Hit It with a Hammer

Bubble warning: Here There Be Liberal Sentiments. If the thought of drug-testing-free welfare turns you into a frothing rage monkey, you may wish to go elsewhere for today’s light political entertainment.

A few weeks ago an elderly neighbor sent me an email entitled IF YOU CAN’T FIX IT WITH A HAMMER, YOU’VE GOT AN ELECTRICAL PROBLEM WRITTEN BY A 21 YEAR OLD FEMALE. When the first line started with PUT ME IN CHARGE…. (frankly as soon as I saw the all caps title) I should have just quietly clicked Google’s trash icon and walked away. But there has been a lot of chatter on the Internet lately – it’s probably always there, it just happened to come up on my Facebook and RSS feeds recently – about echo chambers and living in tiny bubbles of like-minded ideologues, so I kept reading what turned out to be a diatribe against recipients of public assistance.

I don’t make a habit of berating 84-year-old ladies over email, but this time I made an exception, telling my neighbor (as gently as I could manage in my own moment of frothing rage monkeydom) what I thought of this purported girl, her “great plan,” and the suggestion that only people with “guts” would PASS IT ON. The first thing I should have done of course, was research, because nosing around a bit revealed that the author was not a 21-year-old “female” at all but a 56-year-old man who in 2010 had a letter to the editor published in the Waco Tribune (scroll down to Alfred W. Evans of Gatesville for the relevant literary exercise).

I concluded by telling her that I was most certainly not going to PASS IT ON, because the sentiments expressed therein didn’t deserve to see the light of day. But the more I thought about it, the more I was inclined to think that maybe they do, if only to consider for a moment their deep wrongheadedness. So here’s a sampling, in case you haven’t been blessed with it.

Put me in charge of food stamps no cash for Ding Dongs or Ho Ho’s, just money for 50-pound bags of rice and beans, blocks of cheese and all the powdered milk you can haul away. If you want steak and frozen pizza, then get a job.

The spark that fueled Evans’ rage was a woman with children who “about emptied out the meat counter” with food stamps, bought “mostly junk food” with cash, then loaded her groceries into a Chevrolet Suburban with “specialty wheel rims.” In an interview he said, “I got into my 10-year-old F150 truck and thought, ‘I just paid for everything she just put in her truck.’”

There’s something positively Dickensian about this. No, really. Consider this line from Oliver Twist: “What have paupers to do with soul or spirit either? It’s enough that we let ‘em have bodies.” Mr. Evans and Mr. Bumble share certain commonalities: a nearly palpable resentment, for example, conjoined with a conviction that anyone whose income drops below the poverty line should be forced to surrender their agency to those of us with better sense (luck, somehow, never seems to enter into this equation).

Leaving aside the fact that, short of asking the woman, Mr. Evans had no idea where the cash came from, or whose car that was, the idea that individuals on public assistance deserve no pleasures in their lives – no Hostess confections, no frozen pizza – seems to typically spring, as it does for my neighbor, from the idea that they are committing rampant fraud. But a 2013 article in The Atlantic puts a bit of a pin in that balloon.

Here’s the short version. Unemployment and TANF (welfare) fraud perpetuated by recipients appears to hover around 2 percent. Although some inspectors report “improper” TANF payment levels of around 20 to 40 percent, the bulk of that is due to payment calculation errors on the government’s side. As for SNAP (food stamps), The Atlantic reports that, “the majority of food-stamp fraud appears to be generated by supermarkets ‘trafficking’ in the food stamps. Beneficiaries intentionally ripping off the taxpayers account for perhaps 1 percent of payments.”

So perhaps Mr. Evans really did stumble across that one in a hundred with the savvy to pull off a scam and the willingness to risk permanent disqualification from the program. Or maybe someone gave her some money and said, “No, really, buy some fun things for yourself and your kids.” I don’t know what the truth of it was. And neither, Mr. Evans, did you.

In addition, you will either present a check stub from a job each week or you will report to a “government” job. It may be cleaning the roadways of trash, painting and repairing public housing, whatever we find for you. We will sell your 22-inch rims and low profile tires and your blasting stereo and speakers and put that money toward the “common good.”

Suppose you are a young woman suffering from multiple sclerosis, in college and in love. You marry in your junior year. By your senior year your husband, who has just finished his M.A., starts pressuring you to have children. He says you don’t need your degree, he’ll take care of you. Over friends’ fairly strenuous objections you agree, get pregnant, drop out.

Things are good for a while. His well-off mother offers to buy a house in a tony part of L.A. “for the baby.” Then a second baby gets the umbilical cord tangled around his neck and dies a few days before he would have been born. You get pregnant again but there’s an increasing distance between you and your husband. He seems impatient with your worsening health. When he’s tired, or in a bad mood, he drops hints that what happened to the middle boy might have been – somehow – your fault.

Shortly after the birth of your next child he loses his job. When he serves you with divorce papers a week later you wonder how “lost” it was. By the time your case comes up in court, most assets have mysteriously vanished. The house, of course, is his mother’s, not yours (though after she moves you out she moves him back into it). Support is determined accordingly, and you find yourself on a panoply of public assistance programs just to keep food on the table.

And now you also find yourself wishing you’d listened to your friends. You desperately want to work, to dig yourself out of the pit you’ve abruptly fallen (or been pushed) into. And discover that without a college degree, the jobs you can find pay enough to nudge you off of SSI and SNAP but not enough to afford child care. So what do you do?

No 22-inch rims, no blasting stereo. Just an infant and a toddler who need care and feeding. You estranged your parents marrying the evaporated love of your life (whom they disliked). Your old friends from college want to help, but they’re broke and they’re busy and you’re so ashamed that you quickly find ways to lose touch with them.

I don’t have to guess at this. I watched it happen. So, Mr. Evans or fictional 21-year-old Female, it’s wonderful that you’d want to find this young woman a job. But who’s going to take care of her children while she’s at work?

Before you write that I’ve violated someone’s rights, realize that all of the above is voluntary. If you want our money, accept our rules. Before you say that this would be “demeaning” and ruin their “self-esteem,” consider that it wasn’t that long ago that taking someone else’s money for doing absolutely nothing was demeaning and lowered self-esteem. If we are expected to pay for other people’s mistakes we should at least attempt to make them learn from their bad choices. The current system rewards them for continuing to make bad choices.

Ah, “bad choices.” Take drugs and join a gang, or get a job and go to college. Act like a slut and get pregnant, or delay sexual gratification and get married. Those are the “choices” that generally get bandied about in these sorts of discussions.

When I was an undergraduate, I worked as a university employed tutor. (For spending money, because my parents were paying for me to go to school. That “luck” thing that people like Mr. Evans don’t talk about much, again.) I taught English to disadvantaged and at-risk students who were in danger of flunking out of college if their composition skills didn’t improve. The students were mostly Hispanic and the chair of the Latin American studies department, who had pulled herself out of a similar situation and had a heavy personal investment in their success, often dropped by. One thing led to another and I found myself, when she had to be gone for a few days, teaching one of her classes.

Here’s something I learned about “choices.” One of the girls mentioned that her parents didn’t really understand the concept of studying. She had several younger brothers and sisters, her parents both worked several jobs, and there were things to be done at home. The time she took out to attend classes was selfish enough – how could she demand more time for just sitting and reading books?

A seed of a suspicion began to grow in my mind. I asked for a show of hands: “If you had an exam and your mother scheduled a doctor’s appointment for your little sister at the same time, how many of you would skip the test?”

Fully two-thirds of the class raised their hands. I sighed heavily. “You know that not every professor is going to be sympathetic to that. They’ll say you should have rescheduled the appointment, if they’re willing to listen to you at all. You’ll fail the test. Do that enough, and you’ll fail college. This is your chance for a different life. You need to think hard about the choices you’re making.”

A timid male voice spoke out from the middle of the classroom. “But it’s my family. I can’t just ignore them. I can’t say a piece of paper is more important than my sister.”

I could tell them that this apparent “selfishness” was only short term, that in the end they could do far more for their parents and their sisters and brothers with that piece of paper than doing the grocery shopping here, the drive to the doctor there. But after a lifetime of hearing the opposite, what was my one, privileged voice? My father, my brothers and I had a car apiece, not one split between all of us, and that one barely functioning. My college time took precedence over everything.

Every semester I lost a few of them. To the inexorable demands of parents who couldn’t envision keeping their family’s head above water without their adult child’s contributions, right now. To the scorn of teachers past, too many years spent hearing, “You’re stupid, you’ll never make anything of yourself,” drowning out my one small voice saying, “Just write this sentence, and the next one. Then we’ll worry about paragraphs, then essays. You can do this.”

When they left college, I knew with a dread certainty that they were walking out to the margins of society, where choice shrinks to the vanishing point and a small patch of bad luck means catastrophe. And there’s no one to help, because the people they know are barely treading water themselves. This is a life I’ve never experienced, and I admit I hope I never do. But I’m not going to close my eyes and pretend that it’s not out there, that every misfortune can be explained away by selfishness, laziness, or stupidity.

AND While you are on Gov’t subsistence, you no longer can VOTE! Yes, that is correct. For you to vote would be a conflict of interest. You will voluntarily remove yourself from voting while you are receiving a Gov’t welfare check. If you want to vote, then get a job.

To be fair to Mr. Evans, this paragraph was added by some zealous, anonymous promoter of his ideas, and being a self-avowed strict Constitutionalist he was displeased to see it. But it doesn’t seem like all that large an intuitive leap from his sentiments to these. Deprive a person of their dignity (Evans was also a fan of making unannounced home inspections to strip people of their TVs and Xboxes, and random drug testing to qualify for Medicaid), and depriving them of their civil rights comes almost naturally. Over and over again he suggests that individuals on public assistance need to be told what to eat, what to buy, where to work, how to keep their rooms clean. Treated like children, in other words – and we don’t allow children to vote.

It’s instructive to Google the phrase “poverty as a moral failing.” What you’ll find is two very different sentiments coming largely, I suspect, from opposite ends of the political spectrum. One side says, in agreement with Mr. Evans, that the poor cause their own poverty, the other that society must shoulder some of the blame.

It’s a simpler world, when misfortune is the fault of the unfortunate. Phrases like “lazy,” “scamming,” “shiftless” trip pleasantly off an indignant tongue and make it easy to advocate draconian restrictions not dissimilar to the ones we place on felons in prison. If you’re living a clean life, you shouldn’t mind the drug testing, the home inspections, the bags of rice and beans with nary a vegetable – or occasional treat – in sight. But people who are struggling to recover from an impoverished upbringing, a substandard education, of making the mistake of following their hearts rather than their heads and finding themselves abandoned in deep water, their sense of self worth damaged and their prospects few? Is that what they deserve from those of us who were lucky enough to be better off?

Maybe you don’t want to hit them with a hammer when they’re already down.

Author: lorraine

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