I don’t talk about it very often, but one of the charitable organizations close to my heart are community food banks and soup kitchens. These non-profits collect groceries for those who can’t afford to feed themselves or their children, allowing them to avoid hunger. They resonate with something very deep in my core, maybe because I love cooking so much, but it strikes me as morally inexcusable for an American child to starve while living among the greatest aggregation of wealth ever amassed by a single empire.
In fact, the first time I used this platform to encourage you to open your wallets was when I discovered Project Open Hand, founded by the late Ruth Brinker, who was a retired food service worker. By harnessing the power of the Industrial Revolution (economies of scale, task specialization) her operation grew to the point that it can now feed a person good, quality food “made with love” for only $140 per month. They are so efficient that one of their most recent projects is building their own greenhouse so they can get fresh ingredients at cost while simultaneously reducing waste as they’ll be able to take only the quantity necessary for a single dish.
The result of this area of interest is that I’m often paying attention to food banks and soup kitchens in the news, trying to quietly monitor different operations and see if there is anything worth supporting. This regular item on the agenda led me to a National Geographic special called The New Face of Hunger. It looks at food scarcity and poverty in the United States.
The National Geographic Special On Poverty Makes Me Want to Stop Supporting Food Charities
I’m always trying to remain aware of my own feelings; to study them and make sure I’m behaving in an intelligent way. What I find interesting is the strength of my emotional response to the National Geographic special. After reading it, and watching the accompanying videos, I find myself grappling with ambivalence; specifically, a combination of contempt, pity, and compassion.
The story points out that a family of four qualifies for food assistance in the United States due to poverty if they earn $31,005 or less. The average benefit paid per person, per month, is $133.07, so this quartet would receive $6,387.36 over the course of a year. In other words, without ever having to spend a single penny of their own wages, the family collects $17.50 per day in transfer payments from other taxpayers that they can spend on groceries.
Do you have any idea how well you can eat on $17.50 per day if you have even a modicum of cooking skills? It wouldn’t even take that much time if you were well-organized. Think about breakfast. Take a family eating Kellogg’s Eggo waffles. Eggo waffles are normally $2.39 for a box of 10. That is 20.9¢ per waffle. Most kids are going to eat two. That is 41.8¢ per person. For a family of four, that’s $1.67 in waffles alone. If, instead, you made pancakes from scratch, you’d be looking at a cost of 6¢ per pancake assuming you paid full retail for the worst possible economies of scale (e.g., buying a 5 pound bag of flour instead of a 50 pound restaurant bag). That means with the same $1.67 you were spending on two measly waffles, you could stuff each member of your family with just shy of 7 good-sized pancakes. Or, you could still eat two, at a cost of 48¢, saving the other $1.19 for other items. That one change alone – and again, we’re assuming you got the worst possible price on your raw ingredients – is $434.35 extra per year. For a family earning $31,005, that is a 1.4% pay raise. Even better, that is after-tax money so it’s more than it appears.
Want a delicious topping? Don’t buy commercial pancake syrup (which isn’t even real maple syrup, it’s dyed corn syrup). A tiny bit of fruit, which can be purchased very cheaply if you rotate with what is in season and/or plant a few fruit trees or bushes, a bit of sugar, and you can make a jam sauce reduction to drizzle on top of your fluffy, piping hot pancakes. This is one of those things that is stupidly easy. I make these all the time, once even posting the recipe for a simple blueberry sauce. I did one in a couple of minutes the other night for a cheesecake recipe I was testing.
One objection is that there isn’t enough time for people to cook for themselves, but the evidence shows otherwise. Nielsen tracks average media consumption by household and poorer, poverty-level households watch more than the average American amount of t.v. each week, which is already obscenely high (36 hours of regular television plus another 3-4 hours of pre-recorded or on-demand content through sources such as Netflix). That’s per person. In a household of 4 people, that’s a tremendous amount of surplus time each year; to be precise, 8,320 extra hours in the aggregate.
Beyond that, the National Geographic special shows pictures of some of the families and they are morbidly obese while talking about not having enough to eat. There is a well-documented correlation between poverty and bad decisions, particularly one chooses filling, terrible food, over healthy, less filing food as a sort of click-whirl response, even when it makes no sense. Nevertheless, I think it’s probably difficult for the average well-off American to listen to a family complain about not having enough food when the parents are at least 100 pounds overweight between them and could survive for several months in the wild on nothing but pine nuts and water. I think that might account for the lack of concern.
I Need to Think About the Morality and Ethics of Charity
I find myself in an odd place. One of the charitable causes I love most now has me thinking about culpability. Bad luck, which is just a word to describe negative random probability outcomes, definitely plays a role in everyone’s financial fortunes, though often to a much lower extent than folks realize. For example, the economic data is crystal clear that you can practically assure that you will never fall into poverty if you do three things, and only three things: 1.) graduate from college (preferably with little or no debt, even if it means going to a low-cost state school), 2.) get married, 3.) do not have children until after you are married. That combination has such overwhelming success, it’s like a magic formula. A small number of people in that group will be taken down by bad luck, and that’s why social safety nets are a good thing. People who did everything right, work hard, are honest, and just got the wrong end of the stick need assistance from time to time and I’m happy my tax dollars go to getting them back on their feet because, God forbid, I would want it there if I were in that situation.
Bad decisions, on the other hand? That’s different. If we are going to take money from one citizen in the form of taxes – money that could have gone to her own children – and force her to give them to someone else or face a prison sentence for refusing to comply, I think there better be a damn good justification. If someone in poverty can spend thousands of dollars a year on cigarettes (and there is a correlation in the data), I’m not so sure they should be entitled to food benefits because they have enough to support themselves, they just refuse to do it.
Perhaps this shouldn’t matter from a purely selfish perspective. Again, we’re not talking about a family where the mother is suddenly diagnosed with cancer and can’t work, we’re isolating this conversation to the significant percentage of people who remain in poverty as a result of bad decisions. Without transfer payments, they are likely to commit more crimes. Perhaps it’s a cheap insurance policy to keep assaults, rapes, murders, etc., down from where they would otherwise be? That is, by paying $1 in food benefits you may be staving off $500 in shattered windows or theft. There is a reason for the “bread riot” model in economics. Justified or not, when stomachs start growling, things get destroyed, people get murdered, and governments crumble.
Perhaps another, better argument is that the children of these people are innocent and don’t deserve to pay for their parent or parents’ mistakes?
What responsibility do we, as a society, have to those who are stupid? Who are not so much unlucky (everyone generally agrees, those people should have assistance) but, rather, make bad decisions? If we do provide support for the dumb, should it be done out of compassion or self-interest; an insurance policy against upheaval and crime? If someone drops out of high school and has multiple children out of wedlock, do we, as a society, have an obligation to clothe and feed them? Do we ignore their transgression for the sake of children? If we decide there is a minimum standard of living we, as a society, want to accept even if the person doesn’t deserve it, doesn’t that make us immoral ourselves since we are taking resources from far better causes?
I have a lot to think about … what I know now is that the National Geographic special makes me far less likely to write checks to food banks in the future and I don’t like it.