The Theory of Relativity

Image and video hosting by TinyPicFile under sad but true: In New York City, we walk by/step over hungry people every day, desensitized to the sights of poverty. But nationwide, “news” outlets are newly fascinated with stories of the fallen middle class, gathering color quotes for their front-page below the fold articles that trumpet the indignities of being poor; showing b-roll of weather-worn Midwesterners in line outside food banks, shoving their hands in their front pockets and shaking their heads, lamenting that they don’t know how they got there.
Not to scare you
, but what these journalists conveniently forget to mention is that they’ve always been there, standing in the shadows of state buildings, looking to supplement low hourly wages to feed their families (who hasn’t used stamps at some point in their lives to buy staples, whether they belonged to you or someone else?). Prompting me to ask: What is poor, really? And why do we care now?

Close to home:
In Detroit, times are undeniably rough. While US unemployment currently sits at 9.4%, it’s 17.1% in the greater metropolitan area—the highest in the nation among cities with populations of 1 million+. With jobs going the way of Betamax and the working class losing their already tenuous grip on “prosperity,” perhaps the food situation is best illustrates what’s happening on the ground: Quality food is so unaffordable in the city that armed paramilitary orgs have been spotted watching over deliveries to fend off folks who might steal to eat. (Call me a socialist idealist, but why did we let food become a commodity that needs to be defended with violence?) And the folks who can afford to buy groceries are often forced to pay shockingly high prices for shitty food at corner stores (“Should I get Cheetos, or Flamin’ Hot Cheetos?”), as there hasn’t been a single grocery store chain in Detroit proper since 2007, when A&P pulled out. And while this could be a great opportunity to support independent grocers, with salaries shrinking and no economy of scale in place to bring down prices, there is no money left to support them.

Looking beyond the D, the USDA reports that 33.2 million people are now receiving food stamps nationwide—that’s 1 in every 9 people. How poor do you have to be to get stamps? Starting in October a single woman living alone must gross less than $1175 a month, according to federal guidelines. That is $14,100 annually, that is some bullshit, and that is painful to consider.

Around the world:
Meanwhile, the UN reports that the number of “chronically hungry” people in the world now tops 1 billion for the first time in history; that’s an astonishing 1 in 6 people. This number has risen 150 million in the past two years, and is being linked not to poor harvests, but to the current recession and pervasive high food costs.

But while the stimulus package increased food stamp benefits by 13.6%, increasing the average single woman’s benefit to $200 a month, things are going the opposite way for the UN’s World Food Programme. Food aid rations are being cut as recession strapped countries decrease their contributions to the fund; Rwanda (where the majority of the population lives below the international poverty line, spending less than $1/day) has already seen daily rations cut to just 320 grams of grains per person. And the US will likely be among those scaling back on their giving, according to Burnham Philbrook, deputy undersecretary US Department of Agriculture, who said that the government could “not guarantee the funding level of 2008.”

The easy answer to why we care about the poor now is that the numbers are steadily rising, making them hard to avoid. The more complicated answer is probably closer to the truth—we’re scared. Never has it been clearer that most of us are just a paycheck or two away from filing for assistance or losing our homes. As the face of poverty morphs from the dude on the corner asking for a quarter to your neighbor unpacking a box of donated food, it shifts from being something to ignore to a being a mirror—and as a nation of narcissists, we all know it’s hard to turn away from a mirror…

Are You looking?


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Last 5 posts by kenrya

  • Thai


    I can’t begin to tell you how much I know this to be true. Once upon a time I really never thought twice about my situation. I was sitting on top of two degrees working at a company I was happy with as long as my paycheck was on-time. Well imagine my surprise when I lost that position because of the economy, and the shock wasn’t in losing the job, it was in not being able to find another one! I found myself on government assistance, but still didn’t qualify for food stamps. I asked the woman why I couldn’t get food assistance and she basically told me it was because I wasn’t poor enough and didn’t have kids. I’m sorry, but the small checks y’all give me is nothing compared to what I was making, so what am I supposed to eat? LOL, but that’s when all the junk food I never ate became what kept me going on a daily basis. For once, people who turned their nose up at the homeless are looking at their own situation closer than ever before. After Madoff sent millionaires to welfare, no one is safe. Another good one lady.

  • Derek

    Good stuff, Kenrya. Important stuff. I would posit, as food for thought, that we’re seeing the logical conclusion of a network of interconnected systems (scientific, medical, economic, political) that are proving themselves finally unsustainable. Which, of course, requires something drastic, radical and new to replace the rot. This is illustrated nicely by the short-sighted approach “we” have taken to “fixing” the financial system, an effort that’s done its best to ignore the gut feeling we all have that we’re trying to repair a fundamentally flawed arrangement. If we’re going to come up with better systems, we’ll need to start with some organizing principles, some values. That’s why I would argue that it’s never been more important than it is right now to devote our intellectual energies to some old-fashioned projects like values, virtue and morality. It can only proceed from there.

  • Tahad

    The poverty level is being designed to keep Black people in the hole. Struggle has been our agenda ever since the colonizers have been in our countries. When will we say no more? when will we unite to take what is rightfully ours? Why do we need to purchase anything from a market, when we can take our land and plant crops to feed the poor and hungry. Why do we need their money when we have the earth as our natural resource. everything we need the earth provides not wall street. let us come to the table for freedom or blood.

  • ME

    I recall a very wealthy man telling me that he understood poverty because he’d once been poor himself. He went on to explain that he’d amassed about $100,000 in debt during a self-funded start up that took years to pay off. I almost laughed in his face. The fact that he was in a position to borrow $100,000 in the first place was confirmation that he was not poor and knew nothing at all about poverty. Poverty exists when someone has no money and has no realistic prospect of ever having any. It’s as much about abject hopelessness as anything else. Right now there are lots and lots of educated middle-class people of every color with cash flow problems. Food stamps or not, these people are still far from poor.

  • Julie

    @ Tahad, i totally agree with you, but lets look at the situation realistically: if you live in the City, you probably short of land to plant your crops in. And to move out of the city, you need money to buy that land, and money is what you don’t have (well, not you per se, but a poor person), so, hence, what you say makes sense in theory, but in practice, hmm…

    @ Me. Yes, that man wasn’t poor indeed, no one will ever let you borrow money if you have no assets to back that up with, and if you have assets, you’re not poor.

    What I do know is a lot of people are darn lazy. Yes, you need luck, yes you need skills, and yes, you need to know people to get somewhere, generally. But, if you are an educated person, and you lost your job and cannot find a new one, please don’t sit on your ass and cry about it, and please don’t feel like it is beneath you to go and clean people’s houses (for money), or work at McDonald (no offense), or do some construction work. Your PHD won’t feed you! I personally know a man who rather go live in the shelter then go work for a none-prestigious entity. So, i have no respect for people like that.

    And, just for the record, I know what I am talking about bec I know how it all works first hand, i started from the bottom (yes, i was poor and no one wanted to lend me money!)