Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Defining Poor

“We have the poor, and the poor have us.”

An old selectman with whom I worked twice a week for several years repeated that often when we discussed “General Assistance” cases, the only issues we kept confidential. Everything else was on the public record. He was almost old enough to be my grandfather and first served on the board back in the 1940s. Welfare existed at the local level then. Before President Johnson’s “Great Society” transformed everything, selectmen were “overseers of the poor.”

The old selectman's refrain had subtle implications. Regarding the first part: “We have the poor”: we have them to test us - to see what we’re made of. If it’s more blessed to give than to receive, we helped ourselves by giving to them. However, our judgement was also tested when deciding how much to help, ever cognizant that it was possible to help too much and cause the poor to become dependent - to lose the initiative to help themselves. The second part, “The poor have us” implied that not only did the poor have us to support them, they “had us by the short hairs,” as well. Basic human compassion obligated us to help when they faced existential threat, but we had to summon the toughness to say no when they were gaming the system. Such judgements were difficult enough to make at the local level, but even more so at the state level - even in a small state like Maine. When federal government mandates welfare in its many forms, such judgement becomes virtually impossible.During my nine years as General Assistance Administrator for my town of Lovell, Maine, I’d estimate that only one in three receiving assistance were in genuine need. Two out of three were scamming. In my particular circle of family, friends and acquaintances, there are several receiving all or a portion of their support from government. Some have legitimate needs, but for most I have my suspicions. I don’t think my circle is unusual. How is it in yours?

So what is poor anyway? Politically, it’s a volatile word and important to define. The federal government defines poor as below a certain income level for an individual, a couple, a family of three, four, five, and so forth. But numerical definitions mislead, especially considering that income derived from the underground economy is impossible to account for. Most of us would agree that someone is poor if (s)he hasn’t enough money for food, clothing, shelter, or medical care, so how many Americans are poor by that definition? Very few, if any. You might find some on the streets, but they tend to be alcoholic, drug addicted, or the deinstitutionalized mentally ill not taking their medications. A few weeks ago I noticed several of Portland, Maine’s street people participating in the “Occupy Wall Street” or OWS activities.Demonstrators at Denver OWS (from Atlas Shrugged)

Once I volunteered at a soup kitchen and noticed that most of those who came in for a free meal were overweight. I didn’t go back.

A Heritage Foundation study just last month reported that in American households classified as “poor”: 92% had a microwave oven; 82% had air conditioning; 74% had a car or truck and 30% had two or more; 64% had cable or satellite TV (34% with plasma or LCD televisions); half had personal computers and 42% had internet service; 70% have a VCR and 64% have a DVD player; 54% had video game systems. More than 90% lived in single-family homes or apartments. The rest live in mobile homes.Another at Denver OWS (from Atlas Shrugged)

The list goes on and remember: I’m talking about households our government classifies as “poor” here. Go back fifty years and people with these things would be considered prosperous. It’s hard to sympathize with people who turn out at OWS demonstrations and complain about “The 1%” of Americans who have more than they do. They join with communists, socialists, radical Muslims, public employee union thugs, and assorted whiners. They claim to be part of “the 99%” and they want to eliminate capitalism, the very system that enables the “poor” among us to overeat while watching cable TV in their warm homes.From

Rather than be content with food, clothing, shelter, medical care, televisions, cars and X boxes, they’re consumed with misery when they visualize others who have more. They want government to take it away from “the 1%” and give it to them. Collectively, they’re the largest constituency of the Democrat Party which is driving our federal government into bankruptcy. They don’t seem to understand that benefits they’re already getting are unsustainable, that even if they took all the income from “the 1%” it would only be enough to keep the system going for 90 days.

This is what happens when federal government usurps authority from local government. If we don’t elect people in November, 2012 who begin dismantling the federal behemoth, it will bring us all down with a mighty crash.


Anonymous said...

My observations are similar to yours, Mr. McLaughlin - for those in real need, help is available; however there are scammers (sometimes multi-generational) who work the system. Some benefit from the help of insiders to the Social Services / Welfare systems run by local, state or federal government. Once introduced to the "gravy train" they don't want off.

OkieTex said...

At the national level, Democrats don't trust the Republicans to help the needy, and the Republicans don't trust the Democrats to weed out the scammers and the people getting handouts don't want the handouts to stop. If we brought things back to the local level, it would be less about politics and more about people helping people--with a handout, a hand-up, or a swift kick in the rear. Whatever is appropriate.

Mr. Tambourine Man said...

If you want real change you have to vote for Ron Paul.
Every other candidate, every one of them, is just another corporate puppet. It seems obvious to me that the mainstream media's blackout campaign against Paul demonstrates what a threat he is. They have lied about poll numbers, essentially ignored him at debates, all the while cramming half wits like Romney and Cain at us. The media can longer be trusted. That is plain to see. The "campaign" they are trying to sell us is a joke...Ron Paul 2012!

By the way, the obesity epidemic in this country can be linked directly to food and availability. The genetically modified crap that passes for food is disgusting. And the only available food for a lot of low income people is complete crap----high sodium, high fructose corn syrup and white flour. A recipe for obesity, and diabetes. If this country truly cared for the poor they would start with the food they eat. Heck, the food we ALL eat.

Anonymous said...

And then when those fat folks have strokes or heart attackes guess who pays for that.

I have my share of the wealth, it is not much but I live on it and earned it all honestly.
Hey Tambourine Man;

I respect Mr Paul, and your insulting the other candidates is not the way he seems to be running his campaign. I don't think he would approve your message.

Tom McLaughlin said...

The "poor" can make the same choices we all make. Food stamps don't restrict their choices, they just prefer unhealthy foods. Processed food is more expensive. It isn't as if they haven't time to cook. They don't want to.

They were better off in the seventies when government gave them surplus food first-hand. They got dried milk, cheese, canned meat, and so forth, with which to prepare meals - to actually cook.

Today at food pantries, they tend to get more healthy foods, enabling them to spend their food stamps on junk.

Bradley said...

I was a GA Administrator in Maine for 2 1/2 years and experienced similar situations as Tom. Frequently, I would want to deny benefits because it was obvious the person was scamming, only to be overuled by the State. How about requiring a drug test prior to getting GA?

There is a provision called "Work Fair" which allows the Town to have the GA recipient to do work for the community. The only problem is if they get injured the Town could be held liable including any disability.

Mr. Tambourine Man said...

Wait a second... Where are you getting your facts and figures. Processed food more expensive? Your joking, right? They are considerably less expensive-----cheetos, Oreos, doritos, etc. are also more easily available for the poor. All over the country you find pockets of very poor communities with no grocery store in easy driving distance. The only alternative is the 7-11. Again, whole foods, real foods, are less available. If you think the govt and companies like monsanto care what you eat....well then I don't know what to tell you. can't make the same choices when you don't have the same choices.

Yes, I agree, handing out real food, like the 70 s would be better. But do underestimate the severely detrimental affects of factory farming and genetically modified crops. That affects all,of us. Not just the poor.

And anonymous, my comments to Perry and Cain stand, sorry. I make no apologies for new world order stooges like perry and Cain. One was at bohemian grove and one helped run the fed. They do not have your or my best intersects at heart. Ron Paul does.

I believe we should all be paying attention to our food supply. Watch " Food, inc." or something similar. Our healthy food choices are being destroyed. What could be more important?

Dot BArtlett said...

Hi Tom. I just HAD to comment on this mornings editorial in the Sun. You are SOOOO right when you say that a GOOD MANY of these folks on the DOLE, should not be there at all. And, YES, we all know a few. One in particular has been on the dole for about eight year. Claims HE OR his wife cannot work because of problems with their health. WOW, this man and his wife are having everything taken care of. She just had two knees operated on to the tune of more than $40,000. for the operation and the rehab. Have their rent PAID IN FULL and also have the food stamps etc. Guess you have the picture. My husband and I have been married almost63 years and have NEVER received any type of a FREE benefit from anywhere. Started working at 12 years of age and still working part time. Sure, we have some health issues at this age but not enough to accept charity from anywhere. We will MAKE it but am very concerned about our children, grandchildren and Great grandchildren.(11 Greats so far)
Keep plodding along there Tom. the majority or what you write about I sooo agree with. Thanks

Alex said...

I have to agree with Mr. Tambourine Man here. Mr. McLaughlin's assumption that the overweight poor are obviously overfed is fallacious and detracts from the overall good points in your article. Unhealthy, processed food is much cheaper and more accessible to the poor. Also, it's been proven that unhealthy eating habits in youth lead to obesity later on in life. A lot of these overweight individuals grew up with, yes, lazy parents who didn't cook, but used a microwave, or McDonald's, etc. The diabetes and weight they gained when they were young is much harder to get rid of when healthy, organic alternatives are more expensive than overly-processed, packaged food.

I agree with the idea that people are losing the strength and will to help themselves. However, this population of lazy individuals is hardly full of only the poor. Many poor people receiving aid are working two jobs or more, for unfair wages. Having attended school at a semi-private preparatory high school and now attending an elite university, I can tell you that a good proportion of the lazy, selfish people in this country are in fact rich. Having come from a privileged background, however, they can hide it much easier. The reason we focus on the poor individuals on the dole is because they directly take from our tax money.

There are some good points here, but I always feel the need to vouch for the most important demographic here, which is children. No one has the ability to look at a child's socio-economic status and predict what they will do in life. To do so is to discredit the very people who we hold as heroes in this country. These are the people who raised themselves from poverty and achieved greatness, the immigrants who came over in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the countless others throughout our country's history. However, it is naive and ignorant to say that any of these people achieved anything without help. Today, help is scarce, especially for children. Whatever we say here about adults who need to grow up and take care of themselves, remember those who can't provide for themselves. The kids who may grow up to become doctors, lawyers, soldiers, or teachers. It is easy to spread hateful words about socialism and the poor, but not all who take are "takers."

Anonymous said...

How many people in America can't afford health care? A great many. Even Ron Paul acknowledges that.

The money people spend on Internet, for example, would not pay for health insurance. Today (not fifty years ago) lack of Internet is a disadvantage in areas like finding work, managing finances, and educating kids. Money spent on TV could certainly be better spent elsewhere, but using the money spent on Internet or TV to pay for health insurance is not an available option.

Why are more rich people thin and more poor people fat? Poor people eat as much as they can when food is available, and unhealthy food is cheaper. If you feel uncertain about being able to afford food in the near future, you overeat when you can, even if the food is not healthful. People with enough money can afford to choose more carefully what to eat and what not to eat because they know there'll be healthful food on the table at the next meal.

Should healthy people refuse to help poor people because the poor are less healthy?

Many poor people work hard at badly paid jobs. Many don't get, for example, paid sick time. Often those jobs help people with much higher incomes. The discrepancy between the incomes of rich and poor is greater now than it was in the days you look back on.

To live and raise a family with little money is difficult, it has a bad effect on health. It's tiring. To allocate scarce resources takes constant planning. It takes a lot of time. Money solves problems that poor people have difficulty solving. Preventable crises arise when cheap solutions are inadequate.

To need help from the government is embarrassing. Asking the state/federal rather than local government must be slightly less so—with less need to feel ashamed because neighbors know their business and are second-guessing their choices, although evidently some folks still do that. Most people don't want to ask for government help, they don't want to need to, but many do need to even if they own a TV and are fat. A smug attitude toward struggling neighbors doesn't help.

Tom McLaughlin said...

I worked my way through state colleges and universities without parental or government help. Went to class during the day and worked at night. Simple. People can still do that if they want to.

When we moved to Maine in 1977, my wife and I had 3 children. My teaching salary supporting a family of five put us below the federal poverty line. Government considered us poor, but we had food clothing, shelter and medical care so we weren't poor by my definition.

We ate a lot of soup. My wife became very good at making very tasty and nutritious soups and chowders. She still does.

We had an old van. I could take the seats out and load up with firewood which I cut myself or scrounged logging sites for what they left behind - with owner's permission of course. I scrounged around for all the necessary tools and learned to sharpen and repair them.

I learned to do mechanical work such as brakes, exhaust systems, cooling systems, etc. because I had to do repairs on the van and subsequent old vehicles. I scrounged around for the necessary tools and spent a lot of time outside on cold nights with a trouble light. I learned carpentry and plumbing to fix up and repair and our old house as well.

We shopped at the Salvation Army and the Goodwill as well as cheap department stores. The kids wore clothes and shoes/sneakers until they wore out. So did my wife and I. We still do.

I taught and worked two other part-time jobs all during my 36-year career. When the kids got older, my wife worked part-time driving school buses and waitressing. I retired from teaching a few months ago, but I kept my part-time jobs. My wife went back to school and is in private practice as a clinical social worker.

My wife and I know what it's like to make ends meet with little money and our story is not unusual. We've slowed down our work schedule some and we have no debts. Our combined income enables a more comfortable lifestyle. I don't drive junkboxes anymore and when the vehicles need repairs, I hire someone even though I have a garage now. Don't even change the oil anymore except on the lawnmower and snowblower.

Just saw split chicken breast on sale yesterday for $1.29 a pound. Potatoes are cheap. Rice is cheap. So are carrots and other vegetables in season. You can still get lots of good nutritious food cheap. Dont' tell me the "poor" buy junk food because they have to. That's bullshit. Being fat is a combination of two things: eating too much and not doing enough. It's not a function of rich or poor. It's a lifestyle and an attitude.

Americans are getting fatter, dumber, more lazy, and whiney as well. That's the root of the problem. It's not "the 1%" It shouldn't be surprising that we elect the political leaders we do. We deserve Barack Obama, Harry Reid and Maxine Waters. They're a reflection of what we've become. As I said in a previous column: Pogo was right. We have met the enemy and he is us.

Anonymous said...

The Best video highlighting the staggering hypocrisy in this country.

I urge ALL to watch--even you "liberals"

Anonymous said...

Tom, your last comment was the most narcissistic, self-aggrandizing yet.

DAWN said...

I've been working as a church secretary now for almost a year. Each week our very small church, with limited funds, gets 1-3 phone calls asking us if we pay utility bills. They almost always attach some story about having kids to their request.

They've learned to play on emotions to manipulate. Sometimes they call asking us if we would pay their mortgage or a night in their motel so they don't get kicked out.

It's very hard to distinguish who's in real need and who isn't. But paying a night in a hotel or someone's mortgage isn't going to help them. There's always the next night or the next month to deal with.

Some we know for a fact, not only drink and smoke but have cell phones and internet. Hello?

I've always thought that if the government would get out of the welfare business, giving us, the people, back our money, we could do a better job at knowing/helping the neighbors who genuinely need it. That way those, who don't and are just looking for an easy handout, would get the kick in the pants they need to go out get a job.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous; Tom's last comment, an honest account of struggles and success, are neither "narcissistic" nor "self-aggrandizing".

Thank God for people with that ethic and values!

What planet are you from?

Show Low Yaqui

Average American said...

Tom, unlike one nameless person, I think that your last comment was the best part of this whole post. While I have my doubts that a teacher was actually "poor" by federal government standards back in 1977, the rest of that comment was 100% right.

When will we ever get back to "teaching people to fish" rather than forever providing them the "fish???"

Tom McLaughlin said...

Thanks AA.

The MSAD #72 school district in Fryeburg paid me $8700 for the 1977/78 school year. For a family of five, that put us under the federal poverty line.

Mr Ed said...

"Enabler" comes to mind whether it is public assistance or an over doting parent. It is easy to fall into the trap of being an enabler and no good comes from it for both segments

Anonymous said...

Tom, it's not so much what you say as it is, how you say it.A person can get a point across to others without insulting them.Insulting people or groups of people only inflames them. Insulting language use sometimes indicates an innate hate, or a real lack of intelligence about the do you really know both sides of the subject , or are you prejudiced? Calm down. or is that why people read your column?

Anonymous said...

I once went to fix a computer of a welfare person - gratis. I also used to donate computers to welfare mothers till they call me almost once a week about their computer not working properly because her little 10 yr old johnny was on a site he shouldn't be, and probably picked up a virus or spyware downloading 'free' music and games.

Oh, and how come the computer doesn't play DVD movies, obviously from those free movie sites...

Then another welfare mother I helped was overweight, smoked cigarettes (not that in itself makes the point, but adds to it) and was complaining loudly to her welfare daughter who lived there with her baby about they might come check up on her, so to clean up the house.

Since then I have very little to do with these cases. Sad, there was a time when they were very thankful I helped them.

Anonymous said...

Computer repair denver I was trying to build computers and give them to people in need but microsoft said we couldnt do that unlass we repaid $200 for the OS disks when the user number was already on the computer sad day. :(

Anonymous said...