Poverty from the inside

A commenter posted something in an old post on food stamps that I think is worth sharing:

Clearly a large number of the critics of the food stamp program have never actually lived in conditions which necessitate the program.

I'm a 19 year old full time college student and my mother and brother rely on the food stamp program. Without this program, they would literally not be able to afford food.

A little background:

My mother is mentally ill and cognitively impaired. She suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder, severe depression, and minor brain damage caused by incorrectly administered Electroconvulsive therapy.

My brother is 16, and my parents share joint custody of him. They switch off every two weeks.

Between child support and social security, my mother recieves $10,000 per year to live off of. After paying rent, the cost of which is mitigated through a great program known as Section-8, and her bills(power/phone/HEAT), she is left with a marginal amount of money for her own use. I'm currently living at home for the summer. This month she has $20 to split between gas for her car, which is extremely fuel inefficient, and whatever else may arise. In the winter she often lets bills pile up in favor of paying for heat, as Vermont winters are frigid.

She receives a base of $75 per person in food stamps. She receives around $38 per month for my brother, as he spends half his time at her house, the full $75 for herself, and a small amount($20?) for me, as I'm only at home during college vacations. That comes out to $133 per month in food stamps. She has $20 in discretionary spending this month.

To the critics of this program: try growing up in that household and then get back to me. As another insight as to why the poor purchase food that is unhealthy: unhealthy food tends to taste better than healthy food. Potato chips vs celery. When you have no pleasures in your life, no luxuries, you're damn well going to pick the food that tastes better.

I also have a major criticism of this program. So long as I live at my mom's house while I'm not at college, I cannot feasibly get a job. If I were to get a job, my mother would loose her food stamps because there would be a "provider" in the household. I'm exploring alternate possibilities, but without a job, I don't even know if I'll be able to afford to continue my college education. I'm literally playing it by ear right now - there is no better option. I'll know whether or not I'll return to college in a few weeks, when I get my new financial aid letter.

How are the poor supposed to rise from poverty if they can't afford an education?

I think this illuminates several aspects of the debate over food stamps:

1) The poor really are not living lives of joyous leisure on their frantabulously lavish benefits.

2) People who are cognitively disabled--mentally ill or retarded--need more supervision and help from the government, not less.

3) As I've said before, I think the non-cognitively-disabled poor need more wage top-ups and less government decisions about what they should spend their money on.

4) The system is set up so that poor people face ludicrously high marginal tax rates--they can literally exceed 100%, as benefit loss outweighs the additional income. People with fabulously expensive and disabling diseases who can't hold down a regular job are barred from doing any work at all, lest they lose their Medicaid, disability, and food stamps. They also cannot have any assets. Surely preventing people from cheating the government does not actually require forcing people with obviously debilitating chronic conditions to have less discretionary money per month than most middle class kids get in allowance.

This is one of the reasons I'm so gung-ho on a negative income tax to replace most benefits--it doesn't have this ugly feature of sudden benefit loss, but it also doesn't require us to subsidize a hundred middle class people for every poor person we help. It won't work for people who are disabled, of course, who would need a separate system. But for most poor people, and for the rest of us, I think it would be a vast improvement.

5) His point about potato chips versus celery point was made by Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier:

The miner’s family spend only tenpence a week on green vegetables and tenpence half-penny on milk (remember that one of them is a child less than three years old), and nothing on fruit; but they spend one and nine on sugar (about eight pounds of sugar, that is) and a shilling on tea. The half-crown spent on meat might represent a small joint and the materials for a stew; probably as often as not it would represent four or five tins of bully beef. The basis of their diet, therefore, is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea, and potatoes—an appalling diet. Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even, like the writer of the letter to the New Statesman, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn’t. Here the tendency of which I spoke at the end of the last chapter comes into play. When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let’s have three pennorth of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and we’ll all have a nice cup of tea! That is how your mind works when you are at the P.A.C. level. White bread-and-marg and sugared tea don’t nourish you to any extent, but they are nicer (at least most people think so) than brown bread-and-dripping and cold water. Unemployment is an endless misery that has got to be constantly palliated, and especially with tea, the English-man’s opium. A cup of tea or even an aspirin is much better as a temporary stimulant than a crust of brown bread.

I have nothing to add.