Cory Booker at the 2011 Time 100 Gala, April 27, 2011. (David Shankbone via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license.
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:
“@decollins1969 @corybooker said you can’t love your neighbor if you don’t understand them & you can’t understand w/out shared experience”
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!
President Bill Clinton (in context of “I feel your pain” quote), July 23, 2009. (http://dailybail.com).
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.
But as someone who’s had way more than one week or one month’s worth of experience with poverty, WIC, welfare checks, case workers with Westchester County Department of Social Services, and of course, food stamps, I actually find these attempts to walk in the shoes of my youth — among millions of others who’ve lived in welfare poverty — insulting on so many levels (see my posts “The Five Sense of Poverty
,” and “Shopping at C-Town
Here’s what I lived with between ages twelve and seventeen (October ’82 through August ’87). As the second-oldest child and only other sane person in a household of six, then seven, then eight persons (including my four younger siblings, born between ’79 and ’84), I had many adult responsibilities. I negotiated over the phone with Con Edison and NYNEX/Bell Atlantic when we fell behind on the heat bill or the telephone bill. I walked my mom’s $275 rent check (often three weeks late in ’82 and ’83) over to the super’s office for payment, and usually was at the receiving end of verbal insults and threats for being late.
I went to Waldbaum’s, C-Town and other grocery stores almost every day after school, sometimes three times in one evening (because my mom often forgot items). I also washed clothes with my older brother Darren once a week, watched over my siblings, cooked about one out of every five meals from ’84 until I went off to college in ’87.
This is the short list. In doing all of this, especially once we went on welfare in April ’83 (after the birth of my now deceased sister Sarai), I learned a lot about how little Americans thought of the poor, and how little the federal government thought of people like me and my family. The average budget for my mom to raise a family of six kids with a consistently unemployed and wayward idiot (now late) stepfather was a monthly welfare check of $558, $75 in food stamps, and about $50 in WIC benefits.
Even in the best months, it meant a week to ten days with little or no food in the house. Great Northern beans and rice, $5 spaghetti and meat sauce dinners, and days without was a typical month. Unless, of course, my weekly weekend excursions to track down my father Jimme in Mount Vernon, the Bronx and sometimes in Midtown Manhattan at his favorite watering holes yielded enough extra funds to keep me, Darren and my family in food and clean clothes during the leaner times each month at 616.
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.