Tuesday, October 26, 2010


The scene: a planning meeting for a non-profit about an upcoming event to promote access to healthy food in one of New York's lower-income minority neighborhoods.

The characters: me, one of the other volunteers - a young woman we shall call "A" (mostly because I forgot her name), and Mark (who doesn't say anything, but he was there).

The exchange:
A: [to me] So, what do you do?

Me: I work for a small non-profit. Our clients are low-income job seekers and I screen them for public benefits like food stamps and Medicaid and help them apply if they qualify.

A: [excited] Oh! You've have to tell them that they can use their stamps at the farmers' markets!

Me: Yeah, I'm pretty excited about that myself! I'll be getting food stamps in a couple of weeks and I'm looking forward to using the Health Bucks program [NYC initiative that gives you $2 extra for every $5 of your food stamps you use at certain markets].

A: [taken aback] Isn't your organization ashamed that you have to use food stamps?
The message: Working to help poor people = good, more power to you. Sharing some of their lived experience...umm... [shuffle feet, look at the ground].

Once upon a time I guess I thought the problem of well-intentioned, wealthy outsiders "helping" the poor while remaining isolated in their compounds and 4-wheel drives was only a problem in the developing world. Surely those fighting poverty in the US faced fewer barriers of wealth, culture, privilege, safety, geographical proximity...surely they would actually know some poor people.


On slow afternoons in the office I've been reading the book All You Can Eat: How hungry is America? by NYC anti-hunger advocate Joel Berg. My favorite part so far was a chart comparing views on welfare and poverty in the political Right and Left. After highlighting different understandings of the causes of poverty, attitudes towards entitlement etc., the chart ends with "People who make poverty policy spend very little - or no - actual time with poor people".

This, of course, was in both columns.

"A" is no poverty policy-maker (thankfully), but she was in a low income community with the intention of helping. Yet I remain skeptical about how much "help" anyone from a privileged background can offer when they've never even considered the possibility of living a bit like the people they serve.

1 comment:

  1. I can very much relate to this one. People at the non-profits we worked at warned us that it was dangerous to live in the same neighborhood those same non-profits were working in. Also, two of my bosses at the non-profit I worked at were repeatedly shocked (they forgot and relearned every few months) to learn how little we VISTA's made, and tried to offer us extra assistance (even though we were totally fine and surrounded by barely surviving refugees in the office every day).