Racist Email Surprise, or Thanks for Helping

8 01 2014

A short while ago, I received an email from someone I’ve never heard of. It’s likely the sender meant to include a friend’s email address and mistyped it, or believes that my email address belongs to one of his friends. The entirety of the message was a joke, a racist little piece of dreck that demonized welfare recipients and compared them to dogs. Today has been pretty irritating, and I really want to thank the sender for gracing me with that ray of happy sunshine. It really cheered me up. As I haven’t written many posts here, some of you may not know, so I’ll come right out and say it – that was sarcasm. In the midst of my irritation, the last thing I needed was a witty little reminder of our propensity for treating each other like garbage.

It doesn’t help that I recently read The Welfare Queen. The article’s title is frequently (and erroneously) attributed to Ronald Reagan, specifically to his campaign trail story about a Chicago woman who used a long list of fake names and documents to milk various public aid programs for hundreds of thousands of dollars. He certainly told the story, but he doesn’t seem to have come up with the “welfare queen” label – that was likely Chicago Tribune reporter George Bliss. A similar misunderstanding about the story exists among liberals – a belief that the woman in Reagan’s story never existed. Until I read the article, I was one of the many liberals who would loudly proclaim that Reagan’s horror story about welfare abuse was a convenient fiction. Let me set that to right right now – she existed, and she was monstrous. I stand corrected.

Unfortunately, that she existed doesn’t make Reagan’s story any less problematic. On the campaign trail, he would explain how this woman abused public aid and made a pretty penny doing so. She was a signpost to people who believed (and continue to believe) that welfare programs were (and are) a breeding ground for sloth, indolence, and greed. As the Slate article explains, though, public aid fraud was among the least of the woman’s sins, which very likely included multiple kidnappings and murder. In statements made by people swept up in her greedy, destructive wake, including her own children, an ex-husband, and the daughter of a woman she may have very well killed in order to inherit her belongings, a clear picture emerges – that of a dangerous sociopath. This is not a story of the welfare system creating a parasite. This is a story of a manipulative, malignant, dangerous woman, completely devoid of any moral compass, who counted government programs designed to help people among her many victims. Treating her as emblematic of welfare recipients as a group is like holding Timothy McVeigh, Terry Nichols, or Eric Rudolph up as examples of all Christians.

Unfortunately, Reagan’s story resonated with a lot of people, and that image of welfare recipients gaming the system to live lavish lifestyles took root in the public mind. That perception continues to frame all debate about the appropriate levels and administration of public aid policies. The story informs the passage of laws that require aid recipients to pass drug tests, despite a complete lack of evidence that recipients use drugs at a higher rate than non-recipients – laws that cost far more money than they stand any chance of saving. The story lets people who benefit from Medicare, Medicaid, and Child Health Insurance Programs complain about the “moochers” and “takers” who are supposedly ruining our country. The story lets people ignore crushing poverty by convincing themselves that only “bad” people are on welfare.

It’s that attitude that informed the joke I found in my email – the idea that welfare recipients, like dogs, are lazy, useless mongrels who stupidly expect and demand something for nothing. That the whole thing is based on a cherry-picked example, a person who would have been amoral and predatory in the complete absence of government aid, never crosses people’s minds. By fixating on a sociopath, they can blithely tell themselves that welfare recipients aren’t by and large decent, hard working people who would dearly love to no longer rely on a government-provided lifeline.

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