Even if with the best intentions, some gestures are doomed for ridicule.
Such is the case for Newark, N.J., Mayor — and possible secret super-hero — Cory Booker. A week ago, the quite active Twitter user had an exchange, where he was accused of – gasp – plotting to redistribute wealth (which is how taxes kind of work already technically, but I digress) and was told in response “nutrition is not a responsibility of the government.” As a result of those remarks, Booker challenged his accuser to live off of food stamps for a week. Booker himself will begin his experiment starting Tuesday, December 4th, and will chronicle the experience on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook. Booker follows the lead of Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, who went through a similar experience, and kept a daily journal on Facebook.
Not surprisingly, Booker is facing similar criticism as his Phoenix counterpart.
I’ve seen critiques of Booker for becoming “increasingly annoying” in addition to accusations that Booker is essentially peddling the “poverty equivalent of “Black Like Me.” There’s some truth in those sentiments as well as the quip that Booker is somewhat behaving like a White liberal, desperate to show empathy for a reality he can’t ever truly fathom. Still, as patronizing or disingenuous as it may appear to some, I’m not especially bothered by Booker’s SNAP social experience.
Yes, this teeters more on spectacle and symbolism than the substantive, but is that always such a bad thing?
Watch Booker’s food stamp challenge here:
As important as it is to have discussions on the impoverished and their plight with a degree of depth, at least Booker is a national figure actually bringing up the subject of poverty. That’s far more than I can say about any other official right now, including those who participated in this year’s election at the highest level.
Throughout the year, much of the economic discussions have centered on the working class, or as we all like to spin it to feel better about ourselves, “the middle class.” When the impoverished are discussed, they’re dissected as pariahs on the right and often not defended well enough if at all on the left. Even in the editorial pages of national magazines, I come across musings like:
Perhaps we should begin to think about ways that people who receive benefits like unemployment insurance, food stamps, even disability, can also give back.
This is supposed to come across as nuanced and compromising to critics of entitlement programs, yet all it does is kiss up to their linear point of view about government aid not rooted in fact. It’s a point of view not solely belonging to those graying, male, and White.
How often have you heard someone Black offer up some anecdotal story of how their half-sister’s cousin’s ex-boyfriend’s baby mama abuses food stamps in some way; therefore, insert some stupid stereotype about people with EBT here?
Far too many people get their jollies off of smugly convincing themselves that poor people have it all too easy and leech off of everyone else’s hard work. If more people learned to look beyond themselves – yes, even for a short period of time – we’d all be much better off.
That said, I’m not completely naïve.
I don’t expect a week of Cory Booker blogging about how hungry he is to necessarily start a movement or universally open every politician across the country’s eyes. Moreover, I’m pretty sure such good publicity will go a long way in boosting even more interest in Booker’s potential run for governor of New Jersey. Nonetheless, for all the poor bashing that goes on from politicians, it’s nice to see someone at least bother to try to understand the experience of their constituents.
Cory Booker’s seven-day EBT excursion won’t change the world, but I can’t totally knock someone who at least wants to try and see another view of it.
Michael Arceneaux is a Houston-bred, Howard-educated writer and blogger. You can read more of his work on his site, The Cynical Ones. Follow him on Twitter: @youngsinick