Sunday, November 29, 2009

Who Is On Food Stamps? Your Neighbors

Foodstamp participation is at record highs. One in every eight Americans, and one in every four children, is on foodstamps these days. This is the same program that conservatives wanted to scrap in the 1990s. The person most responsible for ending the stigma attached to the program was none other than George W. Bush who expanded the program rather than eliminate it.
Here is the article in the NY Times.

Here is an interactive county by county map in the NY Times showing the distribution of foodstamp use. It is very revealing.

The two counties with the highest percentage of foodstamp use are the Bronx in New York City,and Hidalgo County, Texas, both at 29% of the population. The region with the highest use is the South, especially Appalachia and the Ozarks.

We usually associate American poverty with urban minorities, but the larger part of the population of the poor, and especially the newly poor, are rural whites. Suburbs have very large populations of the newly poor, and largely white.

I teach college now in the Bronx, one of the poorest counties in the USA sandwiched in between two of the richest counties, Manhattan and Fairfield, CT. Twenty years ago, I taught in rural Kentucky, at Berea College in the Appalachians. What strikes me about those two places is not how different they are, but how similar.
Both have minimal legitimate economies. Both have large thriving illegal drug trades (I remember one county in Kentucky was so thoroughly taken over that the courthouse was used to grow pot, with county prisoners providing the labor). Both have high rates of alcoholism and domestic violence. Corruption is endemic in both (in rural Kentucky, the most powerful man was the school district superintendent, and school district was frequently the biggest employer; superintendents were always under investigation for bribery, favoritism, and kickbacks; I should point out that this was 20 years ago). Illiteracy is high in both.
Where I find the most striking similarity is the isolation. My Bronx students are as isolated as my rural Appalachian students ever were. My Appalachian students had little experience of the world beyond their own hometowns. So too, my Bronx students have little knowledge of the world beyond their own neighborhoods, even with the towers of Manhattan in sight. Many have never been out of the Borough.
In both cases, the students I taught were mostly people on their way up and out of those places. I've had remarkably bright and gifted students in both places; some who probably belong in NYU or Columbia but don't have the money or the connections to go there (I remember when George W. Bush became President in 2000, a legacy student with a C average, I thought, "meritocracy my ass!").

The little community college where I teach is not so little anymore. Our enrollment this year was a record.


Göran Koch-Swahne said...

I can only say your right!

it's margaret said...

I taught some 11-16YO in Brooklyn one summer --most had never been to Manhattan. So, we spent a week going over and touring Manhattan.... I was terrified they'd try to give me the slip or get in trouble on the subway, but they were so slack-jawed they stuck to me like glue.

It was one of the best weeks I have ever had, really. And they wrote a superb rap for it-- about "power" --excellent.

God bless you for teaching where you do.

Counterlight said...

Thanks Margaret.
I've had similar experiences. I got much more attitude when I taught in the 'burbs; a lot of entitlement issues. My Bronx students are actually very civilized compared to others that I've taught.

Ciss B said...

Some of us have way to intimate contact with those who struggle and are on food stamps, and have to use everything available out there to stay together as family.

It's humbling as to how many hide it and are afraid people might to find out their dark secret, sadly.

David G. said...

I'd be on them if I gave a shit, which I don't. I'm used to being poor.

Brad Evans said...

This probably means that the poor have more children than they can feed. Clearly reducing access to abortion and birth control was unbelievably stupid and short-sighted.

Counterlight said...

"This probably means that the poor have more children than they can feed. Clearly reducing access to abortion and birth control was unbelievably stupid and short-sighted."

I see that you're favorite character in Dickens is Scrooge.
"If the poor are going to die then they should be quick about it!"

It always strikes me in the discussions over social issues that libertarians always expect someone else to take the hit and make the sacrifice, and that right wing solutions to social problems are always punitive. The poor are always lazy animals who should be punished and sterilized, people who are definitely "not like me."

It also strikes me that the poor are the last population expected to be thrifty. I suppose it would be too much to ask to hold The Masters of the Universe and the bankers to the same standard.