COMMENTARY: Cut-off of state benefits

By Malik Yakini

It's criminal that in the United States, one of the wealthiest nations in the world, more than 11,000 people in the State of Michigan, many of whom are women and children are currently facing a level of poverty and food insecurity like that of a developing country. The halt in cash benefits to Michigan's most needy families must be opposed by all people of good conscience.

"Why are people poor?" is the question asked by the New Orleans-based People's Institute for Survival and Beyond when conducting trainings that examine power and race. Clearly the answer to that question lies in the many years of systemic discrimination and the denial of dignity and human rights that many in America are forced to contend with.

Many of those recently cut off from cash benefits are the descendants of enslaved Africans upon whose backs America's planters and industrialists accumulated wealth; African Americans who have historically faced discrimination and inequity in education, healthcare, employment and all other aspects of American life that allow for social and economic advancement. Many are poor whites who have labored in mines, factories, and other jobs, but who have been denied access to the means of acquiring wealth and influence in society. Some are Latinos/Latinas who find themselves in Michigan to escape the poverty and suffering imposed on their homelands by western colonization and subsequent economic and governmental policies designed to continue use of their labor and resources for American and European development. Those dependent on public assistance are inheritors of America's legacy of inequality. To now deny, those systemically locked out of access to wealth, the minimal means of living a decent life is unconscionable.

Are there people who use public assistance as a way of avoiding gainful employment and carrying their own weight in society? Sure. But, the vast majority of those receiving public assistance (with the exception of the banks and auto manufacturers who received massive public assistance) are truly in need but have limited options for improving their lots in life.

However, the problem is deeper still. The cut-off of state benefits is happening within a larger context. We live in a society that spends trillions of dollars annually to pursue wars throughout the world. This is coupled with a crisis facing the economic system of the entire western world. The reality is that given this country's priorities, we should be prepared for further belt-tightening and cuts that will impact those who have been the most disempowered and who are the most vulnerable.

Aside from what national, state or local governments do or do not do, we, the people, must ask ourselves, what is our collective responsibility to each other as we struggle to survive and thrive in the current economic decline? Clearly, our survival depends on our ability to cooperate with each other, and to see beyond greed, profit and our individual needs. Individualism must give way to relationships that recognize our interdependence with each other and with the planet itself.

Governments and the persons elected to represent us in those bodies must make a radical break with the past and plan for sustainable, just systems that promote equity and do not harm the planet. We can start by ensuring that every Detroiter, regardless of race or class has enough to eat and access to clean water. To do anything less is a violation of human rights.


Malik Yakini is chair of the Detroit Food Policy Council,

Published: Fri, Dec 9, 2011