothes, driving cars or paying their other bills. No, for a week, the Block family — including their nineteen-year-old daughter and the daughter’s equally anorexic nineteen-year-old friend — bought their food with food stamps to show how hard (or easy) it was for a family of four to budget for all of their eating needs on the government welfare dime.

Last week, Mediabistro.com reported on twenty-three year-old Daily Caller reporter and American University grad student Matthew Boyle’s work to do a three-story account of his food stamps experience. “You wouldn’t think I’d qualify….I don’t meet the traditional definition of a poor person, and in fact I’m not poor. But that didn’t matter to the District’s Department of Human Services. They approved me anyway,” Boyle said. Then Boyle gave his income. “I make $600 a month writing for Daily Caller and another $493 as a teaching assistant at AU. My rent is $1,365.”

Sorry Boyle, but by income alone, you qualify for food stamps, because unless things have changed since my grad school years, only your part-time reporter income counts as traditional income from a workforce standpoint, enabling you to qualify. By definition, you are poor, no matter your middle-income and elite university sensibilities.

But there’s a more important point than shattering Boyle’s socioeconomic views of himself that I need to make here, though. It stems in part from these strokes of Boyle’s keyboard: “The arrangement works because most of my rent and other expenses are covered under my student loans or paid by my parents (thanks, Mom and Dad).”

Vintage Food Stamps. Source: http://slashfood.com

Yes, this is what makes your situation a middle class one, your loans and your parents. As if millions of other people who are poor or solidly middle class haven’t received help from loans, parents, or, God-forbid, food stamps. That someone with Boyle’s background shouldn’t qualify because his parents have the dollars to bail him out.

It’s downright idiotic to complain about qualifying for food stamps. There are millions of other people with similar incomes, including grad students, who are grateful to have the program to supplement their income so that they can eat and pay rent. It’s also a bit arrogant to see the system as flawed from the contrarian perspective of a White middle class outsider — one who is technically poor at present — who thinks that it’s too easy to get food stamps.

This goes beyond John Block or Matthew Boyle, though. I took a creative nonfiction writing class to help kick-start my transition from academic writing to other, more literary forms in September ’01. The class was mostly made up of folks who saw themselves as middle class, many of whom were White. For one particular personal literary account assignment, four of these students decided to interview homeless men and women, all of whom were of color. I think that was the last class I showed up for, to hear these students talk about how touched they were by the horrors that had affected their subjects.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to understand or even help others less fortunate than us. The need to go slumming so that you can tell a story, though, is all too typical of a superficially minded society and journalism community. I didn’t need Block’s August ’83 experiment to know that it was hard to shop with food stamps — I shopped every day for my mother with them, and usually with a tinge of bitterness about using them. Boyle’s slumming to uncover inconsistencies is an example of yet another wannabe journalist making their name off of others misery.

These are stories that would be much better told by someone who’s either lived the experience or is extremely knowledgeable of the people and subjects involved. But in our screwed up world, people like me are too biased to tell these stories, in articles and in books. And people wonder why writers like James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison became expatriates or bitter later in their careers.

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