What is in someone’s shopping basket is none of your goddamned business: The politics of welfare

A cousin of mine posted this on facebook:

I looked at it, sighed, considered ignoring it… Yeah, no, not going to happen. Here’s some of what came out of her post:

So wrongheaded. This is going around. Having been a welfare mom, and now being a taxpayer, I have Opinions on the subject.

1. Florida tried it. 98% of welfare recipients were not taking drugs.
2. It cost them 179 million dollars to find that out… the amount of welfare they ended up not giving out was a tiny, tiny fraction of that amount.
3. Florida required people to pay for the pee test up front. It was about $50. When I went on welfare, I did not have $50. I did not have one dollar. I could not have gotten help from welfare, not because I was on drugs, but because I couldn’t have afforded to take a drug test for it.
4. Be very, very thankful your life is so blessed that you have not had to have this “help” from society. Because let me tell you, it is demoralizing enough to be dumped at 7 months pregnant by the “love of your life” and have to go on welfare to survive until you are back on your feet enough to get a job… it’s worse when people who do not understand what it means to be that poor sit back and judge you and call you names and make assumptions and nitpick every damn thing you do because it’s “Their money”.

You know what? I’ve paid back in more than I ever took out. And you know what else? If a single mama needs help, I really WANT her to have my tax money to get that help. Because I’d rather it help a mama get back on her feet than underwrite a corporation or a bank… because trust me, THOSE assholes don’t have to take their pee tests to get the government money.

Someone griped that not all people working in finance were assholes.

My response: “I didn’t say that people who worked in finance were assholes. I said banks and corporations were assholes, which may be overgeneralizing, but if people behaved the way the finance industry behaved, they’d be called assholes. And we’re told that corporations are people, ergo…”

“And I can guarantee that no corporation has been asked to take a pee test before getting government money.”

Someone pointed out that food stamps are relatively easy to get and use of food stamps has mushroomed in recent years. To which I responded:

Food stamps has a relatively low bar to clear to receive assistance, unlike TANF (temporary aid to needy families, which has a 5-year LIFETIME cap on receiving benefits, is what was once called welfare). TANF has many, many requirements and lifetime limitations, food stamps is mostly income-based. Food stamps are less loathsome to many people because they do not allow the recipient to purchase alcohol or cigarettes. they also don’t allow the recipient to purchase toilet paper or soap. When the economy tanked, you’d expect more people to end up on welfare, but in fact the # has decreased if anything. Food stamp usage has soared because it’s easier to get them (as it should be). I was on welfare from 1993-1996, during which time I did training, volunteer work and escaped a toxic relationship. I got the works, food stamps, housing, welfare, medicaid, child care subsidy. What this meant was that I was able to afford a very modest 2-bedroom townhouse in the poorer parts of town. I was able to get training because I had childcare to do so. I was able to go to the doctor when we were sick. I fed my child.

The first thing I worked my way off of was welfare. My daughter was 3. We still had food stamps and medicaid and child care subsidy, as well as housing. Food stamps went next, as my working hours increased. Medicaid went later.. that was hard, I couldnt’ afford insurance, got sick, ended up being on a very reduced work schedule until I qualified for medicaid again. We mostly ate with my parents during that 9 weeks. Once I was able to go to the doctor, I got better quickly on antibiotics, and I made the case with my employer that if they wanted me to be able to come to work on a regular basis, they really ought to provide health insurance. My productivity increased dramatically when I had “real” insurance, as at that point antihistimines that were non-sedating were all prescription, and my constant allergies were making me get sick all the time, but medicaid would not pay for antihistimines at all in Oregon. (They would pay for antibiotics, so i would get sick a lot and get better reasonably quickly, but I stopped getting sick constantly when I was able to go on antihistimines.)

I got a raise, was able to work more hours, and my daughter started public school, which meant no more child care costs… My share of my rent payment went up, and I got on a program where a portion of the rent increases was put in an account that could be used, when I no longer needed assistance, to help me put a down payment on a house. I have been assistance-free for nearly 10 years, and since then have been paying property taxes, etc.

I had ONE baby on welfare (IIRC the majority of welfare recipients only have one child)… and decided not to have more until I was off of assistance.

I got married. My husband and I now pay more for health insurance in a month than I used to earn as a single parent. You don’t have to tell me the system is broken. It is. But there is a social benefit to providing help and opportunity to struggling families.

Someone mentioned the belief that poverty is “deserved”, the result of bad choices rather than bad luck. My response:

Oh, my stint on welfare was certainly the result of a poor choice… I got pregnant accidentally due to an odd conglomeration of circumstances with someone I thought was my life partner, and we were very, very young (21) and he wasn’t as interested in sticking around as he’d led me to believe. Which is a pretty common story. My choice was to refuse to move out of an apartment which was becoming toxic for me and my child, or to go on welfare. This is probably THE most common reason women end up on welfare, a relationship ending, accidental pregnancy.

I happen to be of a mindset that I was not willing to have more than one child “on the system”, so I went so far as to spend years celibate rather than risk having another “welfare baby”. But having been in my share of stupid sexual situations, I don’t judge people who are less “lucky” at birth control. I have had one accidental pregnancy in my life despite being ridiculously intolerant of most forms of birth control (not morally intolerant, they just cause me problems). I’ve met born-again Christians who despite thinking premarital sex was a sin, would happily engage in it. I’ve met women who’ve gotten pregnant on the pill, with an IUD, while using NFP, while using condoms, even after a tubal. It happens.

Being unlucky in love or unlucky at work or making foolish choices or acting badly… the fact of the matter is that in my current situation, if I act badly or make poor choices about birth control, I have the resources to not have it overwhelm my life. But for poor women, with the increasing number of hurdles to things like abortion and birth control and access to help from the law or charities regarding domestic violence, the simultaneous attacks on welfare and other social services become a deluge of hatred toward poor women. People may think of it as “helping people be less dependent” but it looks to me more like bullying. Calling it a war on women may sound like hyperbole, until you look at how utterly devastating it would be for poor women were the right wing agenda to succeed fully.

I see this sanctimonious attitude of “Well, if I need to get pee tested to go to work” (and usually work where there is some level of responsibility, where using drugs will likely affect the quality of output or the safety of others) “then you should get pee tested to get my money” (even though the majority of the people who have to get pee tested to go to work are NOT in fact paying the specific tax that is collected for welfare, and even though the amount of money in question is not enough to support a child, let alone a drug habit) as a wedge in the door. It makes sense, in a quid pro quo world. It’s hard to argue the “fairness” of it. But make no mistake… it is NOT an efficient use of funds. It helps no one. It harms a lot of people. And it’s aiming yet another attack at the people least able to defend themselves. The people most damaged by policies like these are children. Always. Period.


So ideas of privilege and entitlement started getting bandied around, and I said:

I learned about privilege in high school. I was standing at the bus and heard a boy say, “Damn” and a teacher nearby came down on him like a ton of bricks, gave him detention. He was a “stoner” and one of the “bad kids” but I knew as an honors student that I’d said way worse in conversations *with* teachers and never once gotten in trouble for it. As an experiment, I skipped a class, went off campus, bought lunch at a fast food restaurant, came back on campus, sat down in the middle of the quad, and ate it during a class where NO students have lunch.

Five or six teachers passed by, and each smiled and said hi to me, not one questioning my right to be there, where no student should be, eating lunch when no student should be eating lunch. When I was done, I went to the counselor’s office and said, “I didn’t feel like going to class, can I get it excused?”

She gave me a note without a second thought.

THAT, my friends, is privilege. And it is a clear example of how the same actions do not get the same consequences if society perceives you one way or another. I was a lawyer’s kid. I was an honors student. The teachers liked me. So I could get away with things that would have gotten other kids suspended. I didn’t abuse the privilege much, but there were others who did. And my perception is that it was extremely unusual that I even noticed it existed. The teachers did not even know they were doing it.

Then in another thread someone asked what the difference is between privilege and entitlement, and I said:

Entitlement says, “Because I am who I am, the world owes me X.” HOWEVER… there are things people ARE entitled to. Should be entitled to. Have every right to be entitled to. Children are entitled to have a safe place to live, enough food to eat, warmth, love and education. Old people are entitled to have society support them at a a basic level with social security and medical care. People who work and pay into the worker’s compensation system are entitled to have their work-related injuries treated and to have their lost income replaced.

So the radical right thinks that “entitlement” is a bad thing, all the while ranting because they think they are “entitled” to have their religion dictate public policy.

It means two different things, which get thrown around interchangably.

I am of the mind that no one is entitled to force their religion down anyone else’s throat (and the constitution agrees with me) and that we as a society are obligated to support each other at some basic level.

It is privilege that my whole life, if I needed medicine, someone in my larger circle was able to get it for me. Today I bought a friend some ibuprofen because she had none and no means to go get any, and no family worth mentioning to fall back on to help her.

In practical terms, “Entitlement programs” are programs that ANYONE can get if they fit the definition of “a person who should receive help from X program.” So anyone over 65 (or whatever the age is now) is ENTITLED to medicare, to social security. For a comparison, food stamps is an entitlement program. Section 8 housing assistance is NOT. There are waiting lists for section 8 that go for YEARS and do not open up, but there is no waiting list for food stamps. Which is why we have more homeless than hungry in our society.

*I consider people homeless or functionally homeless in this case who cannot afford to have a home of their own by choice, including people who live with friends or relatives because they cannot afford to live on their own when they would otherwise choose to do so. I rented a room I shared with my daughter for years before I got Section 8 and could move into my own place. I do not judge the living situation, I’ve done it, but there are far more people in my experience who have trouble affording a place of their own than there are people who actually spend a significant amount of each month hungry.

And entitlement abuse is a concept whereby someone gets access to an entitlement program through fraud or deceptive means. We already have many laws about such things. Trust me, being on welfare sucks. It is not a lot of money. If someone can’t find a way to live without the support of SSI or welfare, feeling “jealous” that they are getting free money is like being jealous of a bum for his cardboard box. Because that’s all they have. I worked my way off of welfare because it SUCKED. Because working gave me more money and gave my daughter more resources and us a better life. If someone is so bad off that they don’t work and require state assistance, I feel pity and compassion and I do not judge whether they’re “doing it right” or not.

Let me make this clear… if you see someone in the grocery store buying things with food stamps, it is NOT YOUR BUSINESS or place to look into their cart, to judge what they are buying. SO WHAT if they are buying soda? They may have a sick kid at home who can’t keep anything else down right now. SO WHAT if they are buying ready-prepared foods? You don’t know if they have access to a stove or not. SO WHAT if they spend all their food stamp money on chips? When it’s gone, it’s gone. The place to fix those problems is in voluntary education. Which I do all the time, teaching people how to cook. There were times on food stamps where I bought treats with food stamps. Do you really begrudge a mom the ability to buy her kid an ice cream once in a while? Pizza? If I managed my food stamp money so that we had a little extra to buy a take and bake pizza…. GOOD FOR ME. Sometimes we ate really cheap food or mooched off my parents for a while so there would be a little extra so I could buy the makings of a cake for my kid for her birthday. The point is that people think of it as “abuse” to buy foods they would not buy themselves or which are not healthy with food stamps. What it is? Is none of their business. It’s not like people get more money if they buy chips.

Then someone said, “But I see people buying stuff with food stamps who are better dressed than I am! How can I not judge?”

I answered:
You don’t know how they got the clothes they’re wearing. A bunch of mamas in my area just got REALLY expensive baby carriers gifted to them. Because they know me, and I know a manufacturer who wanted to donate them somewhere they’d be used and loved. I used to buy my kid very nice clothes… second hand. Or we’d get them handed down or as gifts. You really don’t know. You don’t.

I’m not saying there aren’t people who don’t use their money efficiently. But there are people who look very middle class who are drowning in debt because they have spent money they don’t have on “looking” affluent when they’re not. You judge them because they have evidence of poverty: food stamps. But are you judging the people who are 100k in debt and buying their groceries with a visa card they may or may not ever pay off?

The only real difference is that if someone shows up with an Oregon Trail card or other food benefit card, you know they’re poor, so you judge. They pay with a Visa card, you have no idea.

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