Barbara Ehrenreich is my favorite social critic. Her book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America saw Ms. Ehrenreich take on a minimum-wage job as a waitress to see if she could make ends meet. The journalist wanted to investigate whether the pervasive myth of the "lazy poor"--those who could make it if they only tried hard enough--had any foundation in fact. Over the next few months, Ehrenreich discovered that no matter how hard she works, or how much overtime she clocks, she meets with disaster at every turn--no money, no healthcare, and so on. Along the way she meets other real-life, hard-working minimum-wagers for whom that experience is not an experiment but a way of life. It was a bravura piece of social journalism. (Her book Dancing in the Streets, about the systematic suppression of what she calls "collective joy" throughout history, is also a treat, by the way.)
Today in The New York Times Ehrenreich has a superb op-ed on how the poor today are not only scorned, but criminalized, targeted for crimes like "loitering," "vagrancy" or "criminal trespassing." Even Good Samaritans are targeted for giving food to the poor. Here's Ehrenreich: "The viciousness of the official animus toward the indigent can be breathtaking. A few years ago, a group called Food Not Bombs started handing out free vegan food to hungry people in public parks around the nation. A number of cities, led by Las Vegas, passed ordinances forbidding the sharing of food with the indigent in public places, and several members of the group were arrested. A federal judge just overturned the anti-sharing law in Orlando, Fla., but the city is appealing. And now Middletown, Conn., is cracking down on food sharing." I share her frustration: signs on the New York City subway order riders not to give money to homeless men and women. Yes, there are better ways of helping someone long-term, and yes there are other social-service agencies, but really: Don't give to the poor?
Imagine the Feeding of the Five Thousand, from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 14, recast for today:
When Jesus disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples approached him and said, "This is a deserted place and it is already late; dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves." He said to them, "There is no need for them to go away; give them some food yourselves." But they said to him, "Five loaves and two fish are all we have here." Then Jesus said, "Bring them here to me," and he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, who in turn said, "Well, you know, this is, um, probably illegal." And Jesus said immediately, "What do you mean illegal?" Peter said to him, "Technically, we're not supposed to be handing out food to the poor, especially if they're loitering." And Jesus said, "They're not loitering. They're poor. They have no where else to go. How are they supposed to eat if we don't give them something?" Judas said, "Let the government feed them." And Jesus said, "What, you mean now? I don't see any centurions around." And James said, "You know, Lord, they're right. It's illegal." And Jesus said immediately, "Well, there is a higher law at stake here." So he told the disciples to give it out anyway. The disciples grumbled and Jesus perceived what was in their hearts. "Look," said Jesus. "How many times do I have tell you? You see someone who is naked, you clothe them. You know someone in prison, you visit them. You find someone hungry, you feed them." Then he told them again to distribute the food. They all ate and were satisfied, and they picked up the fragments left over--twelve wicker baskets full. Those who ate were about five thousand men, not counting women and children or local officials who were watching carefully and eventually issued a summons.