2/11/2010

Reagan Era Class Warfare Rears Its Ugly Head

Here in Arizona one of the usual cast of conservative nutjobs is proposing a law that would limit what people who received public assistance can spend their money on. In short if you get public assistance of most types  you will not be able to purchase alcohol of any type, cigarettes, cable service, or a cell phone. I haven't read the proposal in full because I understand it has zero chance of making it to a vote, much less being passed and probably violates numerous federal privacy laws too.

However, what has caught my notice is the requisite "populist/conservative" groups on Facebook that sprung up almost immediately in support. I had friends who are otherwise sweet and kind people join them because the language is the same used during the Reagan era that makes it sound like everyone on public assistance is living a life similar to Donald Trump. I even challenged one of those friends and she could not see my point that such controlling ideas are dangerous and point up an attitude of Social Darwinism whereby those most in need are least deserving of help because they must be morally flawed. In short, the idea behind these measures are that you can't trust people who are at their lowest point because they must have some lack of moral fiber in order to sink to that level, ergo, they will rip off "hard working" people.

Back in those days of Reagan and Bush tossing around terms like "Welfare Queens" my town was in the process of dying thanks to Reagan's hatred of tariffs on foreign goods. Within three years of him taking office the cotton mill and cloth industry in the south had been completely destroyed and moved to foreign soil. My town went from three mills employing thousands to none. Among those thrown out of work was my aging father.

My father left school and entered the cotton mill when he was 14 years old in 1934. He worked everyday until he was called for service in World War II in 1942. He went off to fight the Nazis taking part in the D-Day invasion, the Battle of the Bulge, the race across Europe and the liberation of the camps. He returned home and immediately went back to work in the mill. The same mill where his mother had worked since she was 6. He did not miss a day of work in the next nearly 40 years until the last one when "the flu" got him. Actually, it was pneumonia but he refused to go to a doctor. He worked half a day and came home and was back the next day.


Then the Reagan years hit and the mill was gone nearly overnight. He had no pension (that was unheard of in the non-unionized mills of the south) and he was several months away from his 62nd birthday so he could get Social Security. My mother made minimum wage in a shoe store in town but was working barely part time because as the mills closed people couldn't afford to buy new shoes.

There was little that could be done. I was in high school but not yet 16 so was unable to take a full time job or any job that paid enough to help. Besides, my mother was adamant that studies came first. Finally, my mother gave in and went to the local social services office and applied for public assistance.

She was very quiet about it. I still am not sure if we received Welfare or not. I do know we got Food Stamps and that was a major embarrassment for my mother. She loathed going into the grocery store and having to use them. But, she had little choice, although she often drove to a nearby town to do her shopping rather than face friends and neighbors holding a book of Food Stamps.

For a few months things went along and we kept house and home together. Luckily, my parents owned the trailer we lived in and our space rent was $20 a month! I couldn't imagine today! My mother did such a good job that I really didn't notice too much other than the fact I couldn't afford to go to the movies with my friends as often.

Then she got a notice from the people at Social Services. Seems that the good Republicans had decided that all these mill people on public assistance must surely be scamming the system. They demanded to know what she used the Food Stamps to buy. She was requested to keep her receipts and turn them in to see if she was "defrauding" the system by purchasing things we didn't need! She was told to bring in statements from her employer that she didn't receive "tips" or "other compensation" that was not "monetary." They wanted to know why my 61 year old father with an eighth grade education and only two jobs in his life - spinning room foreman and artillery solider - hadn't gotten a job in a town with thousands unemployed. Surely this old man was up to no good!

My mother was mortified. In her mind these people had accused her of stealing money. It didn't matter they were doing this to everyone from the mills. The embarrassment of having to take help suddenly was worse because by the simple act of accepting help she was now seen as a scam artist and someone who couldn't be trusted. It was Social Darwinism - those who are disadvantaged must be morally inferior.

Mama, marched down to the Social Services office and presented them with all the paperwork they wanted. She then told them she didn't want their help anymore and she didn't care if we all starved but she wouldn't be treated like a crook. That was the end of our assistance. We struggled on until my father got his Social Security that summer. Mama borrowed money from my grandmother (thank heavens for her) and my grown siblings chipped in what they could from time to time and they dipped into the little amount put aside by my grandparents for my college education. It was a close run thing, but we made it. However, it ruined my chances to attend a college other than a state run public one. There would be no William & Mary and studying history amidst Colonial Williamsburg. I ended up at Clemson University studying history at a technical and science college in a cheap dorm where the party ran 24/7 and I was conspicuous as the studious gay guy. By my second year, I couldn't stand the environment and left college. It affected the entire sweep of my life. All because the Republican idea of Social Darwinism says that if you're poor you're morally weak and apt to scam the system.

I can't help but think about my parents' experience with public assistance when I see these types of proposals predicated on the notion that if you are poor you are by definition a moral inferior out to take advantage of others. The current proposal is nothing more than a restatement of this principle. Pretty it up anyway you want to, but the bottom line is that if you're poor you're a crook looking to pick the pockets of someone else.

The fact of the matter is that there are safeguards in place to prevent fraud. If someone is on public assistance and uses the bus instead of owning a car and wants to have cable because they have budgeted their money to allow that - it should be no one's business. If someone doesn't use their air conditioner or wraps up in blankets so their kid can have a cell phone to call home in an emergency - it should be no one's business. If someone would rather buy a pack of cigarettes than a bag of chips - it should be no one's business. If someone wants to buy a cheap bottle of wine to celebrate their anniversary - it shouldn't cause them to lose their benefits.

The type of scrutiny proposed by all this and the righteous indignation of people who see any type of assistance as "us vs. them" is exactly the type of BS during the Reagan years that caused my mother to hand back her food stamps and everything else and try to go it alone - even if it meant no money for my college education. It is wrong to desire to control others' behavior through extortion regardless of how good you think your intentions are.

As for Mr. Antenori and the folks in Arizona loving this measure and wanting to make sure being on public assistance is as "uncomfortable as possible." I can assure them that for my proud and hard working parents it was a nightmare and one that nearly broke their spirit. You'd be quite proud of yourselves, I'm sure.

And if you read this and think "Yes, but your parents weren't trying to scam the system! All these other people are!" You have missed the point. It didn't matter to the people rooting out "welfare queens" that my parents were honest and just trying to get by for a few months - they were caught up in the teeth of Reagan's "reforms" and spit out like hamburger. You must realize that systems don't discriminate, you might get one bad egg but you'll harm thousands of good people in the process.

In closing I am reminded of something I told a fellow liberal many years ago: "When a liberal sees someone lying in the street who needs a helping hand he thinks 'What can I do to make things better?' When a conservative sees someone lying in the street who needs a hand he thinks "Bet that guy is going to pick my pocket!'"

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