What state Rep. Gene Alday put in words earlier this month struck a chord with many. They believe America in 2015 is a place where a decreasing number of people work to support themselves and their families and are forced to support an increasing number who are shiftless and lazy — yet have cars, homes, plenty of food, health care, vastly more children than they can afford or care for, super cell phones and plenty of frou-frou including the latest in clothing and jewelry designs.
Too, rather than being humble, grateful and striving to get off public assistance, legions of malingerers project a defiant “in your face” posture, even calling wage earners out as suckers.
To his discredit, Alday, a Republican and former mayor of Walls, also injected race. “I come from a town where all the blacks are getting food stamps and what I call ‘welfare crazy checks.’ They don’t work,” he is reported to have told Jerry Mitchell, who writes with depth and perspective about Mississippi for The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson.
Alday didn’t have his facts on race. Black people, as a percentage of welfare recipients, have been declining since 2001.
In the big picture, blaming people who line up for giveaways is disingenuous for at least three real reasons.
One is that Alday lives and works in Mississippi, and this state is addicted to the dole as much as any of its citizens.
As much as many crow about how awful the federal government is, the fact remains that taxpayers of the other 49 states keep Mississippi’s money boat afloat. President Obama could strike a major blow for fiscal responsibility by kicking us out of the union.
Another is that people who game welfare programs and then rock back for a life of “freebies” (1) did not create the systems that nourish them and (2) don’t manage the criteria, either. The banquet has been set. They were duly invited. All they’re doing is showing up to eat.
Yes, cheats, liars, people using fake names and IDs defraud the state and federal government for benefits. Government itself estimates are that millions of dollars are lost every day to fraud. But again, who has the power to change this? Why, that would be Rep. Alday and his colleagues in Jackson and Washington.
But instead of working to eliminate fraud (perhaps by creating opportunity), the Legislature passes such measures as 2014’s provision to drug-test selected welfare (TANF) applicants. How’s that working? Who knows? In Florida and Missouri about one of 50 applicants tested positive. It cost those states more to test than if they’d just let the druggies in the program. (That would be wrong, of course. But it illustrates the point.)
And that brings us to this, the crucial point in finger-pointing at all the cheats: They get the benefits, not the money. Please think about that: They get the benefits, not the money. Rent vouchers go landlords. Medicaid payments go to hospitals, nursing homes and doctors. Food stamp (SNAP) cash goes to supermarkets. Free school lunch money goes to wholesalers and growers. Cell phone and other utility companies are guaranteed payments when a customer is deemed benefit-eligible.
Get it? The poor have no clout in the halls of the Legislature. Those who serve the poor — sell them goods and services — have major clout. While they may “attaboy” Rep. Alday’s sentiments in public, if any aid program is eliminated, trimmed or even policed better in terms of establishing and maintaining eligibility, it will hit these folks in the wallet.
And hurt the state’s economy, too.
Fortunately for those who prefer facts to hyperbole, there are numbers. They are real. Some are disconcerting.
From 2007 through 2012, Mississippi experienced a 52.4 percent increase to 672,441 SNAP beneficiaries. While that rate of increase was well below the national 74 percent increase during the same time, Mississippi is second only to Washington, D.C., in the proportion of residents getting food aid. The figure is at 22.4 percent. That means one in four Mississippians get help buying groceries.
In 1990, the USDA’s National School Lunch Program cost $3.7 billion. For last fiscal year $11.3 billion.
Alday and others are right in observing that no economy is sustainable if too many take and not enough give.
But fixing any of this is not nearly as easy as sitting back and tossing grenades, especially race grenades, at people who are poor or who pretend to be helpless. They are the symptom, not the disease.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist and assistant dean of the Meek School of Journalism and New Media. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.