The USDA released its annual food insecurity report last month and the results are grim. Food insecurity — defined as a family whose access to food is limited by a lack of resources — reached 15 million households in 2017, roughly 12 percent of the population. Although food insecurity decreased slightly from 2016, it still hasn’t recovered to pre-recession levels and doesn’t appear to be heading in that direction anytime soon. This report comes on the heels of the 22nd anniversary of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, otherwise known as Welfare Reform, which stripped safety net measures such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (ATFDC) from millions of poor people, replacing it with a patchwork of relatively meager tax credits and work requirements.  While the numbers are still disputed, the act has nearly doubled extreme poverty in the two decades since it passed with bipartisan support in 1996.

Such appalling statistics seem to be of little consequence to certain segments of our intelligentsia and government. Free market evangelists such as the Heritage Foundation cite access to air conditioning, refrigerators and televisions as proof of the poor’s deceptively high comfortability. Politicians like Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Republican from Utah, think the impoverished should simply stop buying IPhones if they want to better afford their healthcare. In saying this, Chaffetz never seems to ask himself the question, “Why must one make a binary choice between health insurance and a smartphone?” because it would have never crossed his mind in the first place. In the cult of American individualism, institutional factors regarding how policy affects and shapes people’s lives are largely discarded depending on the issue; to Chaffetz, people stand on their own, making individual choices for which they should be either individually punished or rewarded.  

Such obfuscation of American poverty not only displays ignorance and cruelty, but the betrayal of a basic ambition of government: that policy can be used to help people and provide conditions for them to thrive by means other than bleak, “bootstrap” austerity measures.

We used to be more ambitious in this country. Lyndon Johnson sought to eradicate poverty completely with his Great Society program. Nineteenth and early 20th century socialist movements led by Eugene V. Debs and Daniel De Leon helped lead to the eradication of child labor and the passage of the eight-hour workday. Early 20th century lifestyle magazines were littered with images of flying cars and space colonization.

Today, we’ve seem to have fallen short of most of these goals.

Gill Scott Heron, ‘70s jazz poet and Wayne Gretzky of his trade (i.e the only one that people can remember by name) understood this, even back then. In his 1970 poem, “Whitey on the Moon,” Heron provided a wry look at the contrast between grand spectacles of human exceptionalism such as space travel and the bitter realities of everyday life. The poem/song is worth quoting in full, so here it is:

A rat done bit my sister Nell

With whitey on the moon

Her face and arms began to swell

And whitey is on the moon

I can’t pay no doctor bills

But whitey is on the moon

Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still

With whitey on the moon ya know?

The man just upped my rent last night

Cause whitey is on the moon

No hot water, no toilets, no lights

But whitey is on the moon

I wonder why he’s uppin’ me?

Cause whitey is on the moon

Well I was givin’ him 50 dollars a week

And now whitey is on the moon

Taxes takin’ my check

The junkies make me a nervous wreck

The price of food is goin’ up and as if all that crap wasn’t enough a rat done bit my sister Nell with whitey on the moon her face and arms began to swell with whitey on the moon with all that money I made last year put whitey on the moon how come I ain’t got no money here? Hmmm whitey on the moon ya know I just about had my fill of whitey on the moon

I think I’ll send these bills air mail special to whitey on the moon”

In 2018, we no longer have much interest in the moon. Today, consumer goods such as smartphones — and the apps that populate them — are held up as the pinnacle of human ingenuity and progress. But Heron’s poem should show us why such advancements are inadequate.

After all, a refrigerator means little if you can’t afford to fill it with food.

Uber means little if its work model is starting to eradicate the very notion of an employee.

Airbnb means little if it’s rapidly increasing rent in your neighborhood.

Lyft means little if it’s rushing you to your second job.

Technological means of convenience mean little when the generation they mostly benefit expect to do worse than their parents. Apps provide a sense of fleeting distraction, a brief reprieve in the face of an ever-growing rot. This is not adequate, and it certainly isn’t progress.

There are ways to remedy this. A bare-minimum commitment to social democracy on the government level is a start. But a meaningful change in how we measure and judge progress needs to arise in the hearts and minds of the people.

Until then, we’ll have to settle for Whitey on the moon.


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