The Shameful Neighbor: Food Stamps, Stereotypes and the War on the Hungry (A Homily)

We accept food stamps

Creative Commons copyright Paul Sableman

Proper 12 — Year C — Luke 11:1-13

There is no war on poverty in this country. There is no war on hunger.

Instead, there is a war on the poor and a war on the hungry.

Politicians today are targeting and bargaining away the food on the tables of the poor in the name of fiscal responsibility. For the first time since the 1970s, there is no funding for food stamps (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) in the broad, bipartisan farm bill. House Republicans have passed a bill gutting food stamps (SNAP, or Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) for those in need in our country. Many Republicans have not minced words about their disdain for the food stamp program and the people who use it and support it.

In short, they have demonized anyone who asks for help. In doing so, they have tapped into a potent American narrative that champions self-sufficiency and individualism and characterizes the need for help as a flaw in one’s moral fiber. We live in a culture that considers it shameful to need help, shameful not to be able to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and work our way out of need. We value the fences that make good neighbors — the fences of self-sufficiency — as if we could construct our lives to where we don’t need anyone else.

What our culture values is independence and the freedom to be free from our obligations to each other, our neighbors and the world. It values the kind of work ethic that makes asking for help a moral failing. We believe if we put our head down and work hard enough for long enough and save our money, we will never need to face the shame of asking for others help.

In our country, our entire social safety net, our nation’s system of helping our neighbors, doubles as a process of shaming. If you have ever applied for food stamps, unemployment, or welfare, you likely know what I’m talking about.

Depending on the program, you are often required to catalogue all the ways in which you do not have enough to survive — to feed your family or to provide them with basic shelter, or electricity, or running water. Or, it requires you to list all the ways in which you have failed at gainful employment — and to check back in periodically to report all your unsuccessful attempts at employment. You are interviewed, questioned, and required to detail every asset you have.

The entire process sends one message to the applicant, and it isn’t a message of hope or of help. It is a message of shame. It says, “You have failed at being a productive member of society.”

And this process, of course, says nothing of the stereotypes some of us have and often perpetuate in our daily lives and our conversations.

Does someone need unemployment? They must not want to work.

Does someone need food stamps? They must be lazy.

Does someone need welfare? They are on the government dole, taking money from the hard working folks who don’t need help.

We call them names like welfare queens, or worse.

We shame them.

But in our gospel text today, shame isn’t directed at the one in need, the one who asks for help.

Rather, the shame is directed at the one who refuses to help.

The parable we read today is typically called the Parable of the Persistent Neighbor. But honestly, how persistent is this neighbor? He asks for help only once. He knocks only once. This isn’t exactly the model of persistence.

Many biblical scholars agree that the we’ve mistranslated this word in the story, for it more accurately indicates shame instead of persistence. And given the cultural context, a neighbor asking for help to show hospitality to guest wouldn’t have been the least bit shameful. But refusing to help most certainly would. We might do better to think of this instead, then, as the Parable of the Shameful Sleeping Neighbor.

In fact, asking for help from the village in order to put the best food on the table for a guest would have been expected. And more importantly, it would have been an honor to be asked to help provide. And when a visitor arrived to a village, it was an event. So the whole village pulled together to provide the best food in the village for the guest. It was a matter of honor not just for the individual host but a matter of honor for the entire community.

So one can only imagine the shock dealt to Jesus’ audience when the sleeping neighbor refuses to help. It is the equivalent of withdrawing from the village and outright rejecting one’s friends who have provided bread for you during times of your own need.

It is the equivalent today of saying, “I am an island. I will pull myself up by my bootstraps.”

But Jesus indicates this behavior is indeed shameful. And it is the shame, felt by the sleeping neighbor, not the in-need neighbor’s persistence that eventually fulfills the request for bread.

This all makes sense, of course, in the context of how Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, both in today’s gospel and elsewhere. If you notice, the prayer we say every Sunday is a communal prayer, not an individual one. It is, after all, the final prayer we say together before we rise to communion together and with God in the Eucharist.

Teach us to pray. Us. Give us daily bread. Us. Forgive us. Us.

Bread is not something made in isolation. It takes farmers, field workers, millers, markets, and bakers to provide it. Even our forgiveness, in the Lord’s Prayer, is tied to community. Forgiveness is not possible, it seems, if we ourselves cannot forgive others.

This isn’t an individual prayer. It is one that involves us all in relationship, in the kingdom of God. And in God’s kingdom, we are fed, together. We are forgiven, together. We are saved, together.
And if one of God’s beloved children does not have their daily bread, we are not truly fed, either. Then, we too should feel hungry. Hunger anywhere is hunger everywhere, particularly in a country that sings of its amber waves of grain.

Many of our churches work hard to feed the hungry and to help the poor. They give of their own time and their own limited paychecks to make sure others can eat. They grow gardens only to give its fresh produce away.

Yet in our paradoxical time of plenty and of food insecurity and hunger, where in our county between a quarter and a third of its citizens don’t have enough to eat, private donations alone from us and from other churches combined won’t be enough to feed those in need. Thankfully, there are government programs that fill in many of these understandable gaps in our care.

Yet, there is a prevailing story I hear told from our culture and our media about people who need help, who rely on food stamps or soup kitchens to fight off hunger for themselves and their children. I’m sure you’ve heard it, too. This narrative says that these people are lazy or degenerates, mooching off the government and the hard work of others.

It is a horrible lie. The majority of those using food stamps are the working poor, are children, or are over the age of 60. More white people than any other group, and a food stamp recipient is more likely to live in a rural part of the country than an urban one. In South Carolina alone, more than 100,000 households use food stamps each  month to get the food they need to prevent hunger. The average benefit per person in South Carolina comes out to $4.37 a day. In other words, that apple a day that keeps the doctor away might just eat up almost a quarter of your food budget for the day.

Now as Americans, we are welcome to believe and argue about these programs aiding the hungry and the poor. We can debate about how best to administer them. As Americans, we can even call for their complete dismantling.

But we cannot as Christians. Now, I know we don’t live in a system without its flaws. Yet as a people whose primary ritual is a feast — the Eucharist, we might want to think carefully about how we characterize the hungry, those who knock on our doors asking for bread. We must always remember what our Savior says — that whenever we see a hungry person, that person is Christ himself. So if we want to look for God in this parable, we shouldn’t look at the neighbor who finally gives up the loaves of bread as a bad approximation of how God answers prayers. Rather, in this parable, God is the one who comes to us at inconvenient times asking for help. God comes to us disguised as the hungry and poor and invites us to be a part of God’s kingdom of radical hospitality and generosity.

So, as a Christian, I rejoice with the hungry and starving Christ is fed, whether through my tax dollars, my charitable contributions, or through my own two hands. Because the truth of the matter is, there is enough hunger and systemic poverty in our world that we need an all-of-the-above approach, not an ideological either-or stand. See just because someone uses food stamps or the soup kitchen, it doesn’t mean they are lazy. It means they are hungry. Just because someone uses programs like welfare or Catholic Social Services, it doesn’t mean they are degenerate deadbeats. It means they need help and they are asking the only neighbors they have for it.

Not long ago, my son and I were having one of those parent-child stand-offs about bedtime. He had taken the position that he wasn’t going to sleep. I had taken the position that he was.

I thought it was most important in that moment for him to learn a lesson about personal responsibility and about following the rules of bedtime.

He thought it differently, and he began to cry. With tear-stained cheeks he said, “But you are my daddy, and it is your job to give me what I need, and I need a cuddle because it is dark and I’m scared.”

That night, I sat in bed with him until he fell asleep. But, much like the sleepy neighbor, it was a sense of shame that got me up to cuddle with him. I wish I could say it was a sense of being honored to help.

As I sat there with him, I thought about all the times in our world when our brothers and sisters have asked for help, have been scared that they wouldn’t make it through the night, the next day, the coming week. I thought about how many people sleep restlessly as their stomachs rumble wondering where their next meal, their next roof, their next paycheck to keep the electricity on will come from.

I wondered how many of them have asked for help for what they need and felt shamed for it.

I wondered how many of us might have shamed them for it, whether directly or indirectly.

I wondered how many of us have been the sleeping neighbor, and when we hear the cry for help, we bolt our doors and explain we are just too comfortable to get out of our warm beds.

And then I wondered what it would be like to live in a culture like Jesus did, where the shameful behavior wouldn’t be the asking for help, but the refusal to help when asked.

When we stand with our neighbors, it looks something like this. From my friend and Moral Monday participant the Rev. Mark Sandlin of The God Article.

What it would be like to live in a world where it was an honor, not an inconvenience, for a neighbor to ask you for bread?

It would be a lot like the kingdom of God, I suppose.

May our prayer be the prayer of Jesus. Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. Do not bring us to the time of trial.

Amen.

__

Sources:

William R. Herzog, II. Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed

About David R. Henson

David Henson received his Master of Arts from Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, after receiving a Lilly Grant for religious education for journalists. He ordained in the Episcopal Church as a priest. He is a father of two young sons and the husband of a medical school student.

  • Guest

    fabulous. Thank you.

  • Lynn Lyons

    Who falls for this straw man argument anymore? Trying to say anyone wants people to starve is absurd and you should reject that if you don’t want to be known as a deceptive person as well. There are good people who see the debt and deficit and have a solution that still takes care of Americans truly in need…on the local level where people handling and receiving are more accountable. Money doesn’t get put in a pot so huge that politicians don’t feel bad at all taking huge salaries and vacationing out of it before it gets divvied up among those in need. People who want to try a different way to achieve the same outcome are not evil. Always look for why someone says something to discern their motive… weed out those who want “their team” to win at all co$t and for profit….double check for motive on articles like this.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

      Social safety net programs comprise 12 percent of the federal budget. Of that SNAP (food stamps) is a fraction. In addition, such programs prevent countless families from descending into deep poverty. Fraud in programs like these are remarkably low. http://www.cbpp.org/cms/?fa=view&id=1258

      One can be concerned about the budget and the debt, but that really has little to do with the article and social safety net programs like SNAP.

      Budgets are moral documents and prioritizing the wealthy over the poor is immoral.

      • Lynn Lyons

        Do you realize how many zero’s are on the end of that “fraction of 12%”? By the time they take our money to fill that pot their eyes swim. The corrupt cannot resist and the good people have no control over it.
        Fraud costs are remarkably low? You might say a small part of billions is a small percentage but that is not a small problem for our country. Have you seen any of the expose’s that reveal fraud is nation wide? Some rings pay 50 cents on the dollar to people for cards that they lied to get.
        Budgets and moral documents??? We need to keep the economy alive… what will you do when there are no wealthy people earning money to tax and use for these programs? Reality is reality even if you don’t like it. The way it is going is sucking the host dry. Why isn’t it fair to give another method a chance to sink or swim? If the answer is that we can’t let the other team look good and have them get votes… then motivations and futures should be reexamined… after all, we wouldn’t want to be just on board a party ticket to be used as a pawn for a big politician to keep a big salary.

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

        You are welcome to make this argument as an American (which I think is both inaccurate and a misunderstanding of our system of handouts — corporate welfare costs us much much more), but you cannot as a Christian. A Christian cannot characterize the poor or hungry (Christ himself, then) as parasites (“sucking the host dry”).

      • Lynn Lyons

        Oh I understand all the types of welfare and they all fail when handled by men because all are flawed and the bigger the pot of money, the more corruption…. and I was not calling my people in need parasites, I’m talking about the politicians setting it up so the benefit system is a huge leech to the economy that WILL suck it dry and do nobody any good. There are better solutions…..

      • nanbush

        Better solutions…such as?

      • Lynn Lyons

        See original post ^

      • TheodoreSeeber

        I don’t see relying on the rich to do the right thing, when they’ve done the wrong thing so often in the past, is a solution.

      • Lynn Lyons

        I think you are right. It is the middle class that bears the burden whether legislated to, or simple reaction of the community to the needs of their community. Direct involvement makes people more motivated and passionate. I have noticed that the morale of the country improves when we help each other locally rather than money demanded from us and federally controlled by faceless, rich politicians. We could all use a solid, positive to boost us all and a swell of American pride might go a long way to productivity. We are all in it together!

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

        That’s not at all how your comment reads, with all due respect.

      • Timothy Weston

        The farther one lives from another group of people, whether it is income, ethnicity, or culture; the less they see that group as human. America also has the “rugged individualism” which is more of a frontier attitude than it is a social attitude. The poor are stereotyped as “moral failures” even when they work 60 hours per week struggling to make ends meet. What is screwed up is a system that puts full time wages below the costs of living.

  • Guest

    The only demonization I see here is your own article. You accuse anyone who criticizes the massive federal establishment of the following: (1) a “war” on the hungry, (2) and telling “horrible lies,” Is it possible, just possible, that Christians reasonably, even if erroneously, believe that the best way to provide for the hungry does not include the federal food-stamp program?

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

      Usually it is well-fed Christians who think we don’t need food stamps. And the stereotypes prevalent in today’s culture about those receiving aid are horrible lies.

    • Levedi

      I’ve sat in conservative Christian churches my whole life and eaten at many conservative Christian tables. I have indeed heard preachers and elders condemn the poor as “welfare queens,” “leeches” etc while eating rich Sunday lunches. I have not seen these same people do much for charity beyond the occasional Christmas basket to a poor family in the church itself. I have seen these people outright refuse to consider organized, community wide, church based ways of addressing systemic poverty in their own towns and states. The non-church attending poor can starve apparently.

  • bajacalla

    so what I’m hearing here is the sleeping neighbors not only don’t recognize themselves, they continue to JUSTIFY their selfish behavior, and continue to SHAME those who need help. all on the basis of patriotic hoarding.

  • Luke Sumner

    Well said. I work amongst those living outside, and those who find themselves in poverty, and what you say is spot on. Those who would say that people are “mooching” off the system obviously have no idea how dehumanizing the whole social welfare system can be. And they don’t know how impossible it is to try and move out of your situation without at least a few of the barriers removed that stand between you and a job, such as food and housing. While a few may be comfortable on what they receive from food stamps, the vast majority, especially those with children, do not make nearly enough to get comfortable on.

    As a follower of Jesus, I just don’t understand when other Jesus followers seem to care more about the narrative of personal and fiscal responsibility than loving people. Our responsibility as Christ followers is not charity, but solidarity, actually standing with people who are hurting, which in this case is those in poverty or needing assistance. For me, in order to stand with my hurting neighbors, this has led me to support programs like food stamps, not because I love government programs, but because I love my neighbor. Now do I think the Church should be doing this? Absolutely. In fact, I would love to see the church put the federal government out of the social welfare business in caring for people who are in need. But until that happens, I will continue to support programs that help people move out of poverty when myself or my community lacks the resources to do so.

  • Just a guy…

    Beautiful. The Kingdom of God is based on how God forgives and loves us without condition through the death of Christ. Therefore the unconditional love of God is what we are commanded to do to others. Thus no conditions or judgement on who is cheating the system. The world system plays out on condition. So, the arguments of budgets and balance are truly fair and just for the world. As a believer, we should not join that stance. That is why some will have an understanding of what the author has written, and some will pass it off. It’s World vs Kingdom. That said, I am one who was on a food stamp program for 3 years while rebuilding our lives and now pay a very substantial part of my income to taxes. I will not complain, I feel my family was helped by these programs, while the local Church we attended spent over a million on renovations while we were on welfare. By the way, my alliegence is with Christ, not political parties. I am neither a conservative or a liberal. I am a follower of The Way. The middle eastern faith who worships the God of all gods. We are told to be visitors in this world. My citenship is with Kingdom. God bless. Read Titus.

  • Jayme

    I agree and disagree with this article. I am conservative and I don’t feel from obligation from any one else. I have a strong sense of honor/face. While I am poor and I have used public services, I haven’t seen the shaming that you speak of. I also don’t see social service programs as help from a neighbor or a friend. I do agree that sometimes the idea of help is a little different than it was before. I think it comes down to how we see each other. Today when it comes to helping each other many that help see the one that needs help as someone who needs help rather than a friend or neighbor. And that is why it seems like shaming, probably, because we aren’t showing respect to the person we are helping. Neither are we treating that person as an equal while we are offering that help. That maybe the real difference. Back in Jesus’ time.

    • C. Manner

      I don’t believe you. I don’t believe you have ever stood in line with your food and had “the look” directed at you from the cashier and the people in line behind you when you pay with WIC. The exasperation of the people behind you when you pay half with food stamps and half with quarters and their loud comments about your kids, the condescension everywhere, in every office from every person you speak to. The 15 hours of paperwork you have to complete to “prove” how poor you are, all the while remembering when you had a job that was enough, and the respect that you used to receive. ……..I just cant believe you have ever experienced that.

  • Y. A. Warren

    I see the cutting off of “government” (taxpayer) funding of charity as a wonderful opportunity to make churches, once again, truly relevant.
    The anonymous taxpayer is not responsible for funding anonymous charity. This is the responsibility of the people of the churches and close knit community. We will be better off as a nation and as a world when we have true separation of church and state, including taking from Caesar what is Caesar’s to give, and allowing the people of God to freely share what is theirs to give.

    The anonymity of “government” (taxpayer) funded charity keeps people from having to humble themselves enough to act as members of teams in acquiring resources. They feel no obligation or appreciation for the help given them, and don’t feel obligated to put their God-given talents and resources to help themselves or others. This is dehumanizing and destabilizing for communities and countries.

    I am a proponent of closely held businesses in place of corporations. Corporations buy our politicians and both exempt themselves from the laws guiding our values of justice and responsible compassion. Compassion is required for any relationship to bear strong roots. Strong roots are required to bear good fruit.

    Churches are admonished in Matthew 22:15-22 to hold each other accountable for our actions, but they have failed miserably in favor of money to build anonymous cathedrals of followers with pastors acting, not as examples, but as earthly “kings” to whom others look up with something resembling adoration. These “pastors” have promoted their own abilities to create miracles, keeping their flocks in awe of them. They have pretended that salvation comes through the power uniquely invested in them.

    I believe we are all meant to be pastors and priests to our own families and communities. Responsible compassion requires close communion with each other. This, we don’t want to risk. Until we all honor the special gifts of being fully human and insist that all who want something give something back to the earth, we will continue to create countries that fall very short of paving paths to heaven on earth as it will be in eternity.
    I am working in and writing of a community in the rural mountains of Appalachia, that has only had access to the internet in the last decade (and not all areas have this access). There are 11 churches in a population of about 3,000 people. The churches are what created “civilization” in an area settled by scoundrels of every ilk. They continue to honor the humanity of each other and the value of our earth, and hold each other accountable. Perhaps we have to go back and look more closely at the bedrock of our communities that formed our less visible country.
    For more on this area, see TnMtnHome.blogspot.com. I have much of this work published in book form. If you’d like copies, please let me know.

    • Dee

      Oh great, Many churches are unregulated corrupt entities in themselves. They judge people but don’t see many in our area helping. If someone that is a muslim comes to a Christian church for help….what do you think they would do? That’s a horrible, horrible idea.

      • Y. A. Warren

        Without our taxes and corporate veils to hide behind, the churches would not be corporations. Perhaps we would then find our way back to Jesus example and that of the early Jesus following “churches.” I’m not sure what most churches mean by Christianity, but it sure doesn’t seem that their palatial churches and their spiritual “subjects” are following the ways of the Joyful Jewish Jesus.

      • TheodoreSeeber

        I think like many a Catholic Bishop. We help not because those we help are Catholic. We help because *WE* are Catholic. In my city, famous for lots of organizations to help the homeless, it’s the parishes of St. Francis and St Andre Bessette in Portland that will feed all comers.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

      It bears repeating that churches and nonprofits combined aren’t enough to feed the hungry today, to say nothing of the other social safety nets — unemployment, public housing, etc. Imperfect though these programs may be they do a much better job than churches are doing and have done historically, and on a much broader scale. Economies of scale are good for a many reasons.

      I would love it if we lived in a world where religious organizations could do what you suggest. I think it is naive to think it is feasible and damaging to those in need to believe this is the solution to the massive and systemic amounts of poverty and hunger in our society.

      For a start, we don’t live in a world of close-knit communities, and sociologists tell us close-knit communities can be profoundly damaging for outsiders (mechanical vs. organic solidarity)

      • Lynn Lyons

        You became narrow in responding to the mention of what the church can do… it is not only the church that helps but the local community as a whole has many facets along with the church to help center it morally and ethically. Holding people accountable in a way that no federal level program can…. hence all the fraud that is bringing it all down.

        We cannot say that not being close knit as people anymore is a reason to continue the trend of funding the loss of responsibility to society. Seems that everyone wants to shout about the monetary responsibility of those with money, but do not bother to address the responsibility every member of society has to each other…. to raise kids to be functioning members of society rather than victims who deserve entitlements from others.

        If you try to say I want to let people starve and die I will have to call you out as a liar who projects falsely on me for an agenda of your own. I am saying teach people to feel valued and thrive.. There is no band aid, even big money, that can “fix” the real problem…. we can only start at the very root to begin to “fix” our country’s problems. It is the family responsibility to instill a work ethic but also compassion to give to help those we know truly require help such as widows, disabled. With the family unit in tact we would have wayyyy fewer people who feel valueless and like they don’t want to bother with any effort to be part of their community/society and just settle for what little money a government hands them… in essence telling them that is their value… that they are worth a little cash, but not the effort from humans to reach out to humans and do the thankless job of being honest when the path we are going down is not useful and even harmful…
        Without the social mesh our society will disintegrate, we see it happening in many places. That social mesh and connection to each other in a community is what I am saying can best handle the accountability to each other including monetarily without nearly the ability to “work the system” and throw it so far off kilter that it bankrupts everyone.

        I do hear the comments about not wanting to ask for help, but humility is also an important quality for society and America offers the able bodied a chance to work their way to wherever they want to be.. that is greatly respected. The not so able are taken care of even when there is no government to micromanage… Meals on Wheels is a great example of local people helping people happily. Even medically speaking, without government the prices would level to what we can actually afford to pay… and every doctor I have known does pro bono work because they are compassionate by nature, not by legislation.

        Eh, I could go on and on… none of us has every answer, but it is obvious that something has got to give and I would like to see a turn to strengthen the core… value family over anything else and it will allow the attutudes to change and people get back to faith in what happens when we count on each other as a community for our needs… not the faceless federal government

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

        If you will notice, I am not narrow. I say churches, nonprofits and religious organizations. All that combined is not, and has not, been enough to feed the hungry. You are perpetuating wrong and damaging stereotypes when implying to the poor, hungry and those who use the social safety net do not have personal responsibility.

        And you vastly overestimate the social mobility offered in the United States. Mountains of research and statistics bear this out.

        Again, you don’t hear what I am saying. I am saying this either/or stand you are taking here is damaging and unhelpful. We need both/and.

      • Lynn Lyons

        I am not taking an either/or stand. I was trying to convince you not to. You emphasize our need for big government programs… as though any other options gets the evil, unchristian label.

        There are plenty who need help, and there are plenty of able bodied and minded people who are lazy and sapping the system. It is real. We can help each other as a unit on a more localized level with the best long term success because without complete control of federal government we aren’t manipulated directly by elections…not by republicans or democrats.

        I stated that the government has its place, but not to micro-manage us from a throne where they have no idea about day to day actual needs and just throw an expensive blanket deal over everything. That causes fraud…human nature makes people grab to get “it” first when they know the next person will snap at it regardless of real need.. “so why not me then.”
        Government has a large roll in defending us with military and regulating what goes on when monopolies try to take advantage, etc. We do not need them to be THE monopoly.
        Don’t believe the politicians who actually are trying to stifle the mobility of Americans to serve their selfish ends. We can do something about that with our vote if we are smart about seeing through a plan to make us pawns.

        There is no arguing that every human being is more likely to survive if they are in community but know self sufficiency.

        How can you say that strengthening the family unit can be damaging? Personal responsibility is for every person of every income level… whether it is helping the community when you have plenty or using a food program temporarily as a smart tool up to where you want to be.

      • Y. A. Warren

        I am fully aware of the issues of poverty today. I have spent all my adult life serving the poor in many capacities. Churches have naively stood in the way of effective family planning, even for those who are acting as animals with no sense of responsibility or compassion for their potential children. Much of the poverty problem is caused by lack of access to birth control for the poor. Until we address this issue, I don’t see the passing on of poverty ending any time soon.
        Churches are supposed to be close-knit communities, helping each other and holding each other accountable. If we went back to the early days of the church of Jesus, we would be forming close-knit communities of RESPONSIBLE compassion, rather that spending so many resources on publicity and mega churches as offerings of gold to a false god.
        The marriage of church and state from the early days has turned what should have been Christianity into a political system of Christendom. The only conclusion I can reach is that many who call themselves Christian, do not, in truth follow the example and teachings of Jesus as their “christ.”

    • Donalbain

      We tried that. People died of starvation. It sucked.

      • Y. A. Warren

        Birth control is imminently available now. What we need is to teach the rights of children to be brought into communities that can feed, clothe, shelter, protect, and teach them.

      • Donalbain

        Or, we could do what we do now. As a community (nation) we ensure that children who are born have access to food, clothing, shelter, protection and education. We do that by way of government.
        I do not believe that leaving the process to voluntary or religious organisations is going to work nearly as well as getting all people in a society to chip in.

      • C. Manner

        in my experience birth control costs from 50-200 bucks a month, even with insurance, and is available subsidized through PP, who are at the center of a target and will probably not exist in many parts of the country in a few years? (3 of 5 local clinics in my area have now closed) Who pays for the birth control for the working poor?

  • Dan Nolen

    I don’t disagree that there are poor people who need to be fed. There is an undeniable cost and that cost has to be paid for sooner or later. I think you can make the argument that feeding Americans should take a higher priority than other government programs which cover less urgent needs.

    I can see the argument that even widespread, mobilized churches may still leave gaps resulting in some people not being covered. In other words, while I agree it would be a good witness that it’s unlikely to 100% eliminate of the need for government intervention at some level. After all, who should be accountable for providing help if no volunteer is available?

    Your article says that it’s shameful to have to justify and prove your need for the programs in the current form. Are you suggesting that there should be no criteria for receiving help? Or are you suggesting that there should be different ways of determining this need? If the latter, do you have suggestions?

    Thanks in advance for your thoughts. I enjoyed the article.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

      I’m only pointing out that the way in which our cultural values and our social safety net system operate produce a system that should offer hope but often causes shame. And as Christians, many of us follow this narrative and view our outreach through these same lenses: the poor as the pitiful and the shameful. And any outreach coming from this ethic only compounds the damage.

      • Jayme

        I don’t mean to hijack another persons’ conversation. But it would be nice if you expanded a bit on what you mean. In your article and in this response, you give the impression that the view of the poor as pitiful comes from both “our cultural values and our social safety net system.” If the negative view of the poor is also systemic why is the solution just in changing the narrative and not the system as well?
        If it helps, I have taken part in the social safety net and I do think it is important for those who need it…but in my opinion, I found the system itself dehumanizing.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    ” a food stamp recipient is more likely to live in a rural part of the country than an urban one”

    What a shame for the farmer who is the neighbor of these people. An acre is enough to feed a family of four. 144 acres (1/6th of a standard homestead) is enough to feed a township. There’s something desperately wrong if a rural township can’t practice enough autarky to feed its citizens.

    • M.S.

      Theodore – do you know how farming works? A farmer could absolutely donate a bushel of wheat to a hungry family but what good would that do them? They can’t mill it into flour and use it for any purpose. Same with corn, soybeans, oats… none of these come out of the field ready-to-eat. Do you think farmers harvest a corn field and boxes of Cornflakes pop up in their combine? No; totally indigestible corn kernels appear that need extensive processing to be edible.
      The burden is not necessarily on the farmer moreso than any other person – although of course they should recognize the value of providing food in both an economical and ethical sense. Saying .144 acres can feed a township makes no sense in the context of modern farming. Does that mean the township eats unmilled wheat, corn, or soybeans (which would be impossible anyway) all year and nothing else?
      There is no need to shame the farmer or rural communities moreso than people in any other line of work or living in a bigger city.

      • TheodoreSeeber

        I grew up on a farm. Some types of corn (sweet corn, for instance) can be eaten right in the field, and of course there are other veggies and livestock. That is why I said it in terms of acres, not bushels. The idea is out of a 640 acre farm, reserve 7 acres for your own family and community, not for standard monoculture, but for permaculture.

      • Molly

        @Theodore, yes agree – if there were some sort of community farm that could grow a variety of crops, that would certainly serve the purpose. Sounds very idyllic.

        My only point was farmers today are motivated by profits, just like every other business… and I think the modern farmer is somewhat separated from thinking “this is food” and more thinks “this is my income”. And I’m not criticizing farmers…

      • TheodoreSeeber

        *some* farmers are. I think a requirement that local community property owners set aside land for the local community would be fought hard against by the big corporate farms indeed. Local farmers though, especially family farms, would be all over it especially if they could get a break on property/income taxes for the land donation.

        And you’re right about processing being a problem. In Oregon, they passed a law requiring million dollar liability insurance for anybody transporting a firearm for business; suddenly all of the mobile slaughter units went out of business and rural communities, especially in the southeastern corner of the state, saw SNAP usage explode- because the ranchers could no longer donate one head out of 300 cattle to the local food bank directly.

      • M.S.

        @TheodoreSeeber:disqus I hadn’t heard that in Oregon. Interesting, thanks for sharing. Solving these things on a local level would certainly be the most effective.

  • M.S.

    David – this is a very beautiful and convicting article. Thank you for sharing. I know I felt a little “shamed” reading it.

    While I will say it IS irritating to be in line behind a VERY overweight person using food stamps to buy cases of Mountain Dew (and yes, I have been in this exact situation), I know this is not a fair representation of ALL food stamp recipients. I think the unfortunate thing is that those people have created a stereotype of food stamp users that leaves a bad taste in people’s mouth. Still, it is not fair to stereotype the entire group of food stamp recipients because I know there are some people who could not survive without the program, and use it for nutritious food for their children. For these people alone, the program is needed.

    I guess my opinion is while wiping the program out altogether is not the answer, maybe some reform is needed on how the program is managed (i.e. you can’t buy soda with food stamps… for pete’s sake we are financially stable but we don’t buy soda because it is expensive and not nutritious!) I don’t have all the answers, but I know we can’t abandon the most vulnerable and needy people in our society. Particularly if those vulnerable and needy are children.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

      Good comments, and thanks for sharing them so openly. I think this goes to a huge systemic level about what our government does subsidize (corporate welfare) in our food system: Namely cheap corn, which creates havoc not just on our health but also in global markets (it is tied to recent influx of immigration stemming from NAFTA). On a limited food budget, yes, buying healthy food is best. But healthy food is often more expensive than processed food. So it should be no surprise to see food stamps being used to buy unhealthy food. Folk who are hungry often go for what will fill them up. I know I have grabbed a soda when cash was low instead of water because I knew it would help to fill me up and get me to my next meal.

      In our culture poverty and obesity go together for this reason. If I can spend $1.25 on an apple or a $1.25 on a burger, and I’m hungry, I will usually go for the one that will fill me up.

      Rather than restrict what food stamps buy even further, I would rather look for solutions that are more systemic rather than symptomatic. Have our government subsidize healthy food and local farmers rather than mega-agribusinesses.

      Does that make any sense? Thanks for your openness.

      • M.S.

        @David R. Henson yes it absolutely makes sense. The answers are not easy, but I think we can ALL agree eliminating the program altogether is NOT the solution.

        Thanks for shedding light on a big issue for debate in most of America. I will certainly think the next time I am quick to judge someone in this situation.

      • KellyLynne

        Thank you so much for pointing that out. If someone is hungry, their first priority is getting enough calories to get them through the day, and a Mountain Dew certainly fills that need. Not to mention that someone working at McDonald’s in the morning and Wal-Mart in the evening may well need that caffeine just to stay upright.

        I would also add that people like to assume that “very overweight” means “sits around and eats chips and drinks soda all day” but weight is actually about as heritable as height. Not to mention the number of illnesses that cause weight gain, or for which the treatments cause weight gain.

    • TheodoreSeeber

      May I suggest that under current food stamp regulation- that is actually a very rational purchase?

      A huge part of the problem with our nutritional system in the United States, is that there is a disconnect between nutrition, calories, and price. If all you have is $22/week/person, and you are trying to maximize the # of calories you can get for that money, few things have a better calories/dollar ratio than the empty calories of soda, and few items can fill a belly temporarily faster than flavored carbonated water.

      • C. Manner

        thanks for pointing that out. a person on foodstamps is living on a different logic than other people are. dont judge, lest you end up on foodstamps, understanding more than you wish you did.
        some people may be buying junk food because they cant buy their kids any other type of treat. they have no tv, they have no toys, but they want to give their kids something special. dont judge them.
        some of them are buying convenience foods instead of cheaper non processed foods because they work 18 hours a day and are half sick and half dead, and it is either freezer pizza or nothing. dont judge.

    • satinswan

      I’ve been reading the comments and thought I’d jump in here. Being somebody on a low grocery budget and limited assistance (WIC), I watch sales and prices constantly.

      With that in mind, I’ve got to say that soda is expensive compared to tap water. At the local regular, non-discount/Walmart grocery store, two-liter bottles of store brand are currently on sale for 69-cents (about 9-cents per 8oz serving); name brands usually run $1-$1.25 (16-cents per 8oz serving). A similar quantity of juice is about $1.50 (for a frozen can, 19-cents per 8oz serving), and pre-mixed juice runs $2.50-$4, depending on brand and flavor (average: 81-cents per 8oz serving). You can get a package of drink mix sticks for $1-$2.50, and at usually 10 sticks to a pack, that’s 5- to 12.5-cents per 8oz serving. Kool-Aid runs about the same once you figure in the cost of sugar. Milk, depending on sales, is about 17-cents per 8oz serving. (I haven’t bought tea bags in ages, but a bulk package of Luzianne on Walmart’s website comes out to 3-cents per 8oz serving).

      So, in the economics of being poor, if one wants to drink something other than water, tea, soda (which at least has diet versions so we can take the empty calories argument out) and drink mixes are the most economical choices. Unfortunately, poor people don’t always get to choose nutrition over stretching their dollars.

  • Hanan

    >Instead, there is a war on the poor and a war on the hungry.

    Oh. My. God. What IS it with Liberals and using this sort of language to appeal to everyone’s emotions. Someone needs to write a book. Conservatives against Abortion or not wanting to fund abortion is a War on Women. Saying someone should show an ID at a voting box is a War on Minorities. Now it is a war against the hungry.

    What you don’t understand is how dangerous rhetoric like this really is. Because if you are professing this as a war, then you are calling us your enemies and you will treat us as your enemies and some will look at us as even evil. All discussion ceases when this language is used because, well….who wants to talk to someone evil that is waging a war against the down trodden. We on the right are of course, against the poor, females and black, and it is this [successful] use of this rhetoric that gets imprinting into naive hearts.

    What you need to one time ask is, does the expansion of welfare [in any of its guises] to citizens have ANY negative consequences to the future. Forget just economics. Does it alter the character of those recipients? Or, is this just another case of what Thomas Sowell says Liberals are guilty of: “First Stage Thinking”

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

      As a Christian, I am called to love even my enemies — especially my enemies. But I am also called to stand in solidarity with the marginalized and the hungry. I don’t think people who want to destroy programs that aid the poor are evil. I don’t think they are doing things that comport with the Christian faith. There’s a difference.

      But the mistake here is that I am declaring war on the people declaring war on the poor. The war has already been declared in the systematic targeting of programs and laws that protect, defend, and aid “the poor, females, and black.”

      Does welfare alter the character of its recipients?

      Does wealth alter the character of its?

      Jesus says it is easier for a camel to squeeze through a needle’s eye than it is for the wealthy to enter the Reign of God.

    • DrewDowns

      What is it with the war imagery? It is the common refrain of culture. Liberals have classically used it since the 1960s to highlight what we should care about rather than actual war: which costs 10 times what social programs cost, and effects as many if not more lives.

      As Christians, the call to love enemies means that “war” made is not division, but greater clarity of GOD’s work in the world. I don’t hate Conservative Christians themselves, but condemn what that treatment does to real, living people. The shame David speaks to in the post is not equal to the hunger of the person asking.

      Lastly, it isn’t the anecdotal or subtle developments of the recipients that trumps the widespread hunger, malnutrition, under-education, discrimination, and many more injustices embedded in the system that means millions of people, most of which are children, that are going without. Ideology doesn’t feed them. Unorganized charity doesn’t feed them. Next door neighbors don’t feed them. Until the Kingdom is complete, individual service won’t be enough. Remember, the prayer begins “Our Father”, not “My Personal Dad.” How we treat “the least of these” is how we treat Jesus. We just cut Jesus’s food stamps to teach Him a lesson. Go us.

      • C. Manner

        This year I have lived in poverty. The war imagery is because a person living in poverty has to FIGHT, FIGHT 24/7 to keep their head above water. Fight to have enough money to eat, FIGHT to have enough money to pay the rent FIGHT to get enough money to pay for the a pair of used khaki pants kids are required to wear to public school. There is no rest for them, there is no chance for them, they are fighting odds that are impossible, and one tiny arbitrary bureaucratic decision to change three words in an insurance policy can DESTROY my efforts over the last year to get enough of a nest egg together to be able to get my medical condition treated.

  • grandmother angri

    If your god is money, then those who don’t have money are obviously not being blessed. And if your god is money, then those who don’t have money are not “with” your god. Your perception is that they are suffering because they do not worship your god, money. Now you will say that this is preposterous, because you have money and money is, of course, not your god. But ask yourself this. Are you saving money for the future when others are not even having one meal a day? cannot lay down for rest in a safe place? Are you worried that your kids aren’t going to get a good education if they don’t have the right tools when there are kids working in god-knows-what-kind of businesses? Doesn’t your brain want to argue about this? To say stuff like the culture demands we be this way? That to be a good christian, aren’t we supposed to take care of our families? Just like Jesus did? or was it Paul that said that? Let’s be honest. We are the ones who will burn in hell because we failed to open the door and let our neighbor in.

    And the saddest thing about it is this. I don’t feel guilty. I don’t work against these conditions. I’m hoarding, eating when I want, sleep in a safe place, cool when it’s hot, warm when it’s cold. I’m afraid if I let “those people” in my life, I might catch what they have, or they might take what I have.

    Let’s be honest; sadly, coldly, and cruelly honest.

  • Alexis

    Ok, I’m not even Christian and I started tearing up reading this. I just applied for food stamps, and the entire process was painfully designed to make me feel like a failure. Thank you for giving voice to my experience. Thank you for validating my humanity, as dramatic as that sounds. Thank you.

    • Levedi

      I’ve been there. I’ve felt the shame. I have friends who are still there. Yes, it is a degrading process that saps your time and your spirit. I can’t offer you anything except this – you are still a valuable and worthwhile human being. You are more than the sum of your bank account. I wish I could give you a hug of solidarity.

  • Friendly guy

    When I was a kid, my family recieved food stamps. They saved me from many, many hungry days, and I am grateful for this.

  • montanajack1948

    Thank you for these compassionate and caring words.

  • David Strawn

    Let’s use the God given abilities we have to provide for the poor (food stamps, etc.), but just as important, let’s figure out how to create and provide good paying jobs for the poor. Let entrepreneurs and business leaders have compassionate hearts that cry with joy when they see the families of their employees well fed. I think most people that are poor, don’t want to be poor. But either the poor must equip themselves through education and training to fill the jobs that are needed or business people must create businesses that need the type of skilled or unskilled labor that the poor can provide. In America, for example, we need more manufacturing and/or construction jobs for blue collar workers. We must also figure out how to increase wages for many of those jobs. Many people are employed but their wages are at the poverty level. Most large companies are focused on profit which is sometimes detrimental to the hourly wage earner. That’s why small business is so important. The small business owner can pay higher wages without incurring the wrath of investors and stockholders. With hard work, education, and frugality a poor person can pull himself or herself out of poverty. I, like many Americans, can testify to that. We should be very willing to help, provide assistance, opportunity and leadership to the poor as they make efforts to get out of poverty. We all know life is not fair. Regardless of race, creed, etc., we must have a strong willed determination and faith to overcome the obstacles in life.

    • M

      One of the issues I have faced is that, despite my BA degree, no one job as a single mom pays well enough to provide for our needs. So, I can either work one job, have medical insurance but not be able to provide for other basic needs or I can work three jobs, make a little more (but still barely enough to live on) and pray myself or my kids never get sick or have medical needs. It’s a catch-22 for those of us (more and more a majority) who are single income families. All of the compassion in employers in all the world is wonderful but, unless those compassionate hearts can offer an income to provide for the family’s basic necessities, it still doesn’t work.

      I’m blessed to have a mom/dad and welfare so I can go back to school to try to increase my income….but after 5+ years of college, you’d think that’d be enough. So many jobs are requiring higher and higher education caps for hiring that even the BA, in many fields is becoming irrelevant. So, either more out-of-pocket tuition (no federal loans for those with BAs) or welfare.

  • M

    Thank you for this encouraging word. My son and I have had to rely on government assistance in one form or another for nearly 5 years. After leaving my abusive ex-husband, I had a sick baby with chronic issues to take care of (i.e. expensive doctor visits, therapy, inability to hold a job because I was the only one there to take him to the doctor, etc.). We were homeless after getting out of a domestic violence shelter (my son was only four months old at the time). We were in hiding. I was having to attend grueling legal precedings, facing my abuser over and over again, retelling my hell-story to total strangers. Then, when I turned to the place I “needed” help from, I received only shame….I still get harsh words, cold shoulders and rude comments from government caseworkers (a constant reminder of the fact that I didn’t get the life I’d always dreamed of). A failed marriage, failed jobs, failed. No wonder I was on antidepressants and high blood pressure meds! God has helped me be at peace with this aspect of my life. It’s a necessary evil for the present…not something I want to rely on forever. I do look forward to the day when I can provide for myself and my son without being indebted to someone else for the basics of life. Thank you for speaking on this issue with grace for those who must use the system or be homeless and starving!

    • David Strawn

      Dear M, Thanks for sharing your story. You are obviously a strong and courageous person who has kept her family together through very tough times. And you are doing the right things – acquiring a BA degree, furthering your education, working hard to get to where you can provide for all your needs. What I have seen over the years is, if you will chose to work in an industry that is growing such as health care, etc., you often have to start at the bottom, but there will, in time, be opportunities for raises and promotions as you show your character (hard work, true care for the customer and fellow employees, etc.). The issue we must address as a country and business people, is how do we bridge the gap between when you start your working career and when you get those raises and/or promotions. Anyone who shames anyone else for being in that position just doesn’t understand the real world we live in, as you pointed out. Many of our sons and daughters in America face this situation. It is not a small percentage! The best solution is to create more jobs. For example, if there are 3 jobs that need to be filled and only one person available to fill those jobs, then that person can demand a higher starting wage and promotions come faster. On the other hand, if only 1 job is needed and 3 people are applying for that job, the company will offer a lower wage. It boils down to supply and demand economics in the labor market. So, until we Americans solve the job creation issue, we must maintain the government assistance safety net. During my quiet time this morning I read the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37). Only the Samaritan had compassion on the injured man and went to him and took care of him. Then Jesus left a command for all of us, “Go and do likewise”.

  • Annoyed

    I have mixed emotions about this article. I have recently been let go from my work. When I attempt to apply for any kind of help I got pushed around within the system to the point that it was no help… I finally just resorted to working odd jobs just trying to make enough to get food on the table. I am thoroughly convinced that the system is broke but from my experience it was impossible to get the right forms correct as well as jump through all the hoops. We are currently living with in-laws (which we are thankful we have a roof) but I am convinced there is network for those.
    Now I take my experience and I have seen with my own eyes those that are purchasing cart fulls of 24 pack of canned soda. Massive amounts of other items that were all paid for with food stamps.
    So at this point my only conclusion is that from my experience the only ones that are able to successful get food stamps are those that now how to work the system.
    I know these are my own experience and others will have a different point of view but at 40 years old and unable to find work to make ends meet is extremely dis-hearting to say the least.
    I have yet to see the system actually work to help.
    Take it for what it is worth – just one guys perspective in this huge world. I am convinced that I cannot rely on anyone for help. The only way to get out of this mess is to work harder and hope I can catch a break.

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