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I remember distinctly a time in my life – I was in my mid-to-late twenties – when I was struggling financially.  I was a real estate appraiser working on commission in New England.  The Savings and Loan debacle had occurred two or three years prior and there weren’t a lot of assignments for appraisers.  I never knew when I would get paid because my meager commissions were not credited to me until the client sent a check to the firm for which I worked (and clients took their sweet time back then).  This meant I incurred all the risk.  Working on commission in a struggling industry for a difficult boss can be very stressful and disheartening.  Let’s be honest, it can be downright depressing.  These are the times when we are most likely to lash out at another “group” of people and blame them for our plight.

During this time, on a trip to the grocery store, I found myself in line behind a young woman who was paying for her groceries with food stamps.  I, on the other hand, was waiting to checkout paying cash that I could ill afford to spend or I was putting my groceries on a credit card which had a high balance and for which I could only pay the minimum payment each month (if that.)  As it happens, the young woman in front of me was wearing a floor length leather coat (equivalent to Ugg boots today), had very long, beautifully manicured false nails (insert tattoos), and lots of gold jewelry around her wrist and neck (substitute Coach purse) – you’ll understand the remarks in parentheses later.

And I was mad!  Mad that I was driving a car with 200,000 miles on it.  Mad that gas was $1.46 per gallon.  Mad that I couldn’t afford to go to the movies without having to make the decision not to pay my electric bill on time.  Mad that I was living in a cold apartment because I couldn’t afford to fill the oil tank.  Mad that my job was so stressful.  Mad that I was worried every day whether I would be able to pay my bills.  Mad that this person beside me had no worries in the world.  Mad that she was flashing her food stamps in my face and was going to drive off in what I just knew would be a Cadillac.  And mad that she would arrive safely in her warm, rent-subsidized apartment.

I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on my attitudes from back-in-the-day; attitudes which were sown by seeds of discontent caused by my circumstances and those of society at large.  I had heard similar accusations from family, friends, and the media (though not like I do today.)  And when you hear those things often enough, they seem acceptable whether they roll off your own lips or bump around in your mind.  Worse, those beliefs become a crutch because all our misfortunes can be cast upon an evil “them.”  We no longer have to take responsibility for our part in how things have shaped up.  What is missing in the anger, however, is the truth.

The truth of my situation was that I was a college graduate with a multitude of opportunities before me and wonderful life experiences behind me.  Yes, my car had 200,000 miles on it, but as it turns out, it went for another 86,000 miles.  Gas was $1.46 per gallon, but it is certainly a paltry sum next to the $3.86 per gallon today.  Yes, I was paying things on credit cards, but I HAD a credit card.  Yes, my boss was a jerk sometimes, but he gave me a chance at a career; one in which I am still working today.  Yes, I worried about paying the bills, but I had family to fall back on if I ever did get to the point where I absolutely could not make it on my own.  And, yes, even though I paid my own rent, I did not live in the type of unsafe, broken down neighborhoods that so many rent subsidized apartments were located.  And in the spirit of complete honesty, I had made some not so wise decisions that had contributed as much to my financial crisis as all the other things I mentioned.  The truth was that I had options – real options- not just the “fairy tale” options that a lot of people “believe” everyone has in the United States if only they would get up off their lazy welfare butts and work.

And what of the truth of the woman in front of me?  The honest answer is simply “I don’t know.”  Maybe the coat and rings were gifts.  Maybe she did her own nails.  Maybe she was a really savvy shopper.  Is it possible she worked under the table and made money on the side but also took money from the government for food stamps?  Sure, it’s possible, but then wouldn’t she have had a cohort in crime; a business person who was willing to circumvent the law to pay her under the table?  There had to be someone with more power who wasn’t reporting her income.  After all, it takes a village to cheat the government.  And, yes, it is possible she made money through some criminal activity but as time would tell, welfare moms didn’t have a monopoly on “cheating” the government.  Just ask the hundreds of thousands of tax payers affected by the cheating elites like Bernie Madoff, Kenneth Lay, Jeff Skilling, and Bernard Ebbers (just to name a few.)

Regardless of the whys and the hows, the inconvenient truth of the situation is that there were children involved.  I can’t remember what these children looked like, but they were there.  And whether their mother was a saint or a sinner, they were blameless.  They certainly deserved some Cheerios and bologna.  And by the way, I later saw the woman getting on a bus with her groceries and NOT a Cadillac.

Anyway, that brings me to the reason for this post.  There has been a lot of rhetoric flying around out there in cyberland lately about the “type” of people on government assistance; i.e., welfare.  None of it is really new, but how it is packaged is different and how it is spread is insidious.  It is like a cancer.  So, in keeping with my New Year’s resolution of calling things as I see ‘em, I’m taking on the following meme I received several weeks ago via Facebook. 

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This meme seems harmless enough.  The ultimate, down-to- earth, tough-love dad, Dr. Cliff Huxtable (who happens to be African American), is pointing out the hypocrisy of being able to “afford” Ugg boots, a Coach purse, and $3,000 in tattoos whilst being on welfare.  And if you don’t think the “being on welfare” is implied then you can head on over to the conservative Facebook page, Silence is Consent, and see how the commenters interpreted the meme.

Does it matter that Ugg boots did not become a fashion phenomenon until the late 1990’s (according to Wikipedia) and that The Cosby Show went off the air in 1992?  Does it matter that there is little to no chance that Cliff Huxtable ever said this?  The surface message is certainly one that you can imagine Papa Huxtable imparting to one of his kids who might be exhibiting a certain level of fiscal irresponsibility.  But is that the reason the creator slapped Bill Cosby’s face together with those words?  I don’t think so.  It is true that Bill Cosby has had some strong words to say against the black culture and has admonished the African American community for a lack of work ethic, for the high number of unwed mothers, and for the utter lack of responsibility taken by the baby daddies, but I don’t think even Bill Cosby wants to see black children without enough to eat because of their parents’ supposed sins.  The fact-of-the-matter is that Bill Cosby’s face is used to lend a certain level of credibility to the bigotry underlying the message.

What is the message?  That most people on welfare are black and all black people on welfare are cheating the system and all black welfare moms are pulling their food stamp debit cards out of their Coach purses while parading around in Ugg boots and brandishing $3,000 tattoos while the hard-working tax payer foots the bill.  The meme suggests that even black Bill Cosby is fed up with it.  For that matter, so is every other “decent” and “respectable” African American.  The fuel apparently stoking this fire is the belief that there are plenty of well-paying jobs out there that these “welfare” moms could be doing (if they just weren’t so lazy); jobs that would pay for child care, rent, utilities, food, clothing, school clothes, school supplies and transportation.  How dare they spend their money on frivolous things while the taxpayer takes care of them!

I will not try and suggest that there are zero problems in the welfare system, but what is lost on the people making these assertions is that there are not enough jobs that could support ALL the individuals currently on welfare that would allow them to completely wean themselves from the system in an economy where out-of-work Baby Boomers and recent college grads are competing for jobs tending bar, sweeping floors and answering phones.  Even Wal Mart is “phasing out” its store greeters (sorry Grandpa.)

I think it might be helpful to look at some real federal budget figures to get an idea of just what is going on in our economy, not just what we imagine is going on based on what other people tell us.  I present three different budget graphs or charts because different entities categorize budget items differently. 

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Here is another from the US Government Accountability Office. :

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Here is yet another from the http://www.usfederalbudget.us

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All three show pretty much the same breakdown with defense, social security and health care (Medicare and Medicaid) making up the lion’s share of the budget.  As a matter of fact, though no one really wants to say it, and even fewer want to address it, old people (sorry again, Grandpa) are more of a drain on society through social security and Medicare than people on welfare.  And since most of the federal budget is spent on defense, the elderly, and health care for the poor (Medicaid), it stands to reason that any plan to reduce the deficit would necessarily have to include cuts in these areas.

Conversely, a relatively small amount of the budget (between 12% and 15%) is spent on what we would describe as “welfare”, so we could cut EVERY SINGLE WELFARE program and still not be able to eliminate the debt.

Next is a chart showing where the revenues come from:

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Most of the tax revenue comes from private individuals (32%) and NOT corporations (6.8%)  In fact, I was surprised to find that corporations pay even less taxes than I imagined given their whining.  I think raising revenue from corporations, whether it is from actual percentage tax increases or closing loopholes, is a necessary component of responsible fiscal policy (along with reducing the size of some of those big programs from the previous section.)  And look where the next biggest portion of our budget revenues come from:  DEFICIT.  How is that even called revenue?

Here is another chart showing the breakdown of discretionary income (not mandatory through law.)

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A full 60% of discretionary income goes to the military.  I would suggest that THIS is the reason why military spending is always on the table during budget negotiations and NOT because any one person or party is anti-military or anti-American.

Next is a graph showing the historical relationship between federal spending and federal revenue:

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The years where we had higher tax revenues, we actually spent less and conversely the years where tax revenues were way down we spent much more.   This suggests that reducing taxes does NOT stimulate the economy. 

Next is a chart of the US states showing how much TANF (temporary assistance for needy families) money each individual state spends:

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And here is a map of the United States showing where the highest poverty rates are:

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Those states which choose (TANF funds are discretionary state by state) to give less to people in need have the highest poverty rates.  This suggests that withholding aid from poor people does NOT cause them to miraculously find jobs and pull themselves up by the bootstraps and out of poverty.  And you may recall from a previous blog post of mine that these are also some of the same states that have the highest gun death rates and the highest drunk driving death rates.  This suggests, to me anyway, that when people have nothing, they turn to alcohol, drugs and crime.  And don’t think that isn’t one huge economic drain on society.

I’m no Ross Perot and I don’t purport to have all the answers, but this I know:  The problems with our economy are complex; the solutions equally so.  Any solution will require EVERYONE to feel the pinch.  It is NOT one “group” that is causing all the problems.  It certainly does not help to point fingers at one group and blame them for all the ills of society.  History should teach us this as evidenced below:

  • It is estimated that over 1.7 million people died from starvation, execution, disease, and over-work during the Cambodian genocide, which took place between 1975 and 1979. It has been established that the Khmer Rouge targeted particular groups of people, among them Buddhist monks, ethnic minorities, and educated elites, who were referred to as “new people.”  ~Yale University, Cambodian Genocide Program
  • Over 800,000 Rwandans (mainly Tutsis) were slaughtered (genocide) as a result of the disparities between the economic and political status of the majority Hutus and the minority Tutsis.  This led to a bloody, brutal civil war.
  • “A Serbian, Slobodan Milosevic, a former Communist who had turned to nationalism and religious hatred to gain power, inflamed long-standing tensions between Serbs and Muslims in the independent provence of Kosovo. Orthodox Christian Serbs in Kosovo were in the minority and claimed they were being mistreated by the Albanian Muslim majority. Serbian-backed political unrest in Kosovo eventually led to its loss of independence and domination by Milosevic.  By the end of this civil war, over 200,000 Muslim civilians had been systematically murdered. More than 20,000 were missing and feared dead and 2,000,000 had become refugees.”  ~The History Place
  •  I don’t think the illustration below needs further commentary.Image

Aside from the fact that I am distressed at the divisions I see in our country along economic, political, religious, racial, and gender lines, I am equally troubled by the fact that I think most of us are being played for suckers.  We are being pitted against each other by a group that wields most of the power.  They keep us occupied beating each other up so as to draw attention away from themselves and their contributions to the mess in which we find ourselves.

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