The myth of scarcity

The Wisconsin legislature last week debated a bill that would limit the foods available to recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or food stamps. The very limited list of allowable foods are the same foods allowed under the Women Infants and Children (WIC) program. That’s where the similarity between WIC and Wisconsin’s proposed legislation ends.

The WIC program allows for very specific foods which are geared toward a healthy diet for pregnant women, nursing mothers, babies and toddlers.The foods are not meant to be a participant’s entire diet, but healthy supplemental foods selected to avoid or counteract specific nutritional needs and insufficiencies. One of the most important parts of the WIC program is the support and education mothers receive about good nutrition.

The Wisconsin legislators who introduced the bill claimed to have the nutritional well-being of SNAP or FoodShare recipients at heart. Obviously the poor are more likely to eat bad food by choice than the rest of us. When the list of allowable foods did not include cranberries, potatoes and other major Wisconsin agricultural products, the list was expanded just a bit. The food stamp program, after all, needs to support Wisconsin’s farmers. Unlike WIC, there was no education component to the proposed changes to Wisconsin FoodShare.

The same legislative body also introduced legislation that would require applicants for unemployment benefits and other assistance programs to undergo drug testing as part of the application process.

Analysts of both bills indicate that implementation would cost more than what would be saved by disqualifying drug using applicants or restricting the foods available to FoodShare recipients. States that have implemented drug testing of welfare recipients found that the poor are no more likely to use drugs than society as a whole. In spite of the frequently used example of the surfer dude who used his SNAP benefits to buy lobster, most SNAP benefits barely provide enough food for a month. SNAP benefits overwhelmingly go to families of the elderly, disabled, and children. More than half of all recipients work.

The question of who is helped and how our social safety net should be administered has long been the topic of political debate. Ronald Reagan is famous for making the “welfare queen” a focal point in his campaign for President. Contrast that debate with the current political posturing about the growing economic inequality in our country. The rich keep getting richer while the people on the bottom and middle of the economic ladder keep slipping. The middle feels the ladder crumbling under them. Often we look down at those below us and fear that it is they who are responsible for sawing through the rungs we stand on.  We are afraid there will not be enough for us to maintain our lifestyle, so we share the stories we hear about those lazy welfare mothers who refuse to work and just procreate to get more welfare for their growing families. We fear our well being will be eroded if those with less are lifted up. We are jealous that they are helped and we are not, even though we, too, struggle to get by.

So much of how we approach our lives is based on the fear of scarcity. There will not be enough of everything so we need to be sure to get our share and take care of ourselves first. We lose track of the abundance around us and are sold on the sales pitches which tell us that we will always need more to be happy.

I reread an essay by one of the greatest Old Testament theologians of our time, Walter Brueggemann, entitled, “The Liturgy of Abundance, the Myth of Scarcity: Consumerism and Religious Life.” Brueggemann traces the principle of scarcity to the Egyptian pharaoh who put Joseph in charge of the country’s harvest. When the famine came, the pharaoh took control of all the resources and made the Israelites slaves. He did not trust that Joseph had stored enough for everyone during the years of abundance.

In contrast to the hoarding and meanness of Egypt, when the Israelites wandered in the desert, they were provided with enough bread for everyone. Everyday, manna appeared on the ground, free for everyone. On Saturday, there was enough for that day and the Sabbath, the day of rest. If, however, anyone tried to rake up a little insurance for a possible shortage, the manna spoiled before the next day. There was enough for everyone’s need, but not for hoarding or greed. There was abundance even in the desert.

Brueggemann says we in this country have an abundance of many things, but we have bought into the principle of scarcity, consumerism and unneighborliness. Since we are afraid we won’t have enough for our needs, we become mean, stingy, and less than good neighbors. We take care of ourselves and expect others to do the same. We buy the idea that accumulating stuff will make us happy, even if others around us go without basic food and shelter. We deserve what we have and it is ours to do with as we wish without thinking about how our decisions affect others.

According to Brueggemann, “This story ends in despair. It gives us a present tense of anxiety, fear, greed, and brutality. It produces child and wife abuse, indifference to the poor, the buildup of armaments, divisions between people, and environmental racism. It tells us not to care about anyone but ourselves—and it is the prevailing creed of American society.”

Surely, we can do better.

Copyright © 2015 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains


1 thought on “The myth of scarcity

  1. Mel

    Marc Barasch filmed a documentary entitled “I Am” which addresses these issues from a slightly different perspective but with conclusions similar to yours. It is currently on Netflix, you may enjoy watching it. He presents compelling research on the science of empathy. I am a new reader to your blog and enjoy it a great deal.

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