April 25, 2018
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Two bloggers, an anchor and a herd of elk

By David Farmer

Anecdotes don’t always translate into truth.

Take the case of rising conservative writer Christine Rousselle, a student at Providence College, who wrote a blog last week about “welfare queens” gaming the state for a conservative website.

The piece, which cataloged some of Rousselle’s experiences as a cashier at a Walmart in Scarborough, caught fire, earning the young author news coverage in Maine’s media, including the Bangor Daily News, radio and TV.

She became, at once, a hero and a villain, joining the fight in Gov. Paul LePage’s efforts to drastically — and dangerously — cut spending on public health insurance programs funded through the Department of Health and Human Services.

While there were lots of allegations, judgment and harsh language in the column, it essentially amounted to the anecdotes of a young woman who worked summers at Walmart.

As Slate columnist Matthew Yglesias wrote, while discussing German and Greek work patterns, “Human beings are primed to see evidence that confirms our pre-existing patterns of belief.” Rousselle, a Republican with aspirations toward the punditocracy, saw what she expected to see.

But I wonder, if she had been so inclined, if she might have seen something else, too.

Another young woman, writing in November, delivered the perspective from the other side of the grocery line. The blogger calls herself “Dresden” and writes on the website CreatingMotherHood.com.

“Dresden” is not looking to become the next Ann Coulter, and I can understand why. She’s a young mother with a son. She lives with her mother. For the last two years, she has relied on food stamps, and has carried a sense of shame about it.

Reading through her blog, you can see that she is a smart, articulate woman who fell on hard times, including family sickness.

On Nov. 9, she wrote: “The moment that I realized that I no longer qualified for these benefits was incredibly triumphant for me. Within the same moment of celebrating I also felt so incredibly thankful. I have no idea how my family would have existed without this kind of supplemental assistance to purchase food.”

Unlike the entitlement mentality encountered by Rousselle, here is a young woman who is different.

In her blog about leaving food stamps behind, she talks about the judgment she encountered, particularly at the grocery store check-out line, and the embarrassment she felt when she had to go to the store. (If you just thought “good”, shame on you.)

It’s quiet, searing scorn delivered by strangers, perhaps cashiers such as Rousselle.

“There will always be some person that will know a person that read an article about a family or individual that ‘scammed’ the government,” Dresden wrote. “Well shame on that person. I never encountered such an individual. The people I met also on food stamps were poor, lived in poverty, carried such fear and anxiety in their soul about the big ‘what next?’”

There are relatively few people who cheat, even when you throw in the tax cheats, crooked salesmen, the butcher with his thumb on the scale and the gas station with the rigged pumps.

The question on how we address poverty and persistent need, especially among single mothers, children, the elderly and disabled and those poor folks who don’t fit into any particular category isn’t about the few who try to scam the system.

It’s about us and what kind of people we want to be.

In his latest book, “The Times of Our Lives,” Tom Brokaw tells a moving story about a herd of elk cows and their young calves trying to cross a raging river.

“It was not an easy crossing. … One calf failed and was swept downstream,” Brokaw writes. “Three times, the calf tried and failed to cross the river. Separated from his herd, he stood there trembling.

“On the far side, the rest of the herd waited patiently as the mother of the frightened calf stood at the water’s edge and, as God is my witness, nodded her majestic head to him, as if to say, ‘It’s OK; I’m coming to get you.’”

The elk then waded into the river and went to the calf, “nuzzling him for a moment before heading him upstream to an easier passage.”

Brokaw closes his book: “I shared the story with our grandchildren and friends over the years, extending the metaphor about maternal care to include the obligation we all have to one another when we reach our own flood-stage rivers. We navigate them successfully when we do it together.”

David Farmer is a political and media consultant. He was formerly deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John E. Baldacci and a longtime journalist. His clients include Maine Equal Justice Partners and Engage Maine. You can reach him at dfarmer14@hotmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @dfarmer14.

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