food is not enough

The Ontario Coalition to End Poverty is doing amazing radical work that rejects liberal models of social reform. OCAP writes, "Of course the existence of poverty, and its social and economic uses as a way of regulating freedom, is at the heart of how our society is organized: who benefits, and who loses, and why."

Given this, OCAP works from the belief "that there are no easy or comfortable ways to bring about fundamental social change. There are no governments to elect, there is no tinkering that will work, nor are there any shortcuts. Those who benefit most from this society will not simply allow their power and wealth to be taken away without a fight."

by dean spade

Recently I talked to an NY activist who spent a lot of time working in NYC farmers’ markets. She told me enthusiastically about how WIC, a program which provides food assistance to mothers with young children, provides special farmers’ market vouchers to low income women with children. The idea is to support independent farmers’ and farmers’ markets while giving women assistance with food, as well as encouraging low-income women to feed their kids fresh fruits and vegetables. She noted that the recipients are only allowed to buy food, not flowers or any other farmers’ market goods with the vouchers.

Her description of the WIC farmers’ market program, and her support of it, captures the paternalism and the short-sightedness about the harms that poverty causes which are central to most public benefit systems and most peopleÕs personal ideas about poverty alleviation. Food-only is a theme I think about a lot, both because of my own experience s of living with food stamps and wishing they could be used for stuff like tampons, shampoo, band aids and other Ònon-foodÓ items, and because of conversations I have all the time with smart people who give only food, never cash, to homeless people.

I think a harm reduction analysis exposes the flaws in governmental or personal food-only policies. Harm reduction is traditionally thought of as a public health strategy addressing issues of drug use. The basic idea is that drug use exists on a continuum ranging from abstinence, to controlled use, to life threatening abuse. Drug abuse is understood in large part as a coping mechanism for dealing with racism, poverty, sexism and other social conditions. Harm reduction advocates support dealing with drug use not with a solely abstinence-based framework, but rather taking the user at whatever place theyÕre at, and giving them whatever help will reduce the harms of drug use in their lives. This may mean giving them a clean needle to reduce harms from injecting with used needles, giving people a place to stay, basic medical care, food, counseling or whatever treatment they are ready to accept which will help them. Harm reduction advocates resist the rhetoric of the war on drugs, suggesting that the governments aggressive anti-drug policies which put tons of people in jail, tear apart families, and subject people to police harassment and brutality are the cause of more drug-related harm than any of the other aspects of drug use.

Harm reduction philosophy is useful in thinking about lots of things besides drug use as well. the logical flaws of food-only policies are clear when they are considered from the standpoint of trying to reduce the harms of poverty. Does refusing to give cash to homeless people on the train, and only giving them food, reduce the harms of poverty or accomplish some other goal? The logic lying behind most peopleÕs refusal to give cash is that the recipient may spend it on drugs, alcohol or something else that they donÕt want their gift to go towards. Thus, giving only food accomplishes the goal of regulating the recipient’s behavior in accordance with the donor’s beliefs. The goal of the interaction is not the reduction of the harms of poverty, because if the donor were simply trying to give help or aid to the recipient, s/he would likely think through the consequences of giving or not giving cash more thoroughly. Even beyond the problems with assuming that any needy person who asks for assistance is likely enough to spend the money on drugs or alcohol that its not worth giving anyone cash just to prevent that scenario, the scenario itself fails when looked at through a harm reduction framework. If the recipient spends the money on drugs, harm to that person would still likely be reduced because s/he would not have to go through getting that money in some other, possibly more dangerous way, or the recipient may be able to rest sooner than s/he would if s/he had to continue searching for that income, or the cash donation may help the recipient be able to afford both the drugs s/he needs and some other necessities like shelter and food. A harm reduction framework requires the donor to think about the recipient’s whole well-being, with the goal being improving the total well-being of the recipient in the immediate, rather than enforcing an ethic of abstinence which, ultimately, deprives the recipient of assistance because of the donor’s speculatory concerns about the use of a cash gift.

I see a number of logical backdrops to people’s and government agencies’ understandings of poverty which prop up food-only policies and prevent a harm reduction strategy for poverty alleviation -- primarily the welfare reform mentality which has infected americans with the belief that poverty is about a lack of “personal responsibility.” The idea that poor people are to blame for their poverty dominates as a justification for dismantling social welfare programs like Social Security, AFDC, Medicare and Medicaid. When these programs emerged as a result of the depression, attitudes about poverty alleviation, while imperfect, took some account of poverty as a social conditions which is tied into a capitalist economy and to which all americans owed some responsibility. The Regan era changed the rhetoric around poverty from that of national responsibility to an understanding of poor people as culturally inferior, lazy, hand-out taking leeches on the state. The racist/sexist image of the “welfare queen” emerged to excuse and promote the dismantling of poverty-alleviation programs, and ideas about public service to underprivileged people became an issue of privatized “volunteerism.” The idea that people shouldn’t be forced to pay taxes into state programs which supported welfare queens, but should instead volunteer their help for the deserving poor became central.

These notions of blame for poverty and the erosion of a notion of collective responsibility for the pitfalls of a national economic system feed the paternalism and short sightedness of food-only policies. Only when poor people are blameworthy can it make sense to believe they can’t make proper choices with money and should be regulated. Only when donors feel they are doing something extra that they don’t have to do by giving “their hard-earned money” to homeless people can they justify regulating the use of those funds. Only when poor mothers are understood as inferior people who can’t make good decisions about how to best spend money or what food to buy can it make sense to force them to buy farmers’ market food with their meager benefits.

But is it really good poverty alleviation policy to offer people only food? Should the government really chose benefits to indigent women and children as the location to support farmers? Wouldn’t it always make more sense to allow poor people to choose how to best spend their meager resources, since they, after all, are most expert in the economics of their lives? (What if, instead, the government forced school districts or corporations to buy only organic vegetables with their government subsidies?)

Food-only policies go unquestioned and are promoted even by people who consider themselves advocates for the poor, yet we’re all aware that it takes more than food to live with dignity. It only makes sense, once we reject Regan-era “welfare queen” notions of how poverty works and accept that everyone is complicit in the system which creates extreme poverty and everyone should be involved in redistribution, to reject food-only mentality. Reducing the harms of poverty by providing the poor with resources and cash, rather than regulating the behavior of poor people, should be the goal of poverty alleviation.

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