A Gathering Voices Post by Beth Pyles
“There are approximately 43 million people that are on food stamps. This is a program that did not exist 100 years ago. People did survive without the assistance of government. They did it themselves, with help from family or local churches and groups.” Fred Downing
Is it true that food stamp programs did not exist 100 years ago? That in times past, people in the United States were more self reliant? Is self reliance a virtue? Or is it a harmful myth, with far-reaching implications in our lives together, as citizens and as people of faith?
If we’re to be literal about it, stamps issued to individuals redeemable for food are fairly new. But helping the poor is not. The history of providing for the poor within a society traces its roots from the Roman Empire, Jewish tradition, Christian practice, the five pillars of Islam, and the Song Dynasty, among others. Welfare/History; Leviticus 23.22; Ruth 2; James 1.27; Prophet Sallallahu Alayhi Wa Sallam, quoted as saying, “Feed the poor and pat the head of the orphan (i.e., show compassion).” and “Love the poor and mix with them.”
In the United States, even in colonial times, provision was made for the poor by existing governmental structures, particularly when family and friends were unable to provide. US History of Social Welfare
Closer to home, my Grandma Mary, born in 1912, was one of six children. Her mother was widowed young. She worked hard to support her six children. But she also received government help, called County Relief.
Does the myth that we are self reliant do us harm? You tell me. An amazing and accomplished woman, Grandma Mary never learned to drive a car or balance a checkbook or do many of the things necessary to navigate the modern world. When my Grandpa died, her children helped, which made her angry rather than grateful, bitter rather than thankful, for my Grandma grew up with the same lying mythology you and I did: I can do it myself!
It would be comical if it weren’t so tragic. When the myth of self reliance meets the reality of genuine need, the result is often petulance, self-absorption, depression, escalation of inappropriate behavior, anger and even rage.
My Grandma, who never uttered an unkind word to me, never made an unkind gesture, once slapped me across the face in fury and frustration at her own need.
I know it wasn’t her, it was her circumstance. But I also know that it hurts. It hurt then. It hurts still.
We all do ‘it’, whatever the ‘it’ is, with help. To tell ourselves otherwise is to allow ourselves to become monsters when we no longer can do for ourselves, and to allow ourselves to deny help to others in the face of their genuine need, with the heartless reply, Do it yourself, as if we ever did.
That’s the lie.
It just won’t do.
Not for citizens.
Not for people of faith.