Lately, I've noticed on Facebook some memes that assail welfare cheats. Here's three of them ...
All three communicate the same message: People on food stamps and other forms of welfare are cheaters--and, by implication, the rest of us are fools for supporting them, and the government is wasting our money on them. Oh, and they don't want to work--and why should they? Life on welfare being so desirable and all?
Okay, let's begin with this: I have no doubt whatsoever that there are some people on public assistance who are gaming the system. Cheating. No question at all.
But, of course, the same could be said for every other field of human endeavor, as well--from the Tour de France to the top of a Wall Street office building, from your local parish to your local school, from the banker to the grocer to the lawyer to the person who plows your driveway to Major League Baseball to ... well, as I said, to every field of human endeavor. And I wonder ... how many of us are, uh, perfectly frank on our IRS forms? And elsewhere in our lives? (I read somewhere something about throwing the first stone?) Just this morning (Sunday) I read a page-one story in the New York Times about con men (and women, presumably) who are preying on people re: Obamacare--conning them out of money (Con Men Prey on Confusion). And that foul practice made me remember how some Evil One on a Telephone swindled my poor mother out of $10,000 a few years ago. Sometimes we humans do not exactly glisten in the moral sunlight, do we?
In my own cherished profession (education)--we read about cheating all the time. Teachers who alter answer sheets on standardized tests, teachers who step over the line in other ways (drugs, sex), teachers who embezzle and steal. Early in my career one of my colleagues was caught stealing money from school activities. He'd always volunteered to collect money at events--that sort of thing. But he was keeping chunks of it. Gambling. (Losing, of course.) Needless to say, he moved on.
What troubles me recently is the response to all of this. When we catch someone on public assistance doing something dishonest, a common reaction is this: Let's get rid of public assistance. But does anyone say the same about MLB? Some players took illegal substances, so let's break up MLB? Or the Roman Catholic Church? Or the Tour de France? Or Penn State? Or whatever? And we mustn't kid ourselves: These organizations are not totally self-financed. Many baseball parks are built with public money; religious and philanthropic organizations can raise money, tax-free. And, of course, all American institutions have the "American advantage"--i.e., they operate, generally, in a safe place with substantial infrastructure in a society with a functioning legal system that (at least in theory!) protects the rights of minorities, the defenseless. And on and on. This is a great place to live--to have a business. No question.
Of course we need to do all we reasonably can to prevent cheating--in all arenas. But we mustn't become so determined to do so that, in the process, we make it even more difficult for those living day to day, meal to meal, to get the benefits they need.
I did some checking. SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) offers $4.38 a day per person. At our local market the other day I spent more than that on a single container of blueberries, another of strawberries. I can't imagine trying to eat on that amount each day. Other government programs are equally chary. No one's eating like royalty on SNAP; no one's getting rich on welfare--despite some memes and some public perception and some grotesque misrepresentations.
Yet for some reason many people insist on looking at welfare cheaters and insisting that they are representative of the group(s) they belong to. I don't think so--at least not any more than cheaters in other enterprises are representative of their groups. Are all/most priests pedophiles? Are most baseball players taking illegal substances? Do most teachers have illicit relationships with their students? Are most lawyers charlatans? Most businessmen and -women dishonest? Are most people on public assistance cheating? No way.
I've never been poor. I have been extraordinarily lucky. My parents never lost their jobs in my lifetime. (And, of course, the government supported them both after retirement--Social Security, Medicare, my dad's Air Force retirement plan; they both collected far, far more in benefits than they contributed. Mom, 94, is still collecting--more than thirty years after she retired.) Not only that ... I am male, white, Christian, English-speaking, straight, reasonably intelligent (thank you, Dyer and Osborn genes), and living in America; my parents stayed married for sixty years, valued education, taught us humane values. Etc., etc., etc. (How's that for a head start down the Track of Life?)
The closest I ever came to poverty was during my first few years of teaching 7th grade in Aurora, Ohio. That first year (1966-67), I was paid on the first and the fifteenth of each month: $168.42 take-home. My rent was $75 (utilities were extra); my car payment was $60.62. Gasoline. Telephone. Clothing. Oh, and, you know, food? I had no health insurance, no dental. By the end of each two-week period, my poor checkbook registered only cents in my account. I had no spare cash for movies or plays or evenings out or anything else, for that matter. By the end of each pay period I was eating baked potatoes and peanut butter. Or Kraft Dinner. My entertainment? An old black-and-white TV (rabbit ears) that my parents had left for me--I had to bang on it sometimes to get the picture to clear up. My living room "furniture"? Some old lawn pieces (aluminum frame) my parents had decided to leave behind when they moved to Iowa in the summer of 1966. Comfy--though it left marks!
Yes, I had a job. (A job I loved, by the way.) But I had no discretionary money, none at all. And much of the time--when I allowed myself to think about it--I was depressed. Fortunately, there were a couple of families in Aurora--the Frenches, the Bissells--who were especially alert to my situation and often invited me to meals. Sometimes I even started showing up at the Frenches' at meal time--on an important errand, mind you!--and feigned surprise (and felt weepy gratitude) when they offered to feed me. Some of my colleagues were also generous with their kitchens--especially Eileen Kutinsky.
But here is a big difference between my case and the cases of many others who find themselves wondering how to buy their food: I had somewhere to go, someone to ask. I knew that if I became especially desperate, I could call home, and Mom and Dad would help me out. (In fact, my parents made the down payment on my first car, paid my first month's rent.) I did it only once that first year--calling home for $20, which came in the mail a few days later. I also knew that if I lost my job, I could just go home and live (and eat!) until I found another position. Very few of our most impoverished fellow citizens have those sorts of options, do they?
And one more thing to think about. Many people living on public assistance of various sorts are folks who live in dangerous communities, folks whose children attend some of the worst public schools in the country, folks who live in areas where there are few employment opportunities, folks who have not been able to figure a way out of the cycle of poverty afflicting their families. Many are working full-time; many have more than one job. But they are McJobs--low salary, few or no benefits. I admire such people; they humble me, make me enormously grateful. And never angry.
As for me, I'm proud that I live in a country with a government that asks me to help my fellow citizens. (Remember: Our Constitution includes in its preamble the phrase that we are forming a government, among other reasons, "to promote the general welfare." We Americans have always believed in helping one another--in non-governmental ways, sure (religious and philanthropic organizations) and in governmental ones. It's right there in the Preamble.
Of course I want to make sure that people don't cheat--in public assistance and in every other arena. But--as I said above--I don't want to do so in such a way that it's going to make things more difficult for people who already face fierce difficulties. If we overreact, if we make stopping cheaters our first priority, we join the ranks of the cheaters ourselves: We are cheating the very people who need us the most.
And as for those memes above? I guess I'd urge us all to be a little more humble, more empathetic, more grateful. I hope we'd all exercise our imaginations a little more. Imagine that you weren't born with the advantages you have? Imagine that you and your children had to attend the worst public schools in the country? Imagine that the only job you can find is a McJob? Imagine that your race or gender or religion or language or sexual orientation or whatever alienates or angers or disgusts the very people who are in a position to help you? Imagine that ...
As I said, I saw this bumper sticker yesterday. It made sense to me. I think I'll purr for the rest of the day ... and for as long as my breath endures.