Last week UTSA management professor Bennie Wilson went to a forum that explored the issue of hunger in San Antonio, where he learned that forty percent or more of the people here eligible for food assistance do not apply for it. He claims to know why, and wrote an op-ed in Sunday’s Express-News explaining his theory. I think he got it wrong.
Here’s where he lost me:
Some of the alleged “barriers” asserted for people in need failing to take advantage of public, private, and nonprofit nutrition services included the embarrassment and the perceived stigma by potential clients about being poor and hungry, the low reading skills of those who cannot grasp the “complicated” application process, the long wait times for nutrition services to take effect, transportation difficulties, and many other reasons for the missed opportunities to more adequately feed themselves and their families.
As “human” as these rationalizations are, they must not be mistaken as justification for inaction.
For the anti-hunger community to acquiesce to such inaction provokes the “excess sympathy effect,” in which the intense concern for the plight of others morphs into sympathetic concession to their inaction.
I come from a different position, one that maintains that systems are intended to serve people; people are not intended to serve systems. If 40-50% of the eligible people say that they have barriers, the system needs to be changed, not the people. (I also come from the position that putting smug little quotation marks around “barriers” such as illiteracy is offensive, but let’s not go there right now . . . )
Feelings such as shame and fear are real, often paralyzing and not so easily dismissed. I can remember back in the ignorant old days when I was in elementary school and the “free lunch” kids had a separate cafeteria line. Some elected not to be hungry at lunch time rather than face the mockery — or pity — of their classmates. I’ve been in the line at HEB when another patron made a nasty remark about the contents of the grocery cart of a customer paying with a SNAP Card.
Some may be afraid — there is quite a stern warning about perjury. Will I go to jail if they learn that I sometimes do lawn work or house cleaning off the books? The kids & I are crashing on a friend’s couch — if they contact the landlord maybe she’ll get evicted. My grandson stays with me sometimes and he “has deferred adjudication for using, selling, or possessing marijuana or any other controlled substance in violation of Chapter 481, Health and Safety Code.” And maybe his wife’s immigration papers aren’t quite in order . . .
In San Antonio, 15% of adults are illiterate. The eight-page application is exceptionally clear and well written in both English and Spanish (you can see it here) but if you can’t read at all, it might as well be in Klingon. Transportation? The Food Bank is an hour and forty minute bus ride — each way — from my house. If you need help in filling out the form and need to go there it could be an all-day expedition, maybe with a couple of toddlers in tow. And for someone in a minimum wage job? Probably a day without pay. And all this for what could be as little as $15 a month.
There is no generic person who needs food assistance. Some are elderly. Other have a disability. Most work and most have children. Some are laid off professionals with upside-down mortgages and depleted savings. All of them are under stress and perhaps not thinking clearly enough to cope as well as Mr. Wilson thinks they should. All of them have a unique and complex combination of challenges which may seem insurmountable to them. It’s not for us to judge them until we have walked in their shoes.