Pecking order

For many years we had an old gray horse. She was sweet and lovable. She lived to herd cows. As she got older, taking her out for a pleasure ride was a constant struggle to keep her moving away from the barn. She plodded along and acted like the old horse she was. If, however, there were cows to herd, her manner dropped ten years and she would work for hours.

Horses are interesting animals. Some horses are the leaders. Often lead horses kick and bite to get the others to fall in line. Others lead quietly, but firmly. Some of the quiet leaders have a designated sergeant who does the actual biting and kicking, but takes subtle cues form the leader. Still other horses are on the bottom of the pecking order. They get to eat last. They drink last. The boss horses often pick on them.

Wonder was the “least of these” of the horse herd. She was always the one who was nipped and kicked. She ate last. She drank last. The “sergeant” horse would sometimes tip the water buckets over after the lead horse and she had taken their drinks, making sure Wonder went without.

Chickens also have a pecking order. The smallest, weakest hen often has her feathers pulled out. Likewise, there are boss cows whose daughters sometimes inherit their position in the herd.

It is tempting for us to behave the same way.

We look up to those who have wealth and power. We assign privilege to those who attain wealth on their own and even extend special status to their families. We have had a great deal of debate in the last months about the disparity of wealth in our society and whether the rich deserve what they have. The other side of that debate is whether the poor also deserve their place in the line. I have received emails which openly accuse all poor people of being drug addicted, tattooed, smoking, alcoholic, cheats who abuse the welfare system. The comments which follow articles about the plight of the poor often are filled with anger and hate. The comments seem to be written by those who live close to poverty themselves or by those who hope to someday be one of the wealthy and privileged. Regardless, the commentaries blame the poor, not only for their own poverty, but also for the hard times of those just above the line.

In this country, one out of every five children is at risk of not having enough to eat. More than half of those who qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or food stamps) are children and the elderly. The average monthly SNAP benefit in North Dakota is just over $131 per person. Other than children, the disabled and the elderly, most recipients live in a family where someone is working. SNAP benefits cannot be used to buy alcohol, cigarettes, soap, paper products, shampoo, cleaning supplies or vitamins. Less than 1 percent of all benefits are illegally exchanged for cash and the fraud rate for the program is calculated to be under five percent. Most of the cost of the program is spent on food, not a bad record for a much maligned “entitlement” program.

Mothers who are undernourished have low birth weight babies. Children who do not have enough to eat do poorly in school. They are sick more often. They are, ironically, at greater risk of obesity. Their poor education, illnesses and lack of physical fitness cost our country’s economy in the long run.

The SNAP program, school lunch programs and the program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) are all part of the “farm bill.” Blaming the poor for being poor and failing to feed their own children makes it easy for us to justify cutting these programs to fund the farmer programs of the USDA, to preserve tax cuts for those at the top of the pecking order and to balance the nation’s budget.

Let our Senators and Representatives know that we are better than that. We are not chickens, nor horses and do not need to gain power by picking on the poor.

If you want to know more about how politics and legislation affects the poor and what you can do to help, see the Bread for the World web site at <>

Copyright © 2012 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains