I am so angry. I live in a comfortable suburb, with old trees and well-kept houses. Most of us make a good living and work hard for our money. Now I find out that my next-door neighbor, a recent divorcee with two spoiled kids and no job, is putting on her designer clothes and driving her gas-guzzling SUV to the supermarket every week and paying with food stamps! One of my neighbors told me that she saw this woman use her food stamps to buy an eighteen-dollar bakery cake for her daughter’s birthday. Should I say anything to her? I am a struggling freelance writer—lucky, it is true, to have an accountant husband who provides most of the income, but even so I work hard at my job and with my kids. I just hate to think of my and my family’s tax dollars going to support her lifestyle. What is wrong with this country?
—Resentful in Rhode Island
Resentment is one of the main things that is wrong with this country, especially lately. Please rest assured that, even if your family income is more than ample, and even if your neighbor is getting the maximum nutrition assistance amount possible, and even if your husband is a terrible accountant and you enjoy no tax loopholes or advantages of any kind, you cannot be paying more than a fraction of a cent for this woman’s food stamps. Such an outlay does not seem to warrant more than a nanosecond of resentment on your part, even if resentment is due.
Now you will tell me that it’s not her in particular, that it’s the principle of the thing. But what principle is that? The principle that says we must all be vigilant lest one of our neighbors gets a little extra food? Gets her kid a nice cake, the kind that other kids won’t make fun of, on her birthday? Is being a little generous—on rare occasions—about putting food, even cake, in our fellow citizens’ mouths the sort of thing we should be worried about?
I am afraid you have had the misfortune to ask a question in an area I actually know something about. On the other hand, I am getting ready to go on vacation, so I will spare you and my other readers the mountains of evidence I am just itching to produce to the effect that SNAP (the official acronym for food stamps) alone is not enough to get most families though the month, so it is hardly over-generous; that it is a program with vanishingly small levels of fraud, and most of that is not by recipients; that it rarely if ever creates dependency; and that many potential recipients have to jump through hoops to get any SNAP benefits at all. Most recipients are elderly, disabled, or the working poor with children. Some—your neighbor, perhaps—use SNAP to get them through a bad time, such as divorce or job loss, when their incomes suddenly drop. If you want to know more about the SNAP program and hunger in America, go on the Food and Nutrition Service website. Or check out Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks.
But I can hear you saying that all this policy wonkiness misses the point. So let’s get back to your specific case. How much do you know about your neighbor’s situation? Despite what you have told me, it is quite possible that your neighbor is struggling. In fact, if she is receiving food stamps, she has had to document her low income and lack of available resources. For all you know, she may be in foreclosure because she can’t pay her mortgage. She may not see the point of taking her remaining nice clothes to the consignment shop and trading them in for something dowdier, especially if she plans to go on job interviews. She may be driving the SUV because it’s paid off and cheaper than getting another car right now. Her husband may be stiffing her on the child support. Believe me, even the most Stepfordy communities contain pockets of hidden poverty and desperation. As somebody about a hundred times more empathetic than you once said, most of us are just a paycheck or two away from poverty.
But I am not exactly sure which of two possibilities is making you so mad in your neighbor’s case. Perhaps you know, or are willing to assume, that your neighbor is in dire straits, despite the clothes and SUV: you just don’t want to let her eat cake on your dime, or rather your electron-microscopically small fraction of a dime. If this is the case, all I can say is that you and I must agree to differ. I am all for giving people the benefit of the doubt, minding my own business where cake-eating is concerned, and erring HEAVILY on the side of making sure people get enough to eat. I understand that this may make me seem soft and gullible to a hard-nosed realist like yourself; but I urge you to consider that you may be the gullible one, or perhaps the one who is trying to gull me. Can you really have a neighbor who reports back to you about a cake being bought with food stamps? Is that what you people talk about? And how did she know? Was she checking out the patterns on your neighbor’s card to see if it was a government-issued EBT card? You do know that they don’t use stamps any more, right?
Needless to say, I do not think you should say anything about l’affaire gateau to your neighbor. Actually, I can’t think of anything you could say to her about it that would not be repellent.
I think you will be much happier if you stop worrying about the other laborers, or slackers, in your vineyard and just get back to your writing. Unless, of course, you are working on a sequel to The Fountainhead.
How do you feel about doctors who introduce themselves as “Doctor So-and-So” and expect to be called “Doctor,” but call you by your first name?
—Vexed in Vicksburg
It vexes me, too.
There may be urgent reasons to establish rapport with patients—if, say, they are lying on a gurney with heart palpitations or gunshot wounds, it may make more sense to shout “Stay with me, Bob!” than “Stay with me, Mr. Fotheringay-Phipps!” Other than urgency, though, I do not see any good reason for unequal salutations between adults simply because one of them is a doctor. It is fine for both patient and physician (or any other professional who is called “Doctor”) to use first names, if both parties consent to, and do, use them. Or to use last names for everybody, with whatever title or titles apply: Dr., Mr., Ms., Mrs., Reverend, Margrave, Senator, Khaleesi, Colonel, etc. Anything else risks having the more-familiarly-titled person feel disrespected or infantilized.
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at [email protected]. Find more columns by June in her attic.