Tuesday, November 12, 2013

On Entitlement

grocery, food, stamps, ebt, accept
by Lyndsey Graves 

It is true that entitlements become dependencies. It is especially true for the most vulnerable people.

“You are entitled to eat”, our government says to people.
“I think you are right,” say the people.
“Only you must fill out this bewildering stack of forms every few months,” says the government.

The food pantry I worked with was able to serve people with higher incomes than the food stamp program did – one could receive three days’ worth of groceries if the family’s income was anywhere below 185% of the poverty level. Interacting with people, it became clear that if anyone is less secure than food stamp recipients, it is the “working poor” who hover just above income limits for these kinds of safety net programs. If you are a single mother with few job skills, your options are to stay home with your children and feed, clothe, and provide medical care for them using various welfare programs; or to get a job, put your children in day care, and probably end up continuing to barely provide for your family’s basic needs.

To escape would be a feat of gigantic proportion.

It is true that entitlements become dependencies. 

It is especially true for the youngest people.

“You deserve a new car upon college graduation!” shouts the television.
“I think you are right,” say the people.
“Only you must add this little bit of debt onto the mountain of your school loans,” says the television. “But don’t worry. We can all pretend it’s not really there.”

commercial, graduate, college, car, giftI’ve seen several variations on this advertisement from different car dealerships. If asked, I suppose we’d all agree that the only thing one has actually earned upon college graduation is a diploma and hearty congratulations. But it is nice to hear someone say that you deserve more. It’s almost like they recognize your worth. If you are a young person uncertain of your place in the world, it is easy to believe that entering the world of adults requires certain paraphernalia and thus, that the world owes it to you. The world obliges, offering you a car and a new professional wardrobe and a nice watch and a house just a bit nicer than the one whose mortgage you knew you could truly afford.

To escape would mean giving all that up; and then what did you even go to college for?

It is true that entitlements become dependencies. 

It is especially true for the individualist.

“Your money entitles you to whatever goods are available at whatever price they are available,” says the market.
“This is the way it has always been,” say the people.
“Only do not imagine that the cost of something is anything other than the price that you pay for it,” replies the market, and we oblige.

We all know, on some level, that our purchases connect us to other people – even if it’s only that, of the twenty we hand to the grocery store clerk, a few pennies will go to her, a few pennies to her supervisor, a few dollars to the store owner, a few to a supplier, some manufacturers, and the producers of raw materials. But all these steps are so complex, and so far removed, that thinking about them is maddening, and so functionally it is easier to believe that tomatoes and boxes of crackers appear on the shelves by magic while we are sleeping. It often seems pointless to think about where things came from and how they got to us, because there are so few alternatives anyway. We go on buying cheap chocolate, cheap toys, cheap clothes, because we need them and they’re there and someone else has taken responsibility for the logistics of it all (how kind of them). The free market floods the shelves with forty-seven kinds of tea, lets us make our choice amidst the overwhelming options, all while hoping we’ll be so enthralled by flavors and colors we’ll forget to notice the Fair Trade label is missing. And so, instead of magic, it’s our slaves who go on working for us in other time zones, while we are sleeping.

food, grocery, aisle, boxes, cookiesTo escape would require sacrifice and help from other people.

It would require that we acknowledge our own entitlement-dependencies and lose our license to judge others for theirs; and then we might find ourselves angry enough to actually leave the systems we all currently serve. It would force us to question assumptions – to put it calmly – and stop listening to lies – to put it biblically. We’d have to find out where our stuff came from, and probably figure out how to get it somewhere else – or to do without it. Yes, we would do a lot of doing without. But maybe we’d find ourselves less burdened by imaginary needs, and more willing to ask a favor rather than demand access to a right. We’d discover the joy of producing rather than consuming. We’d discover that the things we thought we needed to have weren’t essentials at all, but were just excess baggage, weighing us down.

Some dependencies are nearly impossible to escape. Those of us who have a choice at all are usually not expected to make it with much seriousness, but we must. No tea at all is an option available to us. Will we choose it – will we be thankful that we are free?

Lyndsey lives in Boston, MA where she is pursuing her Master's in Theological Studies at Boston University. She enjoys Community, Mad Men and Beauty and the Beast and her spirit animal is a sloth. She would like to know if this is some kind of interactive theater art piece. You can follow her on Twitter @lyndseygraves and you can find more of her writing at her blog To Be Honest.

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