Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Welfare, Charity and Virtue

Daniel Patrick Moynihan

One of the people I most admire recently revealed she was driving from her seacoast home to Manchester to teach English and life skills to  an immigrant who had never had the opportunity to go to any sort of  school where she grew up, in Africa.  To say this is a busy woman would be an understatement, so why does she add this effort to all the other things she does for her family (which are many) and for her town?  Because, she explained, the program  in Manchester serves those with the most profound needs.

After teasing her, calling her Major Barbara (George Bernard Shaw's Salvation Army heroine who was born to privilege but devoted herself to helping the underprivileged) I realized the problem was not with her, but was my own.
Home Base

I realized that when it comes to the central issue of what those of us lucky enough to have been born into circumstances which allow us to flower ought to do for those who are not, I am very parochial and limited in my perceptions.

Most of us, who live in the suburbs do not see impoverished people much. We do not walk past sidewalk panhandlers, do not come into contact with unemployed people, or at least people who are obviously unemployed. The most disadvantaged people we see are working behind the counters at McDonalds. We live in bubbles and we are insulated from seeing suffering here in small town New England or in suburbia. We form our impressions of the "undeserving poor" from very limited experience. 

For 13 years I ran a clinic in inner city Washinton, D.C. and that formed most of my attitudes about welfare and the impoverished.  I was struck by two things which I've mentioned on this site before:  
1. Immigrants from Africa--Nigeria, Liberia, Kenya and Zaire were the most common sources in our clinic--were typically very bright, very inquisitive, quick learners, very well spoken (especially when they had those cool British colonial accents) and they were hard working. They had strong families and all the virtues of the "ideal immigrants" which we typically attribute to  Asian immigrants. Nobody had ever told these Africans they were stupid or shouldn't ask questions or were incapable of learning. 
No Room for Girls in Their Hometown School

The other group visiting the clinic: 
 2. Immigrants from the American South (Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi) had a different typical profile. They were often nearly mute. It was difficult getting even the most basic information out of them, like, for instance, why are you here today?  One of the most common patients at the clinic would be a 12 year old pregnant girl. When I asked how she intended to support the child, she would shrug and reply with a single word, "Welfare." The social workers told me the newborns were typically handed off not to the 12 year old child's 24 year old mother but to her 36 year old grandmother, who collected all the government checks for dependent children, Medicaid and other programs. In fact, the family benefited financially in many ways with the arrival of this new source of revenue.

Now, in Massachusetts,  I see a different population.  One group is the immigrant from the Dominican Republic, or El Salvador, and the patient typically comes from a family of twelve or more children.  Education typically stopped in grade school and the patient had gone to work in the D.R., but arriving in Lawrence, Massachusetts, prospects for employment became dim and Mass Health covers the doctors' bills. They work as landscapers, construction workers, jobs which require little English and little education.  Or they are unemployed.

At some level, especially when I'm having trouble with the "translator phone," which often squeaks and blips and runs out of power, nasty feelings bubble up from within. This person comes from a family of 14: How much effort could his mother and father have put  into raising, training, preparing this person to become self sufficient in life?  So now I'm stuck with trying to help him understand how to take care of his diabetes, because his parents just popped him out and set him lose to wander about the streets and fend for himself.  But then I get to know the person, and there is that amazing moment when he says, very sincerely, "Thank you, " in English, or in Spanish. There is such real gratitude. How many times a day do you get that in any line of work?  
From Africa: Europe or Bust

And it's not this guy's fault his parents had 14 children. He is now here, doing the best he can. 

So I have to work past my own frustration and resentment to a different place. My own parents put a great deal of effort into training and civilizing me. Their own parents did not speak English.  The best thing, by far, my grandparents ever did for me was to get on the boat to America. 

 Once I got into the idea of having children, once I found out how rewarding it could be, I wanted at least three, but had to stop at two because, doing the arithmetic, I realized there was no way I could afford college for more than two.  My good friend from medical school had four kids. How will you afford to send them to college? Oh, it's all in the financial aide system--you show your income and how many kids you have in school and you get financial aide. So this Ivy League educated surgeon anticipated his own version of welfare--welfare for the rich--in the form of college financial aide. It actually did work out for him--three kids went to Ivy League schools, and one to an Ivy League law school and one to an Ivy League medical school, and all this on a Navy salary. "Financial aide," he said. "It's all in the system."

The history of welfare since the 1970's is a discussion fraught with notions of the "other."  For the most part, white Americans thought of welfare as a system designed to give free hand outs to the Blacks, although 2/3 of those receiving benefits were actually white. Ronald Reagan slyly fed into this with his famous rant about the welfare queen from the South Side of Chicago--if she was from there, of course, she had to be Black.

But before Reagan, Daniel Patrick Moynihan saw what I was seeing in my inner city clinic:  Black girls and women getting pregnant with no plan for raising the children and a system which actually discouraged them from finding a job because once they started working at minimum wage jobs, they'd lose benefits and actually come out behind, financially.  His report on the damage welfare was doing to the Black family and community was seen by many liberals as "blaming the victim" as validating the impression that welfare served the "undeserving poor." Welfare from the early 20th century was designed to serve (white) widows who had no job skills and were left threatened when their husbands died. It was not typically available to Blacks. When it did become available to Blacks, it was portrayed as a free hand out to shiftless, lazy people.

When Clinton faced Newt Gingrich and his Contract with America Republicans, Clinton rejected the first Republican forays into stripping away benefits from poor Blacks, but he ultimately signed a law which required young mothers to go to work and limited the total number of years of benefits to 5. It was called, "Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act."  Ah, doesn't that say it all?

Spending on welfare did decline.

But, as Senator Whitehouse (D-RI) pointed out this morning on CNN, the total outflow of dollars from welfare programs pales in comparison to the outflow of dollars in tax breaks to those owning private jets, to hedge fund managers whose tax rate is lower than that of most truck drivers--more welfare for the rich, an old Republican ploy.
As the good Senator from Rhode Island pointed out, the total number of dollars which leaks out the back door of our federal budget actually exceeds the number of dollars coming in the front door--and it's the Republicans keeping that back door open, all the while complaining about the deficit created by their own give aways to the rich.

We have corporate welfare in many forms--allowing American companies to open an office in Ireland and claim to be Irish companies not subject to American taxes. Make your money here in the USA and don't pay a dime for all the infrastructure and educated work force, just make the profit.  And welfare for the rich? Well, that's easy. Just keep everything you make--only small people pay taxes. 

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