In the days after Neal and I finally agreed to raise our grocery budget from $145 to $200 per month, I was feeling flush with yummier things to eat. I bought a loaf of french bread to eat with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. I bought a can of freeze-dried mushrooms (my friend sells these and can get reduced rates if you’re ever in the market for shelf-stable food) to rehydrate and add to some of my meals (SO much better than those water-logged canned mushrooms). Best of all, I probably went at least a week without eating any beans at all!
So I was a little surprised when I clicked on a friend’s Facebook link about a photography exhibit of “Picturing Hunger in America” and found this picture front and center:
The photos are, of course, meant to increase awareness of and empathy for the plight of low-income American families. But I couldn’t feel immediate empathy for this family, similar in size and budget, because I was too busy thinking about how Neal and I would negotiate this particular grocery list. Him crossing roast beef right off the list, while I opine about how juice is just frivolous and has too much sugar; water is so refreshing, anyway!
When I saw that picture I had to pause and contemplate whether the people I interact with, my friends and family (who sometimes joke about us starving Addison — lunch is still our Achilles’ heel), actually think that we, eating off of $50 per week, are hungry. They couldn’t possibly think that we’re going to bed with unbearably empty stomachs, right? I don’t want to downplay real pain that Americans are experiencing, but this is what hunger actually looks like, isn’t it?
This is such a complex topic. To really give context to my own reaction, I would have to talk about some of my previous work with those in poverty, my own experience on food stamps (10 or so years ago), the debate about “food deserts,” and some of the differences between being low-income vs. being in poverty (because we’re obviously low-income, but we’re nowhere near poverty-stricken). But time is my scarcest resource right now, since I started my second job almost a month ago.
In addition to teaching online, I’m now a case manager (part-time) for the family resource center in our town. I work primarily with low-income families with young children, visiting them at home, teaching parenting classes, and connecting them with whatever types of resources they need (food, shelter, insurance, government programs, legal assistance, domestic violence counseling, etc.). As much as I have felt that compassion and empathy are among my strong suits, I have to admit that I’ve already encountered situations, like the one above, in which my judgmental voice was activated far more quickly than my empathic one. It’s hard to suppress my pathological frugality when I’m daily examining others’ income and bank statements, and trying to resist asking for their projected line-item budget for the year. Someone says, We NEED this and my personal finance voice says, Are you sure that’s a need and not a want? Are you sure you’ve prioritized that need over your other wants? I think back to the first time I saw that picture above and the thoughts that ran through my head: This is not what hunger looks like; THIS is what hunger looks like. This is not what need looks like; THIS is what need looks like.
I’ve spent so long looking at incarcerated men — their needs and all the things they’ve lacked or lost — that my heart is soft for them, even without a word. I work with a different group now and I can see that my heart needs to get softer. Is it more difficult because there’s more of a resemblance there? And how to soften my heart in just the right way, so that I can still go home and leave my work at work (as if that’s ever happened!) or say no, in the kindest way possible, when that’s the only appropriate answer?
So talk to me. What helps you to activate your empathic voice, even if you have to do so in conjunction with one of judgment? I’ve found this video from Dr. Brene Brown (and her other work) very insightful . . . but what else?