There is a secret about welfare in Wyoming. Those who scapegoat the poor don’t want you to know they actually have a stake in making sure the poor will always be among us.
In Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, a character asks, “Say you get a surplus of five thousand for your farm, while the muzhik (peasant) here, however hard he works, will get no more than fifty roubles, is that just?” Tolstoy, consumed by the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, concluded it’s not just, adding “I see some hostility toward those people.”
What is it about poor people making them an easy target for legislators and their constituents? The debate over drug-testing “welfare” recipients (H.B. 82 introduced during the 2011 Wyoming Legislature and eventually defeated) is rife with mean spirited references to the poor. The driving notion is the stereotype of lazy people gaming the system, using tax dollars to buy drugs. In spite of evidence that poor people use drugs at a rate far less than others, some are always quick to jump on the backs of poor people.
The Speaker of the Wyoming House, Rep. Ed Buchanan (R-Torrington), reflected the unfounded hostility toward those people, when he said, “The idea, from Joe Taxpayer is, ‘I don’t mind helping you out, but you need to show that you’re looking for work, or better yet that you’re employed, and that you’re drug and alcohol free.’”
Want to know what folks really think? Log onto a web site permitting anonymous comments, such as from “Wyogirl.” This person wrote, “Then we have to pay for treatment as well!?!?!? I agree all should be tested and if positive, they don’t get welfare OR treatment. What happen to people taking care of themselves, ‘pulling themselves up by their boot straps’…….People just keep living off the system, because WE let them!! Disgusting!!!!”
These views represent a level of meanness not felt toward others receiving far more of our hard earned tax dollars than do the poor. Newt Gingrich said drug testing could curb drug use and lower costs, but only for certain programs. “It could,” Gingrich said, “be through testing before you get any kind of federal aid – unemployment compensation, food stamps, you name it,” he said. You name it? Not really. There are many programs providing federal aid that he did not and will not name; the most obvious sends large checks to wealthy farmers.
A single mother with two children and a gross income of more than $2,008 a month cannot get help feeding her children. But a farmer with $500,000 in non-farm adjusted gross income qualifies for agricultural subsidies. Even Michele Bachmann, who supports cutting “welfare,” pockets tax dollars in the form of agricultural subsides. Her corporate farm received $250,000 in subsidies last year. Ron Paul, who believes government shouldn’t do much at all, represents a district whose farmers received more than $45 million in 2010. And we taxpayers aren’t sending checks only to small family farms. The largest recipient is the GPA Management Group of Tempe, Arizona, last year receiving a check from “US” for more than $1 million.
Supporters of drug testing “welfare” recipients in Wyoming are also on the receiving end of agricultural welfare. A number of legislators cashed taxpayer checks totaling more than $2 million in ag subsidies, but wanted to make sure “welfare” recipients are drug tested before receiving benefits amounting to pennies by comparison.
This is one case where when they say, “it isn’t about the money” it really isn’t. It’s about what they think of “those people.” Suggestions of hypocrisy aside, the real issue is why they see the poor as less deserving than others who consume even larger amounts of tax dollars? Why is it “welfare” only when the poor receive the check?
Pointedly, it isn’t only the poor who benefit. Every penny of the $53.6 million in federal dollars paid in food stamp benefits last year in Wyoming went into the pockets of local grocery store owners who used that money to stock shelves with food produced by farmers and ranchers and to hire their employees. Every dollar paid to a Medicaid recipient went to a doctor, nurse, hospital or other medical service suppliers, creating jobs while providing necessary health care.
Indeed, those who complain about growing Medicaid and food stamp costs should focus instead on wages paid to the working poor. Low wages in jobs with no health insurance mean people who are working full time often qualify for Medicaid and food stamps, programs that in effect are subsidizing employers who pay too little. It’s low wages, not freeloading, driving the increased costs.
But doing something about wages is tougher and more politically dangerous than scapegoating the poor. That’s why the stereotypes persist though welfare as we once knew it ended more than a decade ago. Rep. Frank Peasley (R-Douglas), co-sponsor of the drug-testing bill, said it’s necessary “to rein in a welfare system run amok.” Others nodded in agreement at an argument that actually became untrue after welfare reform.
Under the old AFDC, or Aid For Families With Dependent Children, people received welfare without employment demands or time limits. That ended 15 years ago, though the political rhetoric never did. There is now a work requirement and a strict lifetime limit of five years for receiving help. No such limitations apply to agricultural subsidies.
After welfare reform, 90 percent of those who received AFDC in Wyoming were dropped. Where did they go? They went to work. The stereotypers don’t give them much credit for doing so even though they prop up the economy by working for low wages in jobs that seldom include even basic benefits such as health insurance.
During my tenure as Director of the Department of Family Services, I met some of these folks and learned what their lives were like, an exercise I’d highly recommend to policymakers. One was a young mother of two children whose father had vanished. She worked fast food, earning $7 an hour with no health insurance to help meet the costs of her special needs son, no vacation time or sick leave. When she or a child was ill, she was docked a day’s pay and threatened with being fired.
An elderly widow in northeast Wyoming was left with little but medical bills when her lifetime husband died. Despite poor health and age, she also worked fast food, greeting people and cleaning floors for minimum wages.
Both, like thousands of others, are working long hours but paid so little they qualify for public benefits. Yes, they are poor and yes, they are “on welfare.” But they work harder than many who are not.
Meeting many others and listening to their stories, it’s apparent that being poor is a lot harder job than many might think. Living on the financial edge means unexpected events create a crisis that for others would not be a bump in the road. When a car won’t start, a child is ill, or a landlord refuses to return a deposit, being poor becomes the hard work of survival that many will neither experience nor understand.
Those who stereotype the poor have a notion that life is like the board game Monopoly where everyone starts with the same advantages. Each receives $1,500 and a turn at the dice. Players win or lose based on the choices they make.
But life isn’t like the game of Monopoly. We don’t all start with the same advantages. It’s more like another childhood game – musical chairs. Remember? The room is arranged with one chair fewer than there are players. Music starts and unexpectedly stops. Players vie for an open chair but there are never enough chairs. The game is designed to make sure that the music stops and someone loses.
“Yes,” Jesus said, “the poor will always be with you.” But he wasn’t judging them. He was judging us who are not. In Deuteronomy, God said there would be no poor among us if we but follow God’s teachings. I know we can’t always do that, but the least we can do is to update our stereotypes.
Rodger McDaniel served in the Wyoming legislature from 1971-1981 and is a former Director of the Wyoming Department of Family Services. He is currently the Pastor at Highlands Presbyterian Church in Cheyenne.
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