The Trouble with Stereotypes

One of the many hurdles to ending hunger is the stereotyping of hungry people. What generally comes to mind are people in crumbling, crime-ridden neighborhoods who are on all manner of government assistance, are lazy and taking advantage of the system. People begging with cardboard signs at intersections also come to mind.

There are certainly hungry people in those scenarios. There are some people who try to take advantage of the system — but their numbers are far, far lower than the number of families who honestly need support, and are working to better their lives. If you’ve ever known someone who has been in one of these government systems, you know how difficult enrollment can be, how strictly guidelines are adhered to, and how modest is the assistance actually given. Few want to be in those programs unless they have to be.

The truth is that while some of the food insecure do reflect those stereotypes, most folks who need assistance look just like you and me. Let me introduce you to Brad.

A few years ago, I was at Downey Avenue Christian Church on Indy’s near east side. Their food pantry was open that day, and I was interviewing clients as part of a Gleaners study when a man approached the table where I was working.

Brad looked “normal” (if there is such a thing!). He had a college degree, and had had a good job as a manager and his own place in Carmel. He’d been doing well — until he lost his job. That’s when things went downhill. He’d had no income at all the prior month and found himself living in the inner city sharing a bathroom with three other men. He had frequently been hungry, sometimes not eating for an entire day.

Brad had lost all sense of self-worth. The man he saw in the mirror was not the manager who lived in Carmel, a middle-class citizen with a mortgage and late model car. His financial situation had thrown him in with the poor and hungry people for whom, in his former life, he’d only felt disdain. He believed they were poor because they were lazy or unmotivated. Now the face in the mirror told him a different story.

From this and dozens of other interviews, I learned an important lesson. The face of hunger is not one face — it’s a collage of faces of all ages, all races, rural and urban, people with advanced degrees and people who didn’t finish high school.

Don’t fall for stereotypes, especially stereotypes in which the hungry themselves are blamed for their predicament. People’s circumstances can change in a heartbeat through no fault of their own. When that happens, we need to make sure we’re there to help support them, feed them, until they get back on their feet.

I urge you to be a voice for those who are struggling, those whose struggles will only worsen if Congress cuts $150 billion in funding for SNAP. Contact your Congressional representative and let them know that their constituents include the hungry, and they deserve to be fed.


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