If you believe the economy is improving, you’ve likely never met someone who still can’t afford a can of cat food.
Marc Okon, who has worked as a stockbroker, entrepreneur and business consultant, has a friend from his old neighborhood in Bayside, Queens, N.Y. He’s known her since age 10. Her parents died. She fell on hard times. And the economy hasn’t come back for her yet.
“She told me she sometimes fed her cat before herself,” Mr. Okon said in a telephone interview.
In February, as headlines raged about a strengthening economy, Mr. Okon started a privately funded nonprofit called Pet Food Stamps. People who are already on government assistance can apply for free pet food.
The group has been swamped with more applications than his staff of a dozen people can readily process. Most applicants send letters detailing how they lost their jobs to outsourcing, their homes to foreclosure or their health to disease or accident.
“I just heard from a lady in North Carolina who has an autistic son whose only companion is a Jack Russell Terrier,” he said. “It’s cookie-cutter sadness. … Little details change but the gist of each story is the same.”
Despite nominal improvements in the unemployment rate, the U.S. Department of Agriculture counts more than 47 million people in its food stamp program—nearly one out of every seven Americans.
Food stamps cannot be used to purchase pet food. But they can be used to buy Coca-Cola.
Last week, the National Center for Public Research complained at Coca-Cola’s annual shareholder meeting in Atlanta that the beverage maker lobbies heavily to keep soda on the list of wholesome things that food stamps can buy.
Taxpayers subsidize about $4 billion worth of soda sales each year, the group groused, even as the sugary drink contributes to an obesity epidemic that drives up government health-care costs.
But you know what they say? Food stamps go better with Coke.
Mr. Okon, 36 years old, said he spent his 20s chasing money, first as a stockbroker, then as the founder of a company that sold pay phones as cellphones displaced them. He also did consulting work that took him into the bowels of many other companies.
He said he briefly worked for a firm that sold dubious medical benefits to seniors in the South. “Their whole corporate philosophy was to manipulate seniors who didn’t have any type of insurance,” he said. “I could only do that for about a week and half.”
He is a man so disgusted with the lack of ethics he witnessed in private enterprise that he founded a nonprofit to hand out dog food.
“I’ve been around enough shady businesses and surrounded by salesmen-types who were always talking about the deal,” he said.
Self-dealing helped destroy the economy—so focused on the bottom line and so unfocused on consequences for everyone else. Dogs and cats don’t know what hit them.
“Millions of pets are surrendered to shelters each year and euthanized because their owners can’t afford to feed them,” Mr. Okun said.
And to top it all off, the people in charge of fixing the economy are the same ones who helped destroy it.
“The people in power were put there by fat cats, who have money and control,” Mr. Okun said. “I see it getting worse and worse, decade after decade. I don’t know what’s going to change.”