Desperation Lentils Aren’t Funny, Henry Alford

12.02.10 Lauri Apple

While reading the NY Times “Crib Sheet” (it helps me know what to talk about with my Pops* during our Sunday phone chats), I came across this suggested conversation topic: “Unemployment benefits for two million Americans run out. Sales of lentils skyrocket.”

The writer, Henry Alford, is a humorist, so he probably meant it as a ha-ha jokey thing. That’s nice! It’s not funny, though.

Millions of people stand to lose their only source of income thanks to Senate Republicans who are playing politics with unemployment benefits in an effort to protect the Bush tax cuts, which help the wealthy. It’s absolutely shameful, but tragically consistent with America’s “kick the poor while they’re down” m.o.–expressed by multi-millionaire Glenn Beck and other [insert curse words here]. Alford’s joke, while not as directly mean-spirited as Beck’s comments about benefits recipients, nevertheless seems to mock their predicament.

As someone who’s spent parts of my life subsisting on lentils as well as government cheese, pasta and sauce, and other cheap foods, I don’t find the humor in hunger. Some of my friends are on food stamps. I see people picking food out of garbage cans all the time in my neighborhood. A homeless woman camped out in my apartment building the other night to sleep in a warm place. And I’ve read stats like the ones in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest report, which says that 17.4 million American families are now “food insecure”–meaning that people have to go without meals because there’s no money (well, not for them, anyway).

So when I read jokes like Alford’s, I think, “man, have you ever known what it’s like to be forced to live on lentils, or to be forced to go without food at all?” Maybe he has (don’t know the guy), and has forgotten? Or maybe he’s been lucky enough to avoid poverty. Many others haven’t been so lucky, though.

It could be that Alford is just as troubled and worried about American poverty as I and others am, and is just trying to use humor as a salve. But as far as I can tell, he’s missed the mark. Stick to the George W. Bush jokes, dude! That guy is doing fine.

* OK, this isn’t true: my dad is a blue-collar worker from Western Pennsylvania who doesn’t read that far into the NYT.

(Photo: Maggie Hoffman/Flickr)