Walmart and Welfare 101

Posted Dec. 19, 2011, at 5:04 p.m.

It was, Christine Rousselle believed, a front-row seat to observe Maine’s welfare system in action. In an opinion piece in the College Conservative blog, the Providence College student recounted witnessing all manner of abuse of the social safety net while working the last two summers as a cashier at the Scarborough Walmart.

The piece went viral on social media sites, shared by conservatives as evidence that Republican policies aimed at trimming waste, fraud and reliance on welfare were sound.

The piece is enormously relevant to the debate Mainers are having about the nature and role of the social safety net. Because the writer describes in detail what she witnessed, it brings into sharp focus what many conservatives imagine when they make the case for limiting welfare.

But like policymakers attacking aid programs, Ms. Rousselle misses a significant part of the welfare picture. It’s a distorted view of the social safety net, focusing only on recipient consumption.

Join us here Tuesday for The Maine Debate to discuss what can be learned from Ms. Rousselle’s experiences at Walmart.

To truly understand welfare, she might consider a project for college credit in which she lives for a month on the public dole.

But she would have to do more than take the funds. To truly understand, she would have to move into a recipient’s home, where an extended family, including nonrelatives may live. That home likely would be small and offer her little privacy. She would have to give up her car and rely on others for transportation, making even part-time work difficult.

And Ms. Rousselle probably wouldn’t even dream of attending Providence College while living in those conditions, especially given the odds that her welfare-recipient parents had not attended college.

In short, a life on the public dole is not to be envied.

So the Walmart cashier may shake her head at the customer who uses an EBT card to buy groceries and cash for the latest Call of Duty video game, but she does not see the crowded, 1968 mobile home where the game will be played.

The consumption she saw at Walmart may be offensive, coming as it does on the taxpayer dime. But the way welfare recipients spend their money is not necessarily fraud or abuse, as Ms. Rousselle characterizes it. It simply is the way aid programs must operate — allowing purchases that others might not make.

A main thrust of Ms. Rousselle’s missive is that too many people are using the public hand-out. On this, most can agree. A thriving economy eliminates some of the need for hand-outs.

“I’m not against temporary aid helping those who truly need it,” she wrote. “What I saw at Walmart, however, was not temporary aid. I witnessed generations of families all relying on the state to buy food and other items.” Raising income eligibility makes sense, but that must be coupled with creating more paths out of poverty — which means more spending on education and job training.

But temporary aid could have tragic results for the illiterate 60-year-old man, the 25-year-old incest victim or the 40-year-old single mother battling clinical depression. They may never be able to hold jobs that pay a living wage.

If Ms. Rousselle doesn’t want to live the welfare life for a month, she might consider another job next summer to get the rest of the picture — DHHS social worker.

Join us Tuesday for the discussion.

http://bangordailynews.com/2011/12/19/opinion/walmart-and-welfare-101/ printed on August 22, 2014