For most of my childhood, my family was cautiously working class with an occasional lean towards poor. My parents were pretty much James and Florida Evans sans the backdrop of the housing project. There were a few times, when life went off script and my parents could not make ends meet. Times where being rock bottom involved eating tuna with mustard and learning that our special treat of donated foods included rotten chocolate sauce that some well-meaning person had donated to help a poor family out. I have never forgotten the pained look in my mother’s eyes when she discovered that our “treat” was spoiled.
My early adult years weren’t much better since I married at 18 and gave birth to my eldest at 19. For an 18 month period as a young adult I needed to rely on public assistance. It’s been over twenty years now but I still remember going to Cub Foods and being looked at with disdain because I dared to have junk food in my cart and I was paying with food stamps. My cart was overflowing too which added extra stares. This was back in the days when using food stamps involved brightly colored books- there was also the fact I had no car and my then mother in law took me shopping once a month so that I could stock up. To outsiders all they saw was an obviously very young Black mother on the dole, who they probably assumed never amount too much. Those folks were very wrong, that poor young lady worked her way through college and graduate school in seven years attending school year round. She eventually moved up the class ladder to briefly touch the upper middle class rung and now resides in the middle class…for the moment. She also has spent the last 16 years of her life working with people in need sometimes to her own detriment. I like to believe that the scales of justice have been balanced out. I received help when I needed it and I have helped others in need.
The problem with the snapshot judgments that have become all the rage in our culture is that all we see is a snapshot; we don’t see the entire photo album. Yet those snapshots for some reason tend to affect us deeply. Everyone seems to have an anecdotal story about the lady in line at the grocery store on an iPhone paying for her groceries with food stamps (considering that food stamps are now issued on discrete cards, how do you really know she is using food stamps and why are you paying so much attention in the first place?) or heaven forbid using WIC coupons. In these moments we find ourselves passing judgment and making assumptions.
Food stamp usage is at all-time high, wages are stagnant and while the recession ended several years ago, the average working person is still struggling to make ends meet. The only people who are truly financially comfortable in these troubled financial times are the vaunted 1%. The rest of us are either outright struggling or living in a delicately balanced house of financial cards where a light breeze or one unexpected calamity will send us over the wall of “middle class” to poor. But ours is a society built on Horatio Alger myths and a fixed belief in our own “exceptionalism” so we avoid all talks of reality unless it is to offer judgment on others who we know nothing about.
To add insult to injury in this brave new world of snapshot judgment and faux righteous indignation; what were once private thoughts can now be amplified to the world in less time than it takes for a morning constitutional. We not only pass judgment on others, we share that judgment with the world and receive our dopamine hit in the form of electronic pats on the head or scintillating e-talk.
Judgment is not inherently wrong, there are times when judgment is valuable and necessary but judgment that does nothing more than to feed our own sense of being right needs to be filtered. Judgment built on not knowing the facts is dangerous and disingenuous because in the end none of us knows where our personal journeys will take us and in those tough moments mercy is easier to dole out than judgment.
There but for the grace of God go I–John Bradford