For the past two years, I have been a columnist and commentator for New England readers, particularly Rhode Island. Conservatives in the Ocean State have called their home “the petri dish of socialism.” Based on one extended set of columns in the Washington Post, their assessment is valid.
In 2011, Washington Post journalist Elis Saslow wrote an impressive and yet very disturbing series on the influence of food stamps in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, where one out of three people lives on public assistance, particularly food stamps. Although Saslow won the Pulitzer Prize for his work, a number of much-needed lessons became missed opportunities.
Saslow first details how Woonsocket comes to life because of government subsidies. The whole city swings and cycles based on the government assistance through SNAP programs.
Then he focuses in on a shopkeeper in the city:
In the heart of downtown, Miguel Pichardo, 53, watched three trucks jockey for position at the loading dock of his family-run International Meat Market. “Yes! We take Food Stamps, SNAP, EBT!”
This brazen advertising of food stamps is criminal. Enabling dependence and redistribution of wealth is just unconscionable. Now fast food restaurants are accepting government subsidies. What was the point of food stamp disbursements? To help people in need so that they could get back on their feet.
How is anyone going to get from poor to prosperity spending their money irresponsibly?
This passage in Saslow’s report was the most revealing:
SNAP enrollment in Rhode Island had been rising for six years, up from 73,000 people to nearly 180,000, and now three-quarters of purchases at International Meat Market are paid for with Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards.
Even as the economy has improved (however slightly) more people are enrolling in the food stamps program. Since when did individual consumers gather the idea that living off of someone else was acceptable?
An entire Rhode Island town has transformed into a welfare city.
In his reporting, Saslow focuses on one family. The choices they made, and the consequences, highlight the causes of their poverty.
For the past three years, the Ortizes’ lives had unfolded in a series of exhausting, fractional decisions. They had been living together since Rebecka became pregnant during their senior year of high school, long enough to experience Woonsocket’s version of recession and recovery. Jourie had lost his job at a pharmacy late in 2010 because of downsizing, and Rebecka had lost hers in fast food for the same reason a few months later.
Some questions worth asking: Why does this couple have two kids if they cannot afford to raise them? Were they making ends meet before the Great Recession? What economic factors in the Ocean State are affecting their ability to make it from month to month?
They had to start making harder decisions. How much would they spend, and what would they spend it on? Did their lives before economic tumult reflect this conscious decision-making? The couple had children before graduation, employment, or marriage. They put themselves onto a slippery slope toward deeper poverty by their choices.
James Q. Wilson has analyzed these correlational factors when tracking poverty and its causes. This couple cannot blame the economic downturn for their financial failings.
They make money, yet they still can’t make it. Something is wrong with this picture. Have they considered moving to a better state with stronger economic growth and better opportunities? Saslow also reported the struggles of private charities.
One group, however, is prospering in this welfare cycle: restaurants
Grocery store chains had started discount spinoffs. Farmers markets had incentivized SNAP shopping by rewarding customers with $2 extra for every $5 of government money spent. Restaurants, long forbidden from accepting SNAP, had begun a major lobbying campaign in Washington, and now a handful of Subways in Rhode Island were accepting the benefit as part of a pilot program.
Now national chains are becoming welfare and welfare queen recipients? Saslow also reports that the city’s public transportation has fallen into the welfare web, alternating its route for heavier traffic earlier in the month, when recipients receive their next disbursements.
Reflection on the Other Coast
How badly has this EBT mentality infected communities in California, for the Golden State certainly qualifies as “The Welfare State”?
In Torrance, CA, the city council implemented food stamp usage at its farmer’s market. Customers in relatively wealthy areas now use EBT cards without thinking twice about it. SNAP limits exist in California, yet customers arrogantly complain about not being able to buy cooked food. This entitlement mentality is sickening. There should be no discussion about government assistance usage for anything but bare essentials. California EBT cards have a SNAP Food and SNAP Cash option, so food stamp users can spend the cash portions on anything, including alcohol, cigarettes, and other non-food items, like paper.
These problems exist in Rhode Island, too. Ever since I published an extensive post about Woonsocket, RI, I have received a number of comments from Rhode Islanders in the city and affirmations from other Ocean State residents about this sad state of Woonsocket.
Americans and their cities are sinking into this cycle of government subsidy and servility: welfarism. Woonsocket is an easy target because of Rhode Island’s small size and reputation for government expansion and corruption. Yet, this the new normal has turned the first day of the month into “Check Day,” with slow decline to follow all over the country.
Young families, city dwellers, and all Americans should look forward to something better in their lives. Even former U.S. Senator John Sununu decried “One nation on the dole.”
Welfarism is more than a Woonsocket problem, but a way of life for too many Americans. This is not the American Dream. No one can secure the blessings of liberty on government handouts. This is not just an argument for limited government; it’s time for a robust discussion followed by concerted action to remove and replace this widespread welfare mentality.