Category Archives: poor

Hipsters on Food Stamps Part III: Damned If You Do—ritos and Damned If You Don’t*

And what's a facebook reference without some irresponsible comparisons? This group has more facebook fans than 7/9 of the most popular pages for Ghandi, 2/3 of the pages for DFW, at least 5 of the pages for MLK Jr., at least one of the pages for "The Moon," and both "WAFFLES!!!!" (4 !) and "WAFFLES!!!!!" (5 !)

To recommend thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting.
It is like advising a man who is starving to eat less.

Oscar Wilde 

Patronizing the Poor but Fetishizing Peasant Foods

One common response to the anger elicited by last month’s Salon article about hipsters on food stamps is: *yawn* nothing new, seen it before, everyone loves to hate people on welfare, tell me something I don’t know. And that may be partially justified—I gestured to some of the historical precedents in the first entry, both in the title, which was a reference to the myth of the welfare queen famously promoted by Ronald Reagan, and in my discussion about the home economics movement. Progressive Era social reformers were really concerned about what new immigrants to America were eating and made (completely unfounded, obviously) connections between foods associated with immigrants, like pickles, and all the other stereotypes they had about them—their stunted growth, laziness, excessive attachments to their mothers, lack of self-control over their unruly sexual urges.

sometimes I think I can't love The Onion any more, and then I find shit like this (from 1999):,672/Those kinds of myths—the idea that pickles make you horny or that poor, black women have kids out of  wedlock in order to game the system—gain traction in part because they appeal to existing prejudices about the poor and in part because they enable dominant social groups to project the things they are most afraid of being onto the poor, so they can distance themselves from them. It’s reassuring to a lot of people if laziness and sexual excess look like a black single mother on welfare instead of a white-collar worker who comes home and watches hours of television every night and might be unfaithful to his or her spouse (or desire to be). It’s much more convenient if “gaming the system” looks like a Black woman or Latina who lives in subsidized housing and uses 50 different social security numbers to collect thousands of dollars a month in welfare and drives a Cadillac, instead of like a corporate lobbyist who pushes for roll-backs of labor and environmental protections or like an executive who does all he can to cut workers’ salaries and benefits in order to maximize profits and shareholder dividends…and drives a Cadillac.  

The history of stigmatizing the food of the poor is probably as old as social classes themselves, or least as old as capitalism and the emergence of the middle class(es) in the 18th C. The expansion of the middle class in that period is one reason a lot of scholars give for the proliferation of silly “grammar”** rules like not splitting infinitives or ending sentences with prepositions at about that time. The middle classes have always had a lot to gain by making very clear distinctions between their way of speaking, dressing, and eating—which is always the  "right” way—and the culture of the poor—which is not just different, but “wrong.”

However, there’s also a long history of romanticizing the poor and glorifying how frugal, resourceful, or admirably un-fettered by material needs they are. This seems especially true in terms of food—as suspicious and critical as many home economists were of immigrant foodways, they also  looked to them for inspiration in developing cost-efficient and palatable meals and idealized their thrift. Bertha Wood, in the same book that criticized the “overstimulation” caused by Eastern Europeans’ taste for pickles, had far kinder things to say about Mexican food:

When not too highly seasoned, Mexican dishes are very tasty…. Only lack of variety and the use of hot flavors keep their food from being superior to that of most Americans.

In the 1980s, romanticization of the poor took the form of a widespread fetishization of “peasant” foods, especially in the growing world of California-inspired haute cuisine. The peasant food craze seems to have roots in the 1960s/1970s countercuisine and the hippie rebellion against the food industry. But the food of the international proletariat didn’t appeal to the Patrick Batemans of the world because they were a way to eat in solidarity with the oppressed classes in the global south. Instead, for the yuppies who adopted them, I think they were a way to mitigate the stain of elitism or food snobbery. “Peasant” foods are authentic, not pretentious. Their presence on the menu implies that that the gourmet aesthetic is based on some sort of objective standards of deliciousness, not subjective and arbitrary ideas about sophistication.

Peasant foods helped create the illusion of a culinary meritocracy—any kind of food can be “gourmet” if it tastes good enough. Of course, it’s not a meritocracy. The foods associated with the American poor, like Velveeta and Doritos, are totally ineligible, even though both would be probably be considered works of culinary genius if they were created by Wylie Dufresne or Grant Achatz. But the appearance of culinary democracy belies the arbitrariness of food aesthetics and the cultural hierarchies they reflect and reinforce.

To get back to the probably-apocryphal trend of “hipsters” living large on food stamps, I think that the differences in the way stigmas and stereotypes about the poor manifest in different historical periods matter as much or more than the commonalities. What strikes me most about the responses to the Salon article is not so much the occasional virulence—although that is often startling—but rather the division between the first two of the four camps I described in the second entry:

1. Outraged sheeple—a lot of people were completely sold on the veracity of the trend and responded exactly the way the article primes them to, i.e. how dare people who receive food stamps shop at Whole Foods, purchase gourmet or exotic ingredients, or ever buy anything more expensive or pleasurable than the bare minimum required to ensure their survival. This camp is split between people who object only to food stamps being spent on non-“essential” foods and people who apparently believe that people receiving public assistance should not be able to purchase anything that might be construed as a “luxury,” even with their own money.

2. Better than Doritos—another group of people who believed the story thought it was a good thing, at least as long the food they’re eating is healthier. This was frequently accompanied by the suggestion that eating “better” food would prevent them from getting fat and becoming a drain on the health care system. Virtually no one defended the purchase of “premium” foods on the grounds that they might be more pleasurable than whatever kind of gruel or cabbage soup might be the cheapest way to fulfill your nutritional needs.

I think these warring camps represent two of the most pressing middle-class anxieties about food right now: the obvious one is the fear of fatness and all the guilt and shame attached to eating or desiring anything seen as “fattening,” like “junk” food, but the less obvious one that the first camp seems to reveal is an anxiety about food snobbery or perhaps overconsumption more broadly. In other words, perhaps part of the reason so many commenters were so quick to try to dictate thrift and asceticism to the poor is because they feel guilty about their own “splurges” and aren’t sure that spending more money on organic or gourmet food is wholly justifiable. That may even be one of the reasons many readers bought Salon’s paper-thin story, assumed it was a real phenomenon, and even made their own unfounded assumptions about what kinds of things foodies on food stamps might buy. Just like the specter of obese poor people buying frozen pizzas and soda with their food stamps is a useful whipping boy for fat shame, the “hipsters” on food stamps with their heaping bowls of curried squash drew attention because they’re the ideal target for foodie shame.

Outraged Sheeple

My issue comes with shopping at Whole Foods which is much more expensive then Safeway or buying wild salmon which is $26.00/pound. Sardines have just as many health benefits as salmon at a fraction of the cost. Fresh herbs are $1.99 – $2.99 a pack but can be grown in a kitchen garden for next to nothing. Mint chutney is expensive, especially at ethnic stores.If a single person qualifies and can shop in this fashion every day then 1) he or she is receiving too much money or 2) they run out of money mid-month and are getting money from somewhere else (mommy and daddy) and should not qualify to begin with.—pjamma

First, a brief reminder that the “hipsters” in the story merely sauntered in proximity to chutney—none of them bought any of it, as far as we know. But even if they had—sure, it’s more expensive per oz than ketchup or salad dressing but it’s comparable to flavored cream cheese and probably used more sparingly and moreover, who is anyone else to dictate what condiments food stamp recipients buy? It is beyond ridiculous to presume that every single purchase someone makes on food stamps should be optimally cost-efficient. Sardines are, indeed, cheap and by most measures, healthy. They’re probably even sustainable. But does that mean people on food stamps should have to eat them to the exclusion of the occasional piece of wild salmon (again, not that there’s any evidence of a mass trend of salmon-buying on food stamps in the first place)?

Yes, according to many of the people who commented on the article:

This makes me sick. I have no problem with people who need help, but spending tax payers money on food like wild caught salmon is ridicules.—michele32

I can not justify buying organic/high end food with food stamps!I love sushi, but I couldn’t look myself in the mirror if it was bought with food stamps. If you feel the need to do so, buy it on your own dime. And while you’re at it, instead of asking the government to assist your educated palate, maybe you should be asking Mom & Dad. Obviously they gave you the taste of the good life to begin with, which you feel you are entitled to. So this is where my husband’s tax dollars are going, so you can enjoy organic vegetables??? I find this appalling.—KathyI

We live on ramen noodles, and spagetti, and things that are inexpensive. It makes me sick that hipsters would brag about buying gormet foods while living on assistance. If we cut off people who abuse the programs or cheat the programs, or spend their assistance on things not related to living expenses then maybe they honest people who really need the help can get it.—samjean

It must be nice for the government to feed these people steak,or chicken and rice. When I make less than 20,000 a year and turned down for food stamp’s more that 5 times in the last 3 year’s "I make too much to get food stamp’s" ,but these people are living high on the hog so to speak on food stamp’s this makes me mad—splweapons 

Food stamps are supposed to help needy families provide basic nutrition for their families. Why should our hard earn tax dollars be paying for someone to live high on the hog? How often do we walk into a grocery store, it’s snowing and 30 degrees, and see a woman walking around in nice clothes, big jacket with a cart full of stuff, very little food, and children wearing inappropriate clothes, or shoes? I see it more often than I’d like to. Then we get to the check out and they’re standing at the register paying for the food items with food stamps and then pulling out a wad of cash to buy their “stuff”. Kids are crying, "Mommy, I want this, I want that!" And she tells them, "Shut up, we don’t have the money." Then out in the parking lot, I see her put her children into an Escalade.–crebrew

The Cadillac reappears! But the best example was the one I quoted in the first article:

ONLY BASIC foods should be OK for food stamps.
No chips, no cakes, no artisinal breads, nothing fancy.
It’s not fair for those of us who are not on food stamps have to to pay for the largess of those who are.
There are millions of non food stamp people buying beans and rice to save money while food stamp folks can buy fun food?
No, that isn’t right.
If I could wave a magic wand…I would say ONLY basic vegetables, fruits, beans and grains are OK for foods stamps. Not much else. –Soliel

Sorry to be repetitive with the quotes, but I’m afraid I sort of let this speak for itself. In light of at least one of the comments I got on the first post, I realized that maybe it doesn’t. Maybe I wasn’t clear enough about the fact that there are already pretty strict guidelines about who can receive foodstamps, what kinds of foods they can purchase, and how much assistance they receive. The amount is based on the “Thrifty Food Plan,” a low-cost but nutritionally adequate diet established by USDA. No one gets more benefits in order to purchase wild salmon or the rabbit that one of the article’s subjects remembers fondly—which was probably a “splurge” meal that stands out from all the meatless vegetable, bean and rice concoctions they usually get by on. Food stamps don’t pay for “largess” or “living high on the hog.”

I suspect that these people, so eager to add further restrictions to how food-stamp-qualified people allocate their relatively-meager benefits, are basically projecting anxieties about their own excesses.

Better Than Doritos

On the other side, there are plenty of people willing to endorse even wild salmon, as long as it means this group of poverty-stricken people might not get fat.

With rising obesity epidemics and other diet-related health issues so prevalent in our culture, why would we want these folks to spend their meager allotment on highly processed foods laden with fats and high fructose corn syrup instead of organic carrots, salmon, and other healthy items?—terribletink

I have absolutely no problem with this. Its about time that food stamps were used for real food. Its about time that people really learn how to cook how to cook food as opposed to buying canned food and chips. Its the best way to stretch a buck. It also take’s away from the profits of the like’s of Nabisco, Nestle and all of those other corporations who don’t care and produce corn and other products. I’m totally fine with this.—tweeders1

Oh no! Not corn! I think we have Michael Pollan to thank for that. But wait, there’s more:

I am, as a 58 year-old public school teacher (living on teacher retirement–boo!), more offended to see people, especially parents of young children, use their "food stamps" to buy high-carb, high fat, cheaper foods for the kids and spending their cash on cartons of cigarettes and six-packs of beer. Cheers to someone who can make a good diet from the money for which the government says they are "qualified"!—gkcook

They are buying in the store rather than McDonalds and they are getting something healthy and cooking it well. So exactly why are they being potrayed here as a source of anger? Should people suffer and eat junk food that makes them diebetic (which those working for would have to pay for) instead of buying something healthy at the store and cooking it?—aburkett

One commenter even suggested that the “hipsters” be allowed to continue their extravagant ways, but only as long as they teach other “traditional food stamp recipients” how to cook:

Perhaps a solution that could make more people happy would be requiring them to take more traditional recipients shopping, and to teach them to use ingredients with which they may not be familiar to cook simple, flavorful, nutritious meals. They might even see teh benefit of public service. –SalliganeG

What a convenient solution–reform both of them at once! Make the abominable hipsters useful by forcing them to teach real poor people how to eat, and at the same time, rescue the poor from the dreaded Velveeta cocoon*** by teaching them about how accessible and virtuous rice and beans are. SalliganeG conveniently encapsulates everything I find objectionable about both camps—they’re equally patronizing to people who buy "real” food on food stamps and people who buy Velveeta and seek to prescribe one “correct” way of eating for everyone.

Even if the commenters follow their own prescriptions (which I doubt), who are they to tell anyone else how to eat? And no, “taxpayers” doesn’t cut it. The taxpayers’ representatives have already codified restrictions that correspond with contemporary cultural norms—as noted, the benefit cap is based on a food plan that couldn’t possibly include many or frequent excesses, and there’s a firm ban on things like alcohol, tobacco, and hot foods. You could probably add caviar and fois gras to the list of banned foods without affecting 99.9% of food stamp recipients, but if the remaining .1% wants to eat cabbage soup for most of the month to save up for one luxurious meal, does anyone really benefit from stopping them?

The Slate Big Money article that was critical of the Salon article also lays out the narrow middle ground that food stamp recipients are expected to walk:

Whether they are unemployed single mothers or young singles with pink Chuck Taylors and experimental facial hair, the best thing food-stamp recipients can do to both avoid criticism and live more healthfully is to avoid both the gourmet mint chutney and the Funyuns. And it helps to wait until you’re back on your feet before you shop at Whole Foods. You can get plenty of inexpensive, healthful foods at your Safeway (SWY) or Kroger (KR).

This also neatly encapsulates both the guilt about “junk” foods people know they “ought” to avoid and the conflicted relationship to costly premium foods that people tell themselves are nutritionally or culinarily superior to justify the expense, but probably purchase largely because of the aesthetic and ethical hierarchy that has way more to do with social class than nutrition or taste. Mint chutney and wild salmon are today’s un-split infinitives. Funyuns are the terminal prepositions. And the warring camps reflect the central contradiction of cultural capital: style and taste only work to reinforce class distinctions if the markers of the middle-class are confined to the middle class; however, the hierarchy must be ideologically justified. It’s a problem for class distinction if poor people can afford salmon; it’s a problem for the taste ideology if they don’t want it.

And perhaps what’s even more distressing is that all the concern about how the poor eat, or should eat, or who should determine how or if they get to eat ultimately distracts from the issues that cause people to apply for food stamps in the first place. And no, I don’t mean majoring in the humanities. As can only be expected in a nearly-500 comment thread, someone else has already said it better:

The real problem is that even people who have jobs often make so little money that they qualify for supplemental nutritional assistance. Working at places like Walmart does not pay enough to rent a place and pay utilities. Many of the Walmart employees are on foodstamps as a result. You are paying into the welfare system to help walmart continue to pay and treat employees badly. Instead Walmart should be required to pay a living wage. Instead of complaining about people on foodstamps….ask why you are being required to rescue and subsidize greedy corporations.—Francisco369

Amen, Francisco369. That concludes my ranting on the Salon article, meaning maybe I can get back to ranting about Food, Inc. sometime next week.

*I know, it’s terrible. I was compelled by forces greater than my shame.

**Not what linguists would call “grammar.” However, that’s what the people who codified some of the new prescriptive usage rules in the 18th C. called it—e.g., Robert Lowth’s 1762 book A Short Introduction to English Grammar. That lives on in the way teachers refer to usage and style lessons and how many people think about prevailing usage conventions. Some of my facebook friends have recently joined a group called “THEY’RE going THERE with THEIR friends. It’s called grammar, use it.” And I’m just waiting for someone else to start a group called something like “Its not a grammatical mistake; its a usage error. Learn the difference, you hypocrite.” [Okay, just because if anyone points out the “error,” I may actually cry, yes, I know that it should be “it’s” in both instances instead of “its"…that’s the joke, folks.]

***Gael Greene’s phrase, not mine

Hipsters on Food Stamps Part II: Who Deserves Public Assistance?

Man should not be ready to show that he can live like a badly-fed animal. He should decline to live like that, and should either steal or go on the rates, which is considered by many to be a form of stealing.–Oscar Wilde

avocado is another tricky one: relatively expensive and often considered delicious, but technically "fresh produce" and generally considered to be healthy despite being high in fat; how would the people who would have food stamps restricted to virtuous, non-luxury items feel about it? would it matter if it was organic? image from Look At This Fucking Hipster

It’s been a couple of weeks, so first a brief recap: in the first entry, I looked the recent article on Salon about “hipsters” using food stamps to purchase luxury foods, which was maddeningly imprecise about the employment and financial circumstances of newly-qualified food stamp recipients and what they’re actually buying, as opposed to merely sauntering past. Relying almost exclusively on anecdotal evidence and rumor, the original article seemed designed primarily to build on popular stereotypes about “hipsters” and elicit outrage about this potentially-apocryphal trend in food stamp use.

In less than a week, the article attracted nearly 500 comments (Salon closed it down at 473). I didn’t read all of them, partially because a few themes emerge pretty quickly and they all start to sound the same. Here are the primary camps:

1. Outraged sheeple—a lot of people were completely sold on the veracity of the trend and responded exactly the way the article primes them to, i.e. how dare people who receive food stamps shop at Whole Foods, purchase gourmet or exotic ingredients, or ever buy anything more expensive or pleasurable than the bare minimum required to ensure their survival. This camp is split between people who object only to food stamps being spent on non-“essential” foods and people who apparently believe that people receiving public assistance should not be able to purchase anything that might be construed as a “luxury,” even with their own money.

2. Better than Doritos—another group of people who believed the story thought it was a good thing, at least as long the food they’re eating is healthier. This was frequently accompanied by the suggestion that eating “better” food would prevent them from getting fat and becoming a drain on the health care system. Virtually no one defended the purchase of “premium” foods on the grounds that they might be more pleasurable than whatever kind of gruel or cabbage soup might be the cheapest way to fulfill your nutritional needs.

3. Critics of the article and the sheeple—a number of people brought up the work requirement for food stamps (which has been temporarily lifted in most states by the emergency relief act). Others noted that people qualify for some set monthly allotment of food stamps so it’s not like they get more assistance if they choose to purchase expensive things. This was often expressed as a hope that this article or the idea of hipsters taking unfair advantage of the public food assistance wouldn’t be used as political leverage against food stamp programs or welfare in general.

4. Critics of welfare qua welfare—a lot of people who commented on the article seemed less concerned about what people are buying with food stamps than the fact that anyone who might be described as a “hipster” would qualify in the first place: 

My issue lies with the fact that young, healthy, educated people are receiving government assistance in the first place. Rather than sully their precious hipster cred with some dreaded, uncool job such as waiting tables or manning the counter at Borders, these spoiled, art-damaged infants decide to go on food stamps. –SadieG

I belong to the third camp, which is basically what the first entry covered. I’ll look at the first two responses in more depth some other time. In this entry, I look at the misconceptions and anxieties expressed by this last group of comments and explain why some people find the idea of educated, young people being the recipients of food stamps—whether they’re using them to buy ramen or rabbit—so very infuriating.

Choosing to Be Poor

One of the main factors in this flavor of outrage is the mistaken assumption I discussed in the first entry that people have to be unemployed to receive food stamps. What seems to rankle the welfare critics is their belief that that young, able-bodied, educated people must be unemployed by choice and thus responsible for their poverty. SadieG was far from alone on this:

These are able-bodied 20/30-somethings with education. Granted, the job market is extremely weak but I have a hard time believing these people truly exhausted their options. Did they look into fast-food, janitorial services, retail? Those types of jobs have lots of turnover, so there’s almost always something available. Did they look into picking up a trade? I would say the chances are No – these type of jobs don’t fit into their self-image as an artist or whatever. So, even though this is a situation of their own making – they’re expecting the government to subsidize their lifestyle. And its all being paid for by people who actually bite the bullet and work at jobs they don’t necessarily love do what they do in order to support themselves and their families and not be a burden to society. Yeah, its pretty appalling. –CBFE

I don’t like that food stamps and unemployment are so readily handed out to people who are arguably unemployed or underemployed by choice for years at a time. –ohthatkate

It amazes me that people can insist on saying they would never do anything they consider "beneath" them, that is never some kind of job that is not "art related", and therefore status-y, but still have no problem taking charity handouts. These people need to either find a way to make a living or face reality. –Luccianna

Maybe a degree in post feminist analysis of Sumerian Temple Prostitutes wasn’t such a wise choice after all. —Senator Neptune

The author of the original article didn’t actually specify whether the people she interviewed were unemployed, and none of the people she interviewed said anything about refusing jobs that were “beneath them.” However, her anecdotes certainly implied that this trend was largely driven by Even making $10/hr working 35 hrs/wk, a single wage-earner in a family of three would qualify for $288/month in food stamps: artists and people with humanities degrees. For many readers, the anecdotes clearly spoke louder than the dismal unemployment statistics she mentions or the fact taking a low-wage job you might be overqualified for wouldn’t actually disqualify you from receiving food stamps.

As the original article notes, unemployment rose by 176% between 2006 and 2009 for college-educated people between the ages of 20 and 24. The biggest caveat attached to the recent economic “recovery” has been the persisting unemployment disproportionately affecting young people. Increasingly, even for people with college degrees, unemployment or underemployment isn’t a choice right now.  

But even setting the reality of the job market aside, let’s take this brand of outrage to its logical conclusion: if it’s wrong for people with college degrees (or certain kinds of college degrees) to get food stamps, then presumably, that should be added to the list of disqualifying factors. In light of the specific ire directed at the arts and humanities, the exclusion could be limited to graduates with degrees in the actual analog of Senator Neptune’s “post feminist analysis of Sumerian Temple Prostitutes.” It wouldn’t even be difficult to enforce—I’m sure the administrators of the program could check for applicants’ degree history just as easily as they can verify that senior citizens in the program have no more than $2,000 in assets, and there wouldn’t even need to be a debate about what counts—states could just use the CIP codes for the “humanities” assigned by the U.S. government.

Based on that system, a low-income college graduate who majored in something like math, astronomy, or sociology could still get supplementary nutritional assistance, but one who majored in history, linguistics, or philosophy would be out of luck. Would that really make any more sense or better fulfill the goals of the Food Stamp program? Are people who study art history and end up working minimum wage jobs any more culpable for their poverty than sociology majors? Should the government really deny assistance to people with the naïveté or gumption to major in poetry writing, but extend benefits to journalism majors who chose to ignore the fact that the profession they were training for was in the middle of a precipitous decline?

Especially in the current economic climate, no one is guaranteed a job—let alone one that pays more than poverty wages—regardless of how much education they have and what kind. Aside from unfairly punishing people whose particular interests or talents might not have been well-served by one of the sciences or a pre-professional program, this kind of policy might well discourage people from finishing their degree if they don’t have guaranteed employment. College drop-outs would at least still have a safety net. It might also discourage students who don’t come from wealthy backgrounds from majoring in English or History.

The primary faulty assumption these comments seem to rely on is that if you have a degree, you should be able to get a job, and if you can’t, you have done something wrong—gotten the wrong degree, been unwilling to accept menial or low-paying work, failed to consider all your options, etc. And therefore, taxpayer dollars shouldn’t go towards making your life even marginally more tolerable.

The Meritocracy Myth

If white kids with educations – who should be entitled to the good life – end up on food stamps, that bodes ill for everyone. Clearly they must be cheating or bad people, because good people can avoid such problems.—softdog

People tend to attribute the especially fervent faith in meritocracy in the U.S. to the “Puritan work ethic” or the fact that from its founding, America was seen as a “land of opportunity” and mobility in contrast with class-bound Europe. Although opportunity has never been as universal as the American Dream suggests, the idea that hard work could get you farther in the U.S. wasn’t entirely a fiction for at least the first two centuries after the nation’s founding. According to Joseph Ferrie’s analysis of U.S. and British census records from the 1850s through the 1920s, more than 80% of the sons of unskilled men born in the U.S. during that period moved to higher-paying, higher-status positions while fewer than 60% of the sons born in Britain did so. The economic prospects for non-white, female and immigrant Americans were considerably bleaker, but throughout much of the 20th C., intergenerational income mobility in the U.S. increased regardless of race, gender, or nation of birth.

the closer the mobility,percentages are to 20, the greater the mobility,

Intergenerational  income mobility—or the chances of making more money than your parents—began to fall sharply in the early 1980s and have been declining ever since according to a 2008 study. Families have also become less likely to move out of their starting income quintile in recent decades—the panel study whose results are shown in the chart to the right found that between the 1970s and 1990s, the chances of a family moving up or down the income ladder decreased. As a result, contrary to popular belief, class structure in the United States in 2009 is less fluid than it is in countries like France, Germany, Britain, Denmark, and Canada.

Nevertheless, survey research suggests that the vast majority of Americans not only still believe in the possibility of mobility, that belief has actually increased even as mobility has declined. In 1983, only fifty-seven percent of respondents claimed to believe it was “possible to start out poor in this country, work hard, and become rich” and thirty-eight percent said it was “not possible.” In 2005, eighty percent  said they thought it was “possible to start out poor in this country, work hard, and become rich,” versus only nineteen percent who said it was not possible. And people are not only increasingly likely to believe that mobility is possible, they also tend to say that mobility is increasing rather than decreasing. The most popular response to a question in the 2005 survey about the “likelihood of moving up from one social class to another” now compared with 30 years ago was “greater” (forty percent).

from the great series on class published in the NYTimes in 2005:

What these statistics suggest is that the myth of meritocracy isn’t just some historical holdover from America’s Puritan roots—it’s an ideology that has become far more dominant in the last few decades. It’s also worth noting that the “rags to riches” stories associated with Horatio Alger emerged in the Gilded Age, another period of dramatic income inequality and relatively low mobility. Of course, there are lots of reasons why people might want to believe that hard work pays off and talent and effort are reliably rewarded in any era. It enables people to take credit for their success and represents a kind of basic fairness. But I think the reason faith in meritocracy increases as the prospects of mobility and job security decline is that it also offers a form of false but powerful reassurance that becomes more compelling in periods of insecurity and stagnation.

The myth of meritocracy makes people think that they can insulate themselves from failure or poverty by simply making the “right” choices. The more threatening those things get, the more people cling to the myth. To accept the alternative—that making the right choices can’t protect you and systemic instabilities make everyone vulnerable—means that no one is safe.

But of course, that’s the whole point of social welfare programs. No one is safe. Especially since the recent recession, when even many elite law school graduates have been unable to find jobs—or at least ones that will ever enable them to pay back their debt—it’s not just artists and the mythical majors in “post feminist analysis of Sumerian Temple Prostitutes” faced with lingering unemployment or underemployment. The idea that people choose to be poor because they can get food stamps or that food stamps represent some excessive government largess is, at best, willful ignorance.

Coming in part III, more thoughts on the various ways people in the first two camps are basically in the same camp—although they disagree about the details, they both want to impose their own ideas about how people should eat on the recipients of public assistance.

Hipsters On Food-Stamps Part I: The New Generation of Welfare Queens

Is it wrong to believe there should be a local,

free-range chicken in every Le Creuset pot?

-Jennifer Bleyer, “Hipsters on Food Stamps”

Last Monday, Salon published an article titled "Hipsters on Food Stamps" that claims:

Faced with lingering unemployment, 20- and 30-somethings with college degrees and foodie standards are shaking off old taboos about who should get government assistance and discovering that government benefits can indeed be used for just about anything edible, including wild-caught fish, organic asparagus and triple-crème cheese.

these and other "funemployment" buttons available at author, Jennifer Bleyer, withholds explicit moral judgment. She doesn’t personally endorse the “special strain of ire” of the sort directed at a "self-described "30-something, unemployed, ex-fashionista, EBT armed, post-hipster,* downtown mom" from New York who advertised her now-password-protected blog about “trying to maintain the trappings of a materialistic, cosmopolitan life while using an Electronic Benefit Transfer card — food stamps — to feed her family” on  However, Bleyer also doesn’t make any effort to distinguish between that supremely unflattering characterization (an unemployed mom on food stamps engaging in materialistic posturing) and any of the other “young people in their 20s purchasing organic food with food stamp cards” described in her article. She doesn’t even correct—actually, as the quote above demonstrates, she does much to reinforce—the common misconception that you have to be unemployed to get food stamps.

In fact, until an emergency extension went into effect last year as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) were only eligible for 3 months of food stamps per 36 month period if they weren’t employed. Federal employment requirements have been waived until September 2010, but many states still require ABAWDs to work a minimum of 20 hours per week or enroll in qualified work-training programs to qualify for food stamps. Even food stamp recipients with dependents, like the poster, are more likely to be working than unemployed. Of course, you’d never know that from the article, especially in light of quotes like this one from Tufts University food economist Parke Wilde:

There are many 20-somethings from educated families who go through a period of unemployment and live very frugally, maybe even technically in poverty, who now qualify.

“Educated” here is almost certainly code for “wealthy” (who refers to families as educated?) and the “technically” suggests that their poverty is equivocal at best, and likely to be temporary. So the article implies that although they may not be making any money right now, these 20-somethings are clearly not the deserving downtrodden who ought to be the recipients of public assistance.In the 40s-50s, the term may have actually meant someone "cool," and Jazz-savvy, but when applied to young, mostly-white, privileged urban kids who wear ironic t-shirts, it was a slur from the start

By framing this supposed trend as something belonging to “hipsters,” a demographic that has been subject to derision since it was first invented/identified (much like the equally-fuzzy "foodie” and “yuppie”), reinforcing popular stereotypes about them (their parents are rich, they live in trendy neighborhoods, they studied useless things like art in college, they’re into ethnic food, their friends are all fellow starving artists), and failing to offer any specifics about their employment situations, the cost of their average meals, or their total monthly expenditures on food, Bleyer invites exactly the same kind of sneering contempt that was elicited by the ex-fashionista mommy blogger. The entire thrust of the article is that this new group of food stamp recipients is made up of privileged, spoiled layabouts who think they’re too good for “government cheese” but will happily take government handouts they don’t really need to support a decadent, elitist lifestyle.

Bleyer does offer a theoretical defense:

Food stamp-using foodies might be applauded for demonstrating that one can, indeed, eat healthy and make delicious home-cooked meals on a tight budget.

And while they might be questioned for viewing premium ingredients as a necessity, it could also be argued that they’re eating the best and most conscious way they know how. They are often cooking at home. They are using fresh ingredients. This is, after all, a generation steeped in Michael Pollan books, bountiful farmer’s markets and a fetish for all things sustainable and handcrafted. Is it wrong to believe there should be a local, free-range chicken in every Le Creuset pot?

Satirical book published in 1985, sometimes credited with inventing the term "foodie," also always-already sort of a dig.

This starts off plausibly enough. Indeed, the people who left comments on the article defending “food stamp-using foodies” do applaud them for forgoing the junk food so often associated with the poor, a decision many of them suggest will help prevent them from becoming a drain on the health care system. But Bleyer sets up a bit of a straw man when she says they view “premium ingredients as a necessity.” The hipsters she interviews say they’re unwilling to subsist on ramen and government cheese, but none of them claim to see any of the “premium ingredients” she mentions as necessities. And her next claim, “it could also be argued that they’re eating the best and most conscious way they know how,” is a considerably weaker defense than the first one. That’s basically the same as saying you shouldn’t criticize people who spend their food stamp allowance on hot dogs and Funyuns because that’s just what they like and maybe they don’t know any better.

By the time she asks, “Is it wrong to believe there should be a local, free-range chicken in every Le Creuset pot?” her theoretical defense is in full retreat. Her clever little play on the political slogan promising a minimum standard of prosperity for every American (often mis-attributed to Herbert Hoover) suggests that the “best and most conscious way they know how” is absurdly profligate. Even if you believe that the “local, free-range chicken” is healthier and/or more ethical than the factory-farmed alternative, the Le Creuset is indefensible. The quip implies that these hipsters aren’t really poor—the list price for even a small pot starts around $200—and are exploiting public welfare programs to pay for foods that, healthier or not, are priced out of reach for many, if not most, Americans.

Furthermore, like most of the “premium” foods she mentions in the article, including the wild-caught fish, organic asparagus, and triple-creme cheese that start off the story, local, free-range chicken isn’t something any of the three “hipsters” she interviews claim to have used food stamps to purchase. Most of the article’s damning evidence concerns their mere proximity to foods that sound exotic and/or expensive (separate ideas often unfairly conflated).

In the first paragraph, she describes the two Baltimore hipsters she talked to as they “sauntered through a small ethnic market stocked with Japanese eggplant, mint chutney and fresh turmeric.” Note that they don’t just shop; they saunter. And they saunter in the presence of Japanese eggplant! It turns out that food stamp recipients sauntering in the presence of expensive foods has become a nationwide scourge. According to cashiers in Minneapolis, Portland, and San Francisco, food stamp recipients have been sauntering through specialty and “natural foods” markets in increasing numbers:

In cities that are magnets for 20- and 30-something creatives and young professionals, the kinds of food markets that specialize in delectables like artisanal bread, heirloom tomatoes and grass-fed beef have seen significant upticks in food stamp payments among their typical shoppers.

Not fresh produce! Ugh, how scandalous.

The Baltimore hipsters do provide some limited anecdotal evidence of food stamp recipients actually buying things that at least sound expensive and/or delicious. Sarah Magida, the 30-year-old art school graduate she interviews who used to install museum exhibits until arts funding began to dry up, has used the food stamps she now qualifies for to purchase “fresh produce, raw honey and fresh-squeezed juices from markets near her house in the neighborhood of Hampden, and soy meat alternatives and gourmet ice cream from a Whole Foods a few miles away.” And Gerry Mak, a University of Chicago graduate with a part-time blogging job “fondly remember[s] a recent meal he’d prepared of roasted rabbit with butter, tarragon and sweet potatoes.” At the end of the article, her description of the dinner Magida and Mak prepare seems designed specifically to undermine Magida’s insistence that, “It feels like a necessity right now”:

Savory aromas wafted through the kitchen as a table was set with a heaping plate of Thai yellow curry with coconut milk and lemongrass, Chinese gourd sautéed in hot chile sauce and sweet clementine juice, all of it courtesy of government assistance.

Bleyer admits there are no statistics available to substantiate the increase in food stamp use by this demographic (and still doesn’t clarify who counts) and that according to food policy experts, the vast majority of the 38 million Americans who receive food stamps are the “traditional recipients: the working poor, the elderly, and single parents on welfare.” She also notes the dramatic increase in unemployment for people between the ages of 20-to-34—between 2006 and 2009, the rate increased 100% for the entire age group and 176% for those with a bachelor’s degree or higher—leading her to somewhat grudgingly admit that “young urbanites with a taste for ciabatta may legitimately be among the new poor,” but the article as a whole invites the reader to conclude that no one, least of all any damned “hipsters” should be entitled to satisfy their taste for ciabatta or enjoy “heaping plates” of Thai curry on the taxpayer’s dime.

From Natalie Dee: course, criticism of how the poor eat is nothing new. In Sweetness and Power, historical anthropologist Sidney Mintz quotes the eighteenth-century British writer Arthur Young, who observed disapprovingly that the poor at an almshouse he visited spent any money they had on tea and sugar when “it would be better expended in something else” (p. 172).  At the turn of the 20th Century, the leaders of the emerging home economics movement in the U.S. expressed great concern about the exotic (and, they thought unhealthy) foodways of un-assimilated immigrants. They were especially critical of immigrants’ “excessive” consumption of coffee, alcohol, spicy, pungent and pickled foods, which they claimed would cause indigestion, stunted growth, excessive sexual appetites, impropriety, and disorderly behavior.

I know the pickles thing sounds especially crazy, but it’s for real. For example, Foods of the Foreign Born in Relation to Health, a 1922 book by dietician Bertha Wood of the Boston Dispensary and Food Clinic (where immigrant mothers were taught how to poach eggs and make frugal, nourishing porridges) has this to say about the excess use of pickles by American Jews:

The Jewish children suffer from too many pickles, too few vegetables, and too little milk.

In the Jewish sections of our large cities there are storekeepers whose only goods are pickles. They have cabbages pickled whole, shredded, or chopped and rolled in leaves; peppers pickled; also string beans, cucumbers, sour, half-sour, and salted; beets; and many kinds of meat and fish. This excessive use of pickled foods destroys the taste for milder flavors, causes irritation, and renders assimilation more difficult….

And according to Donna Gabaccia, the socialist writer John Spargo “compared children’s craving for “stimulants” (mainly pickles) to the craving for alcohol in adults who did not eat properly.”

Instead, the home economists advocated “simpler foods,” like creamed cod fish, baked beans, corn chowders, Indian corn pudding, and oatmeal porridge—or what Harvey Levenstein describes as “resolutely New England,” which, at the turn of the century, were increasingly being defined as authentically “American” in contrast to foreigners’ foods. This deliberately bland and frugal cuisine was promoted in public school cooking classes, women’s colleges, instructional kitchens, home visits by charitable organizations, and the growing array of practical texts as a prescription for health, moral restraint, and social welfare.

It’s ironic, but revealing, that at the same time as home economists were using corn to Americanize immigrants, the food rations provided by the federal Indian Bureau specifically did not include corn. As Gabaccia says:

Even the peoples who had first cultivated corn in the Americas found themselves subject to campaigns for culinary Americanization….To prevent starvation, the federal Indian Bureau provided reservation food rations—and these typically did not include corn. Iron Teeth, and elderly Northern Cheyenne Woman, complained in 1916 that “I am given very little food. Each month our Indian policeman brings me one quart of green coffee, one quart of sugar, a few pounds of flour and a small quantity of baking powder.” While domestic scientists saw corn-eating as a way to Americanize new immigrants, they seemed eager to wean Native Americans off cornmeal, and onto white wheat flour and baking powder breads. 

The heart of the problem seems to be the idea that the poor might get any pleasure from their food, which is bad enough when they’re paying for it themselves because clearly they ought to be spending it on longer, sturdier bootstraps with which to lift themselves out of poverty. But when it’s subsidized by the government, tasty food is cause for outrage. One of the people who commented on the article specifically argues that what she objects to is people using food stamps for “fun food”:

…ONLY BASIC foods should be OK for food stamps.
No chips, no cakes, no artisinal breads, nothing fancy.
It’s not fair for those of us who are not on food stamps have to to pay for the largess of those who are.
There are millions of non food stamp people buying beans and rice to save money while food stamp folks can buy fun food?
No, that isn’t right.
If I could wave a magic wand…I would say ONLY basic vegetables, fruits, beans and grains are OK for foods stamps. Not much else. –Soliel

Is it naive of me to wonder whether Soliel would think the Chinese gourd in the curry would count as “fun” or a vegetable? Perhaps, like corn, it would be context-dependent. In heaping bowls of Thai curry, it’s an exotic luxury. For the obese, uneducated, junk food-buying poor, the Chinese gourd is no fun—it’s the kind of nutritious vegetable they ought to be eating.

This is already longer than anticipated, so Part II will discuss some of the other responses to this article and a similar one on “gourmet” meals at soup kitchens and what this newest episode in the long history of criticizing the diets of the poor says about contemporary anxieties about food, pleasure, and social class.

*I’m fascinated by this self-description, because it implies that the “post” in “post-hipster” is different than the “ex-” in “ex-fashionista,” which may suggest that it’s something like the post- in “post-colonial” or “post-modern,” and less a chronological distinction than something that both acknowledges the influence of and marks a departure from the post-ed term. What would that even look like? What does she think she means by it?