I couldn’t look away. It was like a train wreck, even though there was no physical wreckage.
What I was watching was a long, long line of cars in San Antonio, all on their way to a food bank. That visual stayed with me for days. When I tried to learn more about it, I discovered that there were 10,000 cars in that line. Ten thousand.
That, for me, will be one of the enduring images of the coronavirus pandemic. (For that picture and more like it that will take your breath away, check out this article at Mother Jones.) Variations on the scene in San Antonio can be found all around the nation. In Anaheim, California, the line of cars headed for the food bank was a mile long. A south Florida food bank reported a 600 percent increase in people asking for help. In Massachusetts, demand is up more than 800 percent.
By one estimate, about one in every three people in line at food banks had never before in their lives been unable to afford food. The statistics and the images are an indication of just how vast a swath the pandemic has cut, crisscrossing around the nation, and how deep it has penetrated, right down to a need for something so fundamental as food.
But those long lines made me wonder: Does a need for help have a different meaning now than it did before the pandemic?
The first thing I ever studied, before I started my research on single people, and even before I did so many studies of the psychology of lying and detecting lies, was the psychology of asking for help. My published papers had titles such as “the costs of asking for help,” “are shy people reluctant to ask for help?”, and “asking a child for help.”
My focus was almost entirely on the psychological costs of asking for help. It can be a blow to your self-esteem to admit to yourself that you need help, and even more difficult to admit it to someone else by asking them for that help. If that person is someone you feel that you should be helping, rather than vice versa (such as a child), that can make it even worse.
There are many psychological dynamics at play when people hesitate to ask for help, such as not wanting to feel obligated to the person who helps you, or worrying about bothering that person, or fearing that you might get rejected. One of the key dynamics is the concern that needing help might mean that you are inadequate in some way. You are different from other people. You can feel ashamed of yourself for needing help.
But when you see a line of cars a mile long in one place, or ten thousand cars in another, and when you know that unprecedented numbers of people are in need of food assistance for the first time in their lives — well, that makes it feel less personal, doesn’t it? You don’t have some personal failing. There is something systematic happening. Something that is in no way your fault. Maybe you have lost your job and have used up all of your savings, but so have millions of other people.
I think the culture of needing help and asking for help has been changing, too, even before the coronavirus outbreak. People unselfconsciously and unapologetically set up GoFundMe campaigns. So far as I know, they don’t get shamed for it. Nor should they. But my sense is that this unabashed willingness to ask for help, publicly, is something new. Or maybe it is generational, with younger people less angsty about such things.
Now, with social media, people can announce their need for help, show their receipts, and get lots of support. Other people jump in to say that they are in the same boat. Emotional support flows freely – everyone can afford to give that. On Twitter, individuals have offered to pay other people’s bills, and then followed through.
It quickly becomes evident, though, that needs that are so widespread cannot be met by the generosity of a few strangers. That sobering fact can turn into something powerful – the makings of a social movement. If millions of people cannot get by without help, that is a systematic failure, not a personal one. People need social safety nets.
That’s a whole different way of thinking. From that perspective, you are no longer just a needy individual. You are part of a force with the potential to transform the nation into a more equitable and dignified place.