I like Cory Booker. I worked with someone at Academy for Educational Development in the mid-00s who told me stories about Booker while she knew him at Stanford and her contact with him over the years. I’ve admired his work in Newark, for the most part, and the fact that he’s been a personable, in-your-face Twitter-accessible mayor who has fought hard for his city over the past decade.
But this week-long “I feel your pain” publicity stunt through living on $30 in food stamps (the SNAP program) seems a bad idea at best, and just plain disingenuous otherwise. Booker’s argument has been the need to raise awareness of how difficult it is to live on food stamps for the most impoverished of us, in Newark or anywhere else in the US. After being critical of Booker’s slumming it via food stamps on Twitter a couple of weeks ago, I received this response from Booker through tech guru and Princeton doctoral candidate Omar Wasow:
Really? I didn’t know that Franklin D. Roosevelt had been homeless, old and sick and out of work before ramming through the Social Security Act of 1935! Or that Lyndon Johnson had been a sharecropper or beaten up for marching to Selma before pushing through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965!
What worries me, though, more than anything else, is how messiah-like this tweet sounds. It would be a different story if so many politicians and journalists hadn’t run this experiment before (see my post “Slumming Lords Spinning Stories Out Of Suffering” from October ’10). It would be even more different if this experiment really opened up a dialogue on the paltry social safety net and deep poverty. Not to mention the working poor and the millions from the struggling middle class who have fallen into poverty since the start of the Great Recession more than four years ago.
So, you see Cory Booker, your publicity endeavor really teaches us little about the realities of poverty, hunger and nutrition for the poorest among us, whether in Newark, Mount Vernon, New York or the rest of the US. (Except that you have no experience stretching a dollar). Your food stamps experiment will do what it always does – get the media’s attention. But to understand the embarrassment, the cold stares, the harshness of what I went through and millions like me are going through now? One week and $30 isn’t even close to good enough.