Too Poor to Get the Groceries Home?


Republicans say that Democrats fail to encourage personal responsibility.   A battle in Seattle Washington over plastic bag fees provides a perfect, if minor, example.  After the city council voted to require a twenty cent per bag fee for disposable grocery bags, CAMP, the Central Area Motivation Program joined the chemical industry in opposition.  A fee, they said, would adversely impact poor people, even if they are provided with reusable bags for free.  It’s just too much to ask that poor people remember a bag when they shop, and so they will get charged for them.  That’s the reasoning—from a “Motivation” program, which is now lending credibility to a $1.3 million dollar referendum propaganda campaign by a plastics trade group—all aimed to ensure that those fees don’t happen. 


Why all the money?  Well, right now the average Seattle resident uses over 500 disposable bags per year, and a similar fee in Ireland reduced disposable grocery bag use by 90%, with approximately one billion fewer bags consumed per year.  Yes, people replace some of those free grocery bags with purchased garbage bags etc, but the chemical industry’s opposition tells us loud and clear that they expect overall consumption of plastics to go down here too.  Now add the fact that the Center for American Progress heralded the Seattle fee as a model for cities across the country.  The chemical industry thinks it’s worth crushing this thing before it gains momentum. 


I’ll confess, it took me months to get used to bringing bags when I shop, but given a little time, even harried old dogs can master new tricks.  My own tricks all aim to get around forgetfulness:


1.In the bottom of my purse I keep a plastic grocery bag or two folded into little triangles as demonstrated by a Japanese friend.   (You fold it like a flag, then tuck in the little end.  Very OCD, but it ends up teeny and cool looking.)

2. A thin nylon bag that stuffs inside itself (given to me as a party favor) now clips onto my bicycle;

3. After shopping I leave my collection of canvas bags prominently in the entry way where I get annoyed enough at tripping over them that I put them in the trunk. 

4. Even so, I’ve had to locate the bag recycling bins at my grocery stores for the times I still walk in the door without one. 

My four tricks get me to about 90%, –the magic Irish number.  That would be fifty bags per Valerie per year instead of 500, a little embarrassing still, but a major accomplishment for someone with the memory of a gnat.   


It’s time to stop the utter condescension that says harried poor people can’t learn new tricks too and that expecting them to participate in the common good is unreasonable.   One of the fascinating differences between government programs for poor people and faith-based programs is that church communities expect people to give back.  And they do, at a much higher rate.  They volunteer in child care and food banks, and as ushers, and in Vacation Bible Schools.  By contrast, government assistance far too often treats poor or disabled people as if little to nothing can be expected of them, which is just plain degrading. 


Reciprocity is hard-wired into our moral instincts and it is written into the expectations of cultures around the planet.  Even chimps expect favors for favors and punish or shun cheaters.  We humans give gifts and we receive gifts back.  We do favors, and we expect favors back.  We provide mutual support.  Sometimes we are happy to say “Don’t pay it back, pay it forward.”  But we want our efforts and generosity to go somewhere instead of dead-ending. The only people who aren’t expected to engage in reciprocity are young children and those who we consider debilitated beyond hope.  And for children,  moving toward independence means participating as household and community members to their growing level of ability.  Give-back expectations go hand in hand with dignity, respect and self-respect. 


I’m not advocating faith-based services.  Those who know me know I prefer that people receive services without a dollop of dogma on top—and I think social services often are used unethically as bait by those who think themselves heaven-sent fishers of men.  I also realize there are far more significant examples of responsibility and dignity than the question of whether poor people can be expected to bring bags to the grocery store.  But conservative complaints often contain kernels of truth that progressives should learn to heed.  If we really want to empower and motivate people, we do well to expect things of them –even small things like being resourceful enough to get the groceries home.   

About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt; Deas and Other Imaginings.
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