Sunday, July 6, 2008

Do Unto Others...

I am behind on reading and commenting on journals; I've tried to catch up a bit today. Just because I didn't leave a comment, doesn't mean that I didn't stop by for a visit. I owe you a comment on the next trip.

I didn't plan to write an entry of my own today; I've been reading a really good book that my sister recommended, and my plan was to read a few journals, and get back to my book, 19 Minutes by Jodi Picoult. However, as I read journal entries and the comments that some engendered, I was struck by a recurrent theme, a willingness to give in to our pettier impulses, a rush to judgment of others, to assume that laziness, dishonesty, and lack of a willingness to work are what leave people impoverished or homeless or just without the basic necessities of life.

Don't get me wrong, I read much goodness and kindness in these journals too, but it's the judgmental observations that chill me. Far too many of us toss them off so casually, without even thinking about what our views do to others or what they do to and say about us.
Several comments that I read eagerly affirmed that people on public assistance spend their food stamps on cigarettes,T-bone steaks, and nonessential food items. I'm not certain what the nonessentials are.

There is also the Greek chorus chanting how people drive SUVs while collecting public assistance and live in public housing while driving Escalades. Then there are those who attest to witnessing the food stamp users who leave the grocery store with their beer and wearing Adidas and sagging pants, and then climb into their SUV. Clearly, the rest of us are missing out on a good thing. We should quit our jobs, sign up for public assistance, and live the high life.

When I first began my legal career, I worked for Legal Aid, which provides free legal assistance in certain areas of law to low-income persons. Some of my clients were facing things like eviction from housing or repossession of a vehicle. Others had been denied Medicaid, SSI, or some other federal or state assistance. Some had been fired and then the former employer tried to block them from receiving unemployment insurance benefits. Some owed money to hospitals for medical treatment and the hospitals creditors were threatening them with collection agencies. Legal Aid doesn't handle criminal cases, but I did represent women seeking 50B (civil protective orders in NC's courts) in domestic violence cases and I also did child custody cases. Most of my clients received public assistance of some sort and I learned a lot about the welfare system while I worked at Legal Aid.

I have no doubt that somewhere there is someone, maybe a few someones, who have figured out how to milk the welfare system for all that it's worth. Much like the top executives at Enron and other corporate businesses figured out how to rob people of their life savings. Criminal behavior doesn't always wear sagging pants, sometimes it wears business suits and white collars. However, the majority of people receiving public assistance of some sort are not living the lifestyle of the rich and famous.

You cannot use your food stamps to buy alcohol, tobacco products, pet food, or laundry, household and paper supplies. By the way, they are no longer food stamp coupons, it's an Electronic Benefit Card (EBT), which may be used to purchase food meant for human consumption, and plants and seeds for food production that are sold in a grocery store. The SUV dealership does not accept food stamps. If you are interested in how much your monthly food stamp allotment would be, click here.

If you detect anger in my post, then you are not imagining it. I'm not angry because some people think that those who are receiving public assistance are a bunch of miscreants who abuse the system, I'm angry because those misbegotten points of view actually impact the lives of the very real people whose survival depend on that public welfare system. Every person who believes the half truths of the Chicken Little clones who are constantly espousing myths and lies about the welfare benefits system makes very real decisions in voting for public officials at the federal, state, and local level. Those elected officials are the ones who decide what monies are allocated to what some call social benefits program; I prefer the term "survival programs."

During his administration, Ronald Reagan liked to tell of the Chicago Welfare Queen. According to Reagan, she had ripped off $150,000 from the government, using 80 aliases, 30 addresses, a dozen social security cards, and four fictional dead husbands. The country was outraged and the "Welfare Queen" driving her "Welfare Cadillac" became permanently lodged in American political folklore. What didn't get nearly as much attention was that the press attempted to track this "Welfare Queen" down only to discover that she didn't exist. The closest that they could come to a real, live welfare queen was a woman who had used two aliases and managed to collect $8,000 in benefits to which she wasn't entitled. (Interestingly, there was a wealthy couple living in Pasadena, California in the 1980s who engaged in welfare fraud to the tune of $377,000, filing claims for public assistance for 38 nonexistent children but they were not poor and clearly should have never qualified for welfare assistance.)

In addition to the EBT (formerly, food stamp) program, the major other funding for public assistance goes to TANF or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, formerly known as AFDC. TANF payment amounts vary somewhat from state to state. Under TANF, states receive a fixed amount from the federal government based on what they spent on welfare programs in 1994 without regard to subsequent changes in need. TANF frees the states from many federal constraints on how they manage the funds. The program reduced the federal welfare Based on a cursory check of the Internet, it appears that TANF monthly payments average less than $300. Sort of hard to imagine making payments on an Escalade on that income.

The bottom line is simple. Those of us who know better have got to start making as much noise as the town criers who shout half-truths, misrepresentations, and down right lies about the individuals and families that find themselves in need of a helping hand in order to have life's basic necessities. A society that doesn't take care of its least fortunate is devoid of values. Shouting about the greatness of America means nothing if we take no steps to ensure that everyone partakes of that greatness. For every person who is convinced that people who depend on public assistance are living the good life, eating steak daily and drinking imported beers, tell you what, quit your job, apply for TANF and get your piece of the pie. Don't forget to pick out your SUV.

The music is an orginal composition by Jeff Majors (on the harp) setting the 23rd Psalm to music. The vocalist is James Murphy. Majors has an album, Sacred, with equally beautiful songs on it.

The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name' sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil:
For thou art with me;
Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies;
Thou annointest my head with oil;
My cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and

I will dwell in the House of the Lord forever.

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