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The Myth of the Welfare Queen II

December 3, 2012

As well-paid legislators negotiate the impending fiscal cliff, I have been spending my free time reading Fire in the Ashes by Jonothan Kozol.  It is a follow-up to Amazing Grace, in which Kozol documents the lives of the poorest of New York City’s poor.  This afternoon, I read the story of Pietro, a former maintenance worker whose life turned upside down when his wife was murdered.  Having been emotionally traumatized by the loss of his wife, he subsequently lost his job and ended up in a homeless “hotel”–a sort of semi-permanent shelter designed to keep the homeless population out of sight and out of mind.

Pietro and his three children–two little girls and a ten-year-old boy–eventually landed a more permanent housing situation and Pietro secured a part-time job.  His wages, however, were not sufficient to pay for rent, utilities, and food so he didn’t report them, fearing the loss of his food stamps.  Since he was receiving state assistance, a social worker periodically visited his house.  She was unhappy when she discovered that Pietro had adopted three stray kittens and a duck as pets for his children.  The following passage about her visit broke my heart:

“Pietro had come back from work by the time that we returned.  He scooped up the smallest of the kittens and held it on his lap while we sat down to talk.  Miranda and the little boy took the duck into the bedroom with them while her father talked to me about a problem he was having with his welfare worker, who had told him that she thought it was extravagant for them to keep so many cats.

“‘You haven’t got enough to feed yoruself,’ she said.  ‘That’s why we give you food stamps.  Do you think your food stamps are supposed to feed your cats?’

“‘I know,’ he said, ‘it seems a little crazy for us to keep a duck in the apartment.  But the children love him, and the neighborhood is so depressing and they have so little.  I just want them to remember that they’re children…

“‘We feed the cats a little milk.  I bought some cornmeal for the duck.  It only cost three dollars and it lasts about two months.  We don’t have a TV.  So it’s something to distract them.”

Pietro’s story reminded me of a similar one told to me by a professor of mine in college.  She asked our class to discuss whether we thought it was right or wrong for a mother on welfare to purchase a PlayStation for her son when they could barely afford rent and other necessities.  Most of us agreed it wasn’t right for her to spend her money on such luxuries–until our professor told us that she had bought the PlayStation to keep her son off the streets so that he didn’t get involved in gangs while she was fulfilling her mandatory welfare-to-work hours in the afternoons.  My classmates and I felt ashamed for judging her purchase as irresponsible upon reconsidering her situation.

What are parents to do in such situations?  What are they to do when they can’t find jobs that pay enough to provide for their children?  Welfare is not a long-term solution to the problems of poverty that persist in our country, but until we and our legislators do develop a long-term solution, reducing social programs will push hundreds of thousands of families from precarious situations into dire ones.  It is repugnant to me that the Republican party is refusing to raise taxes on the wealthy and would instead pull the rug from underneath America’s poorest parents and children.  Raising taxes on the wealthy in and of itself won’t avert the looming crisis but it is one of the least painful options to include in comprehensive budget reform.

Wealthy people may become wealthy through hard work, but it is not their sweat and blood alone that makes them wealthy–it is also that of the people who work for them, right down to the janitors who likely have trouble making ends meet even on a full-time work schedule.  It isn’t so much hard work as it is the luck of the draw that enables some people to put in a 40-hour work week and make millions while others put in 40-hour workweeks and make minimum wage.  I wish our country didn’t have to legislate (a.k.a. mandate) that the rich contribute more of their wealth to society, but if that’s the only way to get those with millions to share the wealth, I’m all for it.  Even with higher taxes, they’ll still have plenty left over to keep their businesses running and to keep at least one extra vacation home.  Goodness forbid they have to let go of that gorgeous, expansive property in the mountains–the one on which they probably don’t let in-state residents hunt or fish.

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One Comment
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