At some time or another, we’ve all seen a “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Service” sign hung in a restaurant window. Who deserves our assistance? Shouldn’t we avoid giving food to those who appear not to deserve it? This is an often-heard concern, voiced in connection with most types of food assistance for the hungry.
A driver for this concern at food pantries is that their food supply is always quite limited. Keeping food on their shelves is a daily challenge for the hard-working folks who run pantries. At best, clients can get a few days of food, and usually just once a month. So, a concern about restricting food to only the “deserving” is understandable. It reflects, however, a lack of understanding of the role of the food pantry in the bigger picture of food assistance. Food pantries have an important role to play but it is a focused niche, not the whole story.
The common stereotype that most of the hungry are lazy, happily living off of government assistance is often directed at programs like SNAP. There are, of course, some folks like this, but I’ve long wondered how many there really are?
So, let’s break this down. First, half of those receiving government assistance are in a demographic that unquestionably deserves our support. They are children who find themselves in the ranks of the hungry through no fault of their own. Our nation needs our children to grow up strong and ready to be contributing citizens. They cannot thrive in school if their stomachs are growling. Another portion of this half are people who cannot work. This includes disabled veterans and seniors, for example.
A great nation takes care of those who cannot care for themselves. These children, veterans and seniors are the Americans I am highlighting in my 50-meal fast.
Adults make up the second half of those receiving government assistance. Work is good for any of them who can work, and it’s good for society. Not all of them can work, however. I think of the nurse I met in Connersville several years ago. She was caring for three boys, all of whom had significant health issues. One was too old for school, and the other two were not a good fit for school. Caring for them was her full-time job.
Sadly, another major portion of hungry adults are in fact working. They are, however, caught by the gig economy, working part time, in a low wage job, or have seasonal employment. They do not earn enough to always feed their own families. Some earn little enough to qualify for SNAP. Some earn more than the Federal guidelines but are still sometimes short. This group constitutes fully one-third of the clients at food pantries.
After accounting for all of the above, how many “lazy” types are we left with? We’ll pick this up in our next blog.
How people are served is also important, as described in these helpfully provocative books: When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… And Yourself by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, and Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help, and How to Reverse It by Robert Lupton. This, too, is a topic for another day.