It may be cheating a little, but I'm going to post something I wrote last December. I'd been laid off from a good job for about a month and a half, and was trying to figure out how I was going to provide Christmas to my kids on a much, much tighter budget than I'd ever had to deal with before. I had not yet resolved my emotions about being jobless for the first time in almost 3 decades of being in the workforce when I saw this post by Christine Rousselle. I posted the following rant on my Facebook page, to which I limit access. But even though it's several months past the original moment of irritated inspiration, I figure it's worth putting out there. I will warn you: it's long.
I recently read a blog post from a college student by the name of Christine Rouselle that called for welfare reform. Given that it was published on www.thecollegeconservative.com, I really should’ve known what I was getting… but I read it. It began:
During the 2010 and 2011 summers, I was a cashier at Wal-Mart #1788 in Scarborough, Maine. I spent hours upon hours toiling away at a register, scanning, bagging, and dealing with questionable clientele.So here I was, at the second sentence — second! — and I was already pissed off. You see, I shop at that Walmart store in Scarborough, and without ever meeting me (to my knowledge, I’ve never gone through her lane), she’d already branded me as “questionable.” Honey… I am as stand-up, straight-arrow, middle-class taxpaying American as they come. Moreover, I’ve also done cashier work. I’ve scanned, and I’ve bagged, and I’ve dealt with the public, questionable and otherwise (mostly otherwise, since I do not tend toward that sort of snap judgmentalism). With all due respect to Ms. Rouselle’s sensibilities, cashier duty at Walmart isn’t toil. It’s boring, yes. Frustrating, doubtless. Occasionally irritating? Well, clearly, any time you deal with the public — particularly a public you brand as “questionable” just for walking in the door to your workplace — it can be, on occasion, irritating. But toil? I reserve that word for hard work. The kind, for example, that my husband does every day taking care of our farm animals. You know — lift that bale of hay, tote that bag of grain, shovel 50 or 60 pounds of fresh horse shit. Which, I can see from her writing, is something with which Ms. Rouselle has more than a passing acquaintance.
So to be clear, having been offended and annoyed within 30 seconds of starting to read, I may have become a wee bit biased against Ms. Rouselle’s message. And by the time I finished her lovely little missive, I wasn’t exactly in love with it… although there are bits of it that do make sense. Unfortunately, the parts that have value are lost in a sea of contempt, judgment, ignorance, and utter lack of comprehension of what it means to live in poverty.
What I didn’t expect to be part of my job at Wal-Mart was to witness massive amounts of welfare fraud and abuse.Now, I’m a professional editor, and my main focus is science. In scientific writing, the selection of words must be done with great care because it’s very important to be precise. “Massive amounts” is not a precise term. It’s a sweeping generalization. It’s subjective. As are her conclusions. Ms. Rouselle, as a cashier, witnessed thousands of transactions. She may have even witnessed thousands of transactions by people who receive state benefits. But she only noticed those transactions in which people used those benefits to obtain goods that, in her judgment, they should not have. When you observe 1000 transactions but note five that are questionable, then approximately 0.5% of the transactions are problematic. But when you notice five transactions, and all five are questionable, then in your mind, 100% of the transactions are problematic. Now, 0.5% is not a massive amount, but 100% is — so I can see why she feels welfare fraud is rampant. But, without systematic observations and recording of said observations (which she did not do, at least not that she reports), her claim is utterly without validity. She can neither prove what she says happened did happen, nor show that it happens regularly.
I witnessed generations of families all relying on the state to buy food and other items.Really, Ms Rouselle? Did you see (say) an older man accompanying a younger woman with children? Did you ask them, “Are you all related?” Did you query the older man as to whether both he and his younger companions were on welfare? Did you do any sort of demographic inquiries? I would hazard a guess that the answer is “no” to that question, since presumably your supervisor would’ve had something to say about it if you’d been interrogating the “questionable” clientele. So in other words, you assumed that you were witnessing multigenerational dependency. Which, I daresay, was what you expected to see. Did it ever occur to you that multiple generations of people do often live together, or even shop together? Did it ever occur to you to wonder why a parent living in poverty might have children who also live in poverty? Indeed, did it ever occur to you to think that perhaps families are trapped in the cycle of poverty, rather than staying there voluntarily as you appear to assume?
Here’s a statistic for you: Of people who never graduated high school, 9 in 10 have never earned more than $40,000.00. Moreover, multiple studies have shown that children usually achieve the same level of education as their parents, but do not exceed that level unless they have support and/or pressure from parents/family to do so. That means that the children of parents who did not graduate high school go on to college significantly less often than the children of college grads. Not necessarily because they don’t want to, but because they often don’t have the tools they need — whether that be study habits, familial support, financial capacity, or simply, role models. So any intergenerational continuity of dependence may not necessarily be a product of children learning to accept that this is the right way to live — it may actually be a product of the fact that it’s difficult for children to surpass their parents’ education level and, therefore, their wage capacity.
It may also interest you to know that wages have remained stagnant for the past 30 years, while costs of living — particularly with respect to higher education — have risen substantially. Here’s a personal example: when I got my BA in 1988, the total cost of my education was about $35,000. I left school $12,000.00 in debt, having paid for most of the fees myself out of money I’d saved working as a teenager (plus some help from my grandfather and various scholarship programs). A four-year education at that same school now costs five times as much. The $10,000.00 I saved during my high school summer jobs would now barely pay for half of one semester. In the meantime, minimum wage (which is what I was making when I worked during high school) has slightly more than doubled in the intervening years. Were I a high school student in 2011 making minimum wage working 40 hours a week during the summer, I might be able to bring home and save about $4000 in a summer, and if I were lucky, that would give me about $16,000.00 total to take with me to college. Now look at the disparity: 30 years ago, I worked 4 years in a row and brought home about 63% of the potential earnings of a high school kid doing summer jobs four years running now. But my college costs in the 1980s were approximately 20% of what an education at the same school would cost now. If you need help with the math, I'm happy to offer it: my college education costs 5 times what it used to, but the earning capacity of a teen hasn't yet doubled — in the same period of time. So it's more expensive to get an education, but more difficult to earn the money to pay for it. Still with me?
We could argue till we’re blue in the face as to why education costs have outstripped earnings by so much, but the basic outcome of the difference is that fewer people can afford an education of this kind, which means fewer people have the ability to earn the kind of money it takes to make it without assistance. And, just as a matter of information... even having a college education doesn't guarantee the kind of money it takes to make it without assistance. Especially in an economic downturn of this magnitude. Ask me, go on ask me, how I know this.
Ms Rouselle, you’re single and a college student. I am not going to make the mistake of assuming that you’re supported entirely by your parents. But being single and not having children is a great deal cheaper than having a family. When I was a single college student, I could live on $600 a month. Yes, that was 20 years ago, when food, gas, and housing were all cheaper. But even today, the $1500 (roughly) per month I’ve been offered in unemployment benefits would be enough for me to live on, barely, if I didn’t have kids or a spouse. Yeah, I’d have to find an apartment and probably a roommate or three. Yeah, I wouldn’t be able to drive my car anywhere except the grocery store. Yeah, I’d likely have to live on pasta and tea, as I did in grad school. But I could cover my bills. With the accoutrements of middle age — house, kids, and medical expenses — state aid is not enough to live on. Not even close. Even with my housing, medical, heat, electric and food expenses paid for, you still need transportation, child care, clothing, telephones, cooking utensils, etc. So for you to assume, based on a few anecdotal observations, that many families (or even the ones you saw!) are “living high” on welfare simply does not compute. It is not financially possible to live expensively on state aid. Although, having never tried to support a family yourself, you may simply not know that.
I literally witnessed small children asking their mothers if they could borrow their EBT cards.
So what? My kids ask to borrow everything from car keys to credit cards. And sometimes, I even give them what they ask for. That doesn’t mean I let them drive or buy electronics with them. Do you have kids? Have you ever gone shopping with small children? As a mother of two small, very active boys, I can tell you that by the time I reach the checkout line, I’m ready to give them my keys, my wallet, even my pocket knife if it will Just. Keep. Them. Locked. Down… for the few minutes my attention needs to be elsewhere. [I’m kidding about the pocket knife.]
I once had a man show me his welfare card for an ID to buy alcohol. The man was from Massachusetts. Governor Michael Dukakis’ signature was on his welfare card. Dukakis’ last gubernatorial term ended in January of 1991. I was born in June of 1991. The man had been on welfare my entire life. That’s not how welfare was intended, but sadly, it is what it has become.One customer flashing a 20-year-old, out-of-state ID does not a systemic problem make. You’re making the classic mistake of assuming that what you saw is common — representative, in other words, of an entire population. I guarantee you that it isn’t. This is not to say welfare cheats don't exist. I've known a few people who work the system and make a life out of doing so. [Trust me — these are not people I call friends, and I would be happier today if they were not impinging on my existence.] None of the people I know who live this way live well. They barely scrape by. In fact, they work harder (in my opinion) trying to leech off the system than they would if they got a job. But for a variety of reasons, working is beyond their capacity. Some of those reasons (health/mental health issues) I sympathize with. Others (laziness, a sense of entitlement) I don't. But none of the people I know who "leech" have just one issue going on. That's what makes it complicated. And it's one reason you should respond with compassion, rather than contempt, when you encounter someone like your 20-year welfare veteran. Because chances are excellent that he's got some serious karmic burdens to carry. Mental illness—a painful, wrenching, and debilitating condition for those unfortunate enough to lack appropriate treatment—being chief among them. (Ask yourself: do sane, reasonable, thoughtful people think they can get away with using a Dukakis-signed benefit ID in Maine? Generally, no.)
By the way… did you refuse the card? Just curious. Because, of course, one solution to the problem you “uncovered” of people using identification that isn’t valid is to not accept it.
Other things witnessed while working as a cashier included: a) People ignoring me on their iPhones while the state paid for their food. (For those of you keeping score at home, an iPhone is at least $200, and requires a data package of at least $25 a month. If a person can spend $25+ a month so they can watch YouTube 24/7, I don’t see why they can’t spend that money on food.)Here’s a heads up for you, dear. A lot of these people may have spent the money on their iPhone before losing their job and applying for benefits. It’s even possible, if you stretch your mind a bit, that they got the iPhone as a gift (which is how my stepson got his). And having obtained an iPhone, why on earth would someone stop using it simply because they’re on state aid? You, of course, are assuming that everyone using state aid who owns an iPhone is a “Welfare Queen” who spends a lifetime sucking at the public teat. Well, I lost my job recently. I am applying for benefits, and likely will get them. I'm not at all excited by this. I do not want to live off state benefits, even for a short period of time. Frankly, sitting in the DHHS office makes me feel ashamed. Like I failed in my duty to middle-class-edness by losing my job. Which I loved. Which I didn't lose due to any cause other than a bad economy.
On the other hand, I also do not expect to have to divest myself of my computer, my Kindle, my Wii, my cell phone, my house, and my clothes just so that I can fit your expectation of what a person on state benefits should look like. Particularly since my goal is to find another job soon—if I went out and got rid of all my belongings so that I could "look poor" in accordance with your definition, I would likely be limiting my chances of of getting a new job! So is it okay with you if I hang onto my MP3 player? Okay with you if I use it in public so I can resemble the elite, who you seem to think have a God-given right to own gadgetry? Your preconceived concept of how poverty should present itself does not allow for people to have gadgets — but it is very, very easy nowadays to go from gadget-owning middle class to gadget-owning poverty (ask me, do, how I know this.) Here's a phrase for you: "There but for the grace of God go I." Learn it. Live by it. Because 25 years from now, you could be standing in my shoes. The difference between us, honey, is that when I was 20 years old, I didn't go around mocking or deriding folks less fortunate than I. Nor did I blame them for being in difficult circumstances, or decide that the world should let them fall to into the abyss as punishment for being poor.
Just so you know, other possible uses of iPhones besides watching YouTube videos 'round the clock include monitoring blood glucose for diabetics, searching job boards for job opportunities, or checking the weather to see if one might need to spring for additional fuel oil in upcoming weeks. Were you looking at the phone when you decided they were watching videos? No? Then how do you know that’s what they were doing? Answer: you don’t. You were making assumptions. Not to mention judgments, and both were unfounded in anything other than your own prejudices. And even if some of these people occasionally were to view a video on YouTube on their phones, what business is it of yours? The state offers food stamps specifically so that people struggling to make ends meet don’t have to pay for food. Which means they can use it for other things. And yes… among those “other things” would be paying for an iPhone data package so they can continue to use their phone. Which, for many of us, has become essential part of working. I don’t use my phone for entertainment. Others do. Does that mean that they should immediately drop their service when they lose the job that pays for it? No. It doesn’t.
…Extravagant purchases made with food stamps; including, but not limited to: steaks, lobsters, and giant birthday cakes.Extravagant? What you’ve described here is food, and the purchase of food is the stated purpose of food stamps. I would not characterize any of these as everyday items, true, but you nowhere state that you saw the same person buying these same items on a daily basis using food stamps. Did it ever occur to you that even poor people have birthdays? Do you perhaps think that poor people should not be allowed to celebrate their birthdays? Might not a large family require a larger birthday cake — and be willing to spring for one, even if they have to use food stamps to get the cake, simply because they want to make one member of their family feel loved and appreciated? So who the hell are you to tell a family that they can’t give Grandpa a nice meal and a cake for his 80th, simply because they’re down on their luck?
As an aside, let me address that Slip'N'Slide that horrified you so. It costs $17.88 at Walmart (I looked it up). It's a child's toy, so most likely (I'm going out on a limb here) it was intended to entertain children. When you're living on limited funds, believe me... entertaining the children is KEY for parental sanity. Particularly when it's hot, and especially if you lack an air conditioner. And when you can't afford take them to FunTown SplashTown in the summer, a hose — and, yes, an $18 Slip'N'Slide — are the next best thing. What? You don't think poor children should have fun when that $18 could be paying for, oh I don't know... duct tape? Oh, I see. It might make them feel... entitled. Well, let me break it to you, Scrooge McDuck: even poor children are ENTITLED to a little fun. And as a Maine taxpayer, I don't think a parent paying $18 for a toy that will enable a child to have fun in the sun is a big problem. If the parent had bought a $200 Wii with TANF money, I'd have something else to say... but that's not what you reported.
A man who ran a hotdog stand on the pier in Portland, Maine used to come through my line. He would always discuss his hotdog stand and encourage me to “come visit him for lunch some day.” What would he buy? Hotdogs, buns, mustard, ketchup, etc. How would he pay for it? Food stamps. Either that man really likes hotdogs, or the state is paying for his business. Not okay.Again with the assumptions. Who knows? It’s likely that if he sells hotdogs and encourages you to come visit his hotdog stand, he really does like hotdogs that much. The point is, you’re convicting him on circumstantial evidence. There could easily be other explanations for what you see. The cardinal rule of any argument is check your facts. You do not have a factual knowledge that this man is committing fraud; only a suspicion based on your assumptions about his actions.
Let me play you a scenario. You’re in a grocery store. You see a woman with a small child; the child is fussing and crying, but the woman's attention is on what appears to be a cell phone in her hand. All at once, she makes a beeline for the juice aisle, grabs a package of juice boxes, tears them open, and gives one to her child, encouraging him to gulp it down. Based on what I’ve seen of your character through your writing, you’d peg that woman as a thief, as well as a bad mother who first ignores, then overindulges her child. You might even say to yourself, “That woman shouldn’t have a child in her care,” and alert the store manager to come arrest her for shoplifting. But what you couldn’t have known was that this woman’s child had juvenile diabetes. The “phone” in her hand was his blood glucose meter, which showed her that his blood glucose was dangerously low—and that’s why he was fussing. For one reason or another, this woman did not have her child’s emergency kit handy — it happens — so she did the best thing she could think of: got him a juice box as fast as possible. She did this not to indulge her child, but to save him from some of the dangerous effects of ultra-low blood glucose, which can include a seizure or a coma. And, contrary to your uninformed expectation, she had every intention of paying for the juice boxes. Having learned this, wouldn’t you feel kind of like an asshole for assuming the worst and blowing the whistle on her? You can avoid such mistakes by giving people the benefit of the doubt. [As the mother in that above scenario, I highly recommend it.]
The thing that disturbed me more than simple cases of fraud/abuse was the entitled nature of many of my customers.This is what’s commonly known as “the pot calling the kettle black.” You started your essay by referring to Walmart customers as questionable. Who the hell are you to speak of “entitled” attitudes when you’ve judged every single person in the store as subhuman simply because they’re shopping at Walmart? Would you make the same statement about the customers if you were manning a register at Kohl's? At Nordstrom's? Even... gasp... at Marshall's? There is a prevailing point of view among conservatives... and also among people whose opinions are founded in materialism... that people who shop at low-cost stores do so out of poverty, and that their poverty is a reflection of their character. Character and worth are not based on where you shop, what you buy, or what your income is — or even if you use state aid, whether temporarily or long term. Judge not, lest ye be judged in turn.
I understand the situation is stressful, but a person should be knowledgeable about how much money is in their account prior to going grocery shopping. EBT totals are printed on receipts, and every cell phone has a calculator function. There’s no excuse, and there’s no reason to yell at the cashier for it.Not everyone knows how to manage money. It’s a fact, and it’s one reason that we need education reform more than we need welfare reform. But if you’ve been working at Walmart for two years, you have been working long enough to know that also, some people just suck. Quit whining. Get over it. You’re going to encounter obnoxious people in life. Learn to deal with it. And, in case you were wondering, there is no correlation between poverty and rudeness. Just ask Alec Baldwin.
Maine has some of the highest rates in the nation for food stamp enrollment, Medicaid, and TANF. Nearly 30% of the state is on some form of welfare. Maine is the only state in the nation to rank in the top two for all three categories. This is peculiar, as Maine’s poverty rate isn’t even close to being the highest in the nation.The rate of welfare spending has nothing to do with the rate of poverty. The rate of welfare spending has everything to do with what the state’s legislature considers to be an appropriate standard of living for its people. The fact that Maine’s welfare spending is higher than that of poorer states reflects the belief by Maine’s electorate that Mainers should help Mainers live decently. Other states may not take issue with children and elderly people living in penury; our state does.
Another factor you’ve failed to consider: Maine has an older population than many other states. The proportion of persons age 65 and older in Maine is 15.9%, whereas the average for the rest of the US is 13%. Older people have more difficulty finding work, have greater frequency of health issues, are more likely to have mobility issues, and, unless they have family caregivers, may need more community interventions to assure health and quality of life. All of these things cost more.
In short, you have a very limited and ignorant perspective about the causes of Maine's high welfare spending. Commenting on it when you lack information is probably not a good idea — unless your goal is not about education, but rather is about promoting an ideologic agenda.
The system in Maine is far easier to get into than in other states, and it encourages dependency. When a person makes over the limit for benefits, they lose all benefits completely. There is no time limit and no motivation to actually get back to work.Faulty logic. You’re assuming that motivation to work is based purely on the need or desire for income, and that if you give people income, they won’t want or need to work, and that’s why they remain on unemployment. That simply is not true! People are motivated to apply for a job by many things—income is only one. Experience, skills, capabilities, and so forth all factor into why an individual might or might not seek a job. There can be a dozen sales job openings available, but if all of the people on the unemployment line lack sales experience, even if they wanted those jobs, they wouldn’t get them — and again, this goes back to the question of education. If we have an uneducated workforce with limited skill sets, yeah — we’re going to have a lot of people who can’t find work in the current economic climate. But also, if we lack a diverse economy with opportunities for people of varying skill levels, we’re still going to have a lot of people who can’t find work — even if they have skills.
There are other reasons why people seek work. Many people, contrary to your expectations, actually like to work. I'm one of them. Not having a job makes me nuts.
And as long as we're on the subject, signing up for benefits in Maine is not easy, at least not in my experience. I went to DHHS to sign up for MaineCare with a folder full of documents, only to find that I needed to obtain still more documents, which I must collect and bring back to them. Unemployment? I have to report every single penny I bring in, plus document applications to jobs every week. I have to file a claim weekly and answer a collection of questions. I have to attend a seminar on how to find work (something I already know how to do, by the way). To date, having been out of work now for six weeks, I have filled out an awful lot of papers and received a great many admonishments as to the fact that if I don't do this, that, or the other thing, I will not receive benefits. Ironically, in all this, I have yet to see one dime of the state's money. Which would be taxpayer money. Which would be money I paid into the system while I was working, and pray daily I will soon be able to contribute toward again. Not. One. Dime. My kids don't stop eating while I wait for benefits, in case you were wondering. The winter's cold doesn't suddenly vanish because my income has dwindled to nothing.
Furthermore, spending on welfare has increased dramatically, but there has been no reduction of the poverty rate.OK, so are you even on the same planet I’m on, never mind in the same state? What part of worst recession since the Great Depression are you having trouble understanding? The reason there has been no reduction in the poverty rate despite the increase in spending is that job losses and economic hardship are increasing faster than state benefits can keep up. And, I also have to question your expectation that increased welfare spending means reduced poverty. That's not what welfare is for. It's intended to ensure people don't starve as they try to get back on their feet — not to bring them above the poverty level. If that were the goal, we'd be... why, we'd be spending more on education! (See my above points for why I conclude that.) And, as I believe I already mentioned, it really isn't possible to obtain (or maintain) wealth while on state benefits. Don't believe me? Well, here's one tidbit for you: I am not eligible for MaineCare because I still have a few thousand bucks tucked away in my IRA. In order to be eligible, I will have to take all of my retirement savings out of the IRA (at a considerable tax hit) and spend it, thus impoverishing myself not only now, but in the future. So obtaining healthcare benefits from the state requires me to give up any hope I had of funding my own retirement. Which (the irony should not be lost on you) makes it that much more likely that I will need state benefits when I'm over 65, since I will no longer have what little was left of what, prior to the recession, was a healthy retirement fund, on track to keep me in comfort till I turned 100. Reminder: this was money I had worked for and saved — not a handout — that was lost not because of anything I did wrong, but because the business magnates on Wall Street chose to play Russian roulette with investors' money and lie about it.
Not to mention the fact that state income, itself, has declined as taxpayers’ income stagnates, so that benefits are being slashed to the point of elimination (MaineCare, particularly). You really need to take some economics classes; stating an expectation that poverty should go down with an increase in state spending during a catastrophic economy like this one is a pretty obvious clue that you have no understanding of the things on which you're commenting.
… the things I saw at work [are] indicators of a much larger problem.No, they’re not. Correlation doesn’t equal causation, and you haven’t even established correlation here. You’ve provided a few catchy anecdotes with no scientific basis. You have no evidence, so your conclusions are nothing more than opinion. And legislating based on opinion is foolish, possibly even criminally stupid.
Something must change before the state runs out of money funding welfare programs.Now that, I can agree with. Unfortunately, you’ve utterly failed to make the case that the problem at hand is welfare fraud. But I think I’ve made some points about education that are worth considering. Specifically:
• Income correlates to education level; therefore, if we want to help a populace move out of poverty, we need to offer education as well as financial assistance—because the former, not the latter, is going to offer the greatest benefit in the long term.
• Education is too expensive. We need to find ways to make it more broadly available. See the point above for why.
• Education needs to focus on critical thinking. I say this not because I think critical thinking skills will help reduce poverty (although it might actually help people get better jobs), but because the wide variety of unfounded assumptions expressed in the essay by Ms Rouselle shows a woeful lack of such skills. How much more useful would it be if instead of decrying the “questionable” customers at Scarborough Walmart in a venue bound to distribute her writing as “proof” supporting her/their conservative agenda, she took her experiences as a starting point for doing a serious, scientific inquiry into the uses and abuses of state support? Who knows — she might even find that her beliefs about people and how they respond in times of economic crisis are changed and challenged. It’s a little thing called personal growth. It’s to be recommended.
PS: Not to be excessively snarky, but Ms Rouselle, you do not work for Wal-Mart. You work for Walmart. They changed their branding in 2008 to get rid of that pesky hyphen & second cap combo. You can learn who you work for by looking at the walmart.com web site. Or, perhaps, by looking at the sign on the store front. With your careful eye for detail and strong sense of scientific curiosity, it's important that we get the story right in all respects... or we might find ourselves passing out mis(dis?)information.