Scent and memory have a well-established connection in psychological research and our common cultural epistemology. They’re usually associated with joyful concepts: holidays at home, childhood weekends outside, or baking at the grandparents. We use them to evoke similar human experiences in personal anecdotes. Other times they’re often an avenue to giving people some verstehen on darker subjects — a subjective understanding of the hardship and tragedy affecting other people, like poverty and food insecurity. Those two bring scents from my past to the forefront: industrial sweet glue from reams of packaging tape, the type of stale dry dust that gets flung when you spend hours assembling cardboard boxes, and the sticky, clingy stench of mass-donated hotdogs portioned from a pallet-container lined with some mystery preservative. These are the smells I remember most from spending time in food banks packing charity for folks in Colorado and Missouri.
While that’s hardly representative of such a complicated subject like poverty, it helps me reach for verstehen when I read articles like this one in the Washington Post, “Food stamps put Rhode Island town on monthly boom-and-bust cycle.” The author, Eli Slaslow, reports in-depth on Woonsocket; an economically depressed town where the first of the month brings two million SNAP dollars and food wealth into the hands of a third of the residents. If boom-and-bust is the theme then it’s ostensibly framed through the supply of food and the EBT-laden demand that devours — the grocery store owner Miguel and his cyclical feast or famine profit, with Rebecka and Jourie Ortiz as the (necessarily) working poor parents and their literal feast or famine.
At first glance this is an apples to oranges comparison for cyclical effects; correlated, sure, but unequal. Miguel isn’t going hungry from sloping sales figures as the end of the month arrives. He’s adroit enough a businessman to structure his ownership in a way that successful, and that’s good so much as it goes. Rebecka and Jourie are not as successful managing the monthly busts. They’re both employed part-time, on opposite shifts, making do with the type of life low-wage service work provides in a stagnant economy. Which is to say, not a terribly pleasant one. By the end of the month Rebecka is visiting emergency food pantries and serving potluck stews to her children. That the peaks and troughs have quite different effects should be clear, but in what way are they similar?
Believe it or not; money. In David K. Shipler’s The Working Poor he writes something very apropos, that the poor and investment bankers share a common bond insomuch as both “expend considerable energy thinking about money.” Further, that both must “juggle, predict, and plan, and every decision has magnitude.” I originally read the first part as an off-handed joke of sorts, but the second quote cements it relevance here. Both Miguel and the Ortiz’s share an intense interest in seeing their money spent wisely around the one-time dumping of federal money for food. For the grocery store it’s a matter of the business surviving profitably in a weak economy. This involves focusing the allocation of supplies and a part-time workforce to help serve it when demand explodes, with specific schedules for bulk deliveries and new sales-bundles to appeal to cost-conscious customers. For the low-wage workers it’s a full-time job in itself to make their money (SNAP or otherwise) last long enough to feed the whole family. Coupons, detailed lists, strategic schedules of shopping and transit create inter-personal tensions and a kind of daily stress I never want to experience. ‘Food insecurity’ may seem like an overly technocratic term but these are people with jobs essentially struggling for sustenance, and at the end of the day owners are struggling against a dearth of profits in an economy with weak aggregate demand.
This story could be a Rorschach test of sorts and I think Slaslow knows it when he emphasizes in the beginning:
So many people are forced to rely on government support.
The government is forced to support so many people.
Yet he describes this as a somewhat new revelation of the “twin shortcomings of the U.S. economy.” Certainly things are worse now than various points before, but the general description strikes me as being true for most of the post-New Deal America. The Working Poor is relatively new and it was released nine years ago. The subjects in that book or in Slaslow’s article could be living in any decade of the last thirty years and not much of the story would change. There has been a working, invisible, poor in need of assistance for basic necessities that existed long before they became the new ‘welfare queens’ in the aftermath of the Great Recession, and long before a ‘good weekend read’ link caught your attention on Twitter or the ‘food stamps’ headline made you click too see what the moochers were up to now.
The answer to the interpretive test then rests on your reaction to the rest of the piece: either disgust with the spigot of government dependency for both business and worker, or disgust with the low-level of support that drives people to food banks. When Rebecka falters on adhering to her meticulously careful shopping plan at the end, well, there’s a choose your poison reaction — bitterness, disappointment, contempt, outright anger perhaps. As Shipler notes, people at the bottom of the socioeconomic hourglass are “caught between America’s hedonism and its dictum that the poor are supposed to sacrifice, suffer, and certainly not purchase any fun for themselves.” I would add that they’re never to be weak, because weakness leaves you hungry at the end of the month. It’s reality, to be sure, but it’s one in which we often forget our own authorship of when we only question the social actors in society and never the standards or rules by which they are judged.