I was reading with interest last night about the mayor of Phoenix taking the SNAP challenge, in which he lived on the same budget as any family using SNAP (Supplementary Nutritional Assistance Program, or food stamps). The challenge is effectively to live on $4.16 per day of food. His comments on Day 4 of the challenge were what got me thinking:
“OK- ran out the door today with no time to scramble eggs or even make a sandwich. So I’m surviving on an apple and handful of peanuts, and the coffee I took to the office until dinner. I’m tired, and it’s hard to focus. I can’t go buy a sandwich because that would be cheating- even the dollar menu at Taco Bell is cheating. You can’t use SNAP benefits at any restaurants, fast food or otherwise. I’m facing a long, hungry day and an even longer night getting dinner on the table, which requires making EVERYTHING from scratch on this budget. It’s only for a week, so I’ve got a decent attitude. If I were doing this with no end in sight, I probably wouldn’t be so pleasant.”
Stanton experienced first-hand what psychologist Abraham Maslow described as the hierarchy of needs in 1943. When you’re in survival mode, you don’t have the mental bandwidth to do much more than keep on grinding until the next day.
In many respects, poverty is a set of conditions. It’s absolutely a mindset, but that mindset is defined by the conditions around you, which is why people can’t just “not be poor” despite what some politicians in Washington might think. We live in an age where mental acuity is one of the defining factors of success. If you cannot get adequate nutrition, fitness, and sleep, your acuity suffers, and over the long term, your career and life suffer. More important, it becomes increasingly difficult for you to escape poverty the longer you’re in poor conditions.
The easiest comparison is gardening. If you plant even the best quality seeds in arid sand, you’re not getting a garden, period. Conversely, if you plant a relatively average pack of seeds bought at the local big box store in good soil with the right amounts of sunlight and water, you’ll have a nice garden. Yes, some of the seeds will be duds, but the majority of them will do okay, and a few will really explode.
If you’ve ever owned a dog, you know this to be true as well. The sweetest breed of dog will still lash out and hate humans when it’s abused. Conversely, dogs with a reputation as being vicious will be total softies in a home where all their basic needs are met and they’re loved by their owners. Ask any pit bull owner that owns a pit bull as a pet (and not as a guardian) how vicious their snoring lapdog is.
To end poverty as a society, the conditions in which the poorest people live must change so that they can start to make advances in their lives. If we can change their conditions, we might just get those seeds of humanity to grow.
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