The face of poverty in America, 2016
Sunday morning, 10:30, Walgreens, waiting to pay for my photos. I become aware of the cashier at the stand behind me saying to her customer, "tobacco, alcohol, lottery tickets – this is a list of the things you can't buy with food stamps." A male in his 50s, Mexican, 12-pack of Bud on the counter.
He puts away his EBT card, pulls out cash, and leaves, Bud in hand. I watch as he gets into a Dodge 4X4 pickup and drives off. It is not new, not in the best shape, but it's decent transportation.
Think of the Identifiable Victim Effect. Humans seem to be hardwired to respond to individuals, not to statistics. Tell someone that millions suffer ghastly accidents every day, and people scarcely blink. But show them the face of an identifiable individual and tell her tragic story, and overnight hundreds of thousands of dollars are pledged. "The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic." Stalin probably did not say that, but it epitomizes his attitude.
Politicians learned this trick long ago. Watch as they trot out a single victim of some policy or as they parade the nonrepresentative beneficiary of a wildly expensive government program: it matters not that the individual is an outlier, one in a hundred who made the program work. She (and usually it's a she) is proof positive that the program is a success, evidence that we cannot, we must not, we dare not make the least cutback to the profligate expenditure of taxpayer money. Rather, we must fund it ever more lavishly.
Incidentally, notice how often these "victims," displayed as success stories, want to go to medical school. Not that they are in med school, or have applied or even taken the MCAT. But no "journalist" would be so churlish, so mean-spirited as to check back in a year or two.
Is my Walgreens chiseler representative of EBT recipients? Who knows? Who cares? If the politicians can exploit the Identifiable Victim Effect to make us open our wallets, why can't I use it to expose some of the corruption rampant in the Food Stamp program?
So next time you hear great wailing and gnashing of teeth, such as this, over the least cut to Food Stamps – oh snap, it's not Food Stamps, but the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and doesn't that sound so much more dignified? – when you hear of the utter horror that any reduction in the program would unleash, how draconian, how mean-spirited, how utterly depraved and selfish the mere suggestion is, think of the man in Walgreens trying to get you and me to pay for his Budweiser on a Sunday morning. Make him the face of poverty in America today. If the technique is good enough for the politicians, it's good enough for those of us who pay the bills.
Henry Percy is the nom de guerre of a writer in Arizona. He may be reached at saler.50d[at]gmail.com.