Arthur Christopher Schaper: Doing Things the Welfare Way in Woonsocket


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.

Oh snap!

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

  • D. S. Crockett

    The left has finally done it! Obumma has finished the job of transforming the nation into perpetual Dumbocrat voters. Hail the Chief and his successors. The rest of us can go pound sand and continue to pay. Time to put the boot to all politicians whether D or R. It makes no difference. They all suck. Trump is looking pretty good by now.

  • ShannonEntropy

    People on ‘the dole’ make a purely rational economic decision …

    If you can make more money off of gum·mint bennies than working — not mention no alarm clock in the morning summoning you to another day of work·place drudgery — why NOT collect and live a life of ease ??

    • Tommy Cranston

      No reason I can think of-until it collapses.

      • ShannonEntropy

        “It” won’t ever “collapse”, Tommy ,,, there will always be enough working stiffs like you & me to keep things running

        Well, like you at least … I am retired and get the maximum Social Security benefit & practically free Medicare. But I am a member of a VERY big
        Club =►

        In 2013, of the estimated 80,445,000 families in the United States, in 20 percent – or 16,127,000— of them none of the members was employed.

  • Woonsocket has many very good people/ families in it who work very hard for their well-being. The problems here go back a long time. Woonsocket was a very vibrant mill city up until the 70-80s. When mill after mill either burned to the ground or the business moved out of the country, Woonsocket residents had to find another type of work. For generations, families made a living as mill workers. Prices on food and housing were low, and families thrived. Since the 80s, with mills closing, things have changed. Mostly, however, it is not due to Woonsocket putting out a “free Welfare” sign. Most has been forced upon us by the Federal and State governments. When the Woonsocket Housing Authority attempted to reduce the subsidized housing development called Veterans Memorial by several hundred units, the Feds, thanks to the likes of Congressman Cicilline, told the WHA that they could not do it. When the City of Woonsocket gave the State of RI their comprehensive plan that would reduce the amount of subsidized housing units in the City, the State refused to allow the City to do it. Because of all of the subsidized housing in the City (18%) compared to the state wanting all communities to have a minimum of 10%, we are screwed. Of course, I don’t see many communities offering to increase their numbers of subsidized units so that Woonsocket can reduce theirs, do we? No other northern RI cities and towns request that all of these welfare offices, social service programs, etc move into their town, do they? The problem is not Woonsocket. It is the rest of the State that has a NIMBY syndrome. And what has the state done to assist Woonsocket with its costs? Continue to make cuts to education, revenue sharing, etc. We will never be able to dig out of this hole, and everyone else in RI makes fun of people from Woonsocket and write stories about them. I would like to offer another side of Woonsocket to this writer of the article if he would want to take time to visit here someday. However, I doubt that will ever happen. If you want to write a bad article about ANY city or town, you can. If you want to write a good one, you can do that too.

    • Jason

      Good point on balance, but why would other towns and cities seek to increase their subsidized housing percentages given your experience?

      It all come back to assumptions. Subsidized housing, welfare, food stamps etc., were sold as temporary measures to enable good folks to get back on their feet. The underlying assumption is that all people share core values, are somewhat equal in ability and drive, etc.. That they would want to get back on their feet–and our politicians really wanted to help them do so.

      These assumptions are false. We have generations of people living in subsidized housing and on gov’t assistance. They don’t, in general (yes–we have the few that do try), share core values with the majority of society (yet).

      We now have a permanent underclass, enabled and pandered to by politicians paying for their votes with other citizens tax dollars. Crime, school costs, etc., are all driven up by these communities who take much more than they give. So, again, why would anyone want to take more?

      • ShannonEntropy

        It is a very inner-resting story of how subsidized housing evolved from its original intent — to help people get back on their feet — to turning into an overwhelming “minority” crime-ridden way of life … so much so that “Section 8″ has become a coded racial put·down

        Much of that story is in this article =►

        • Warrington Faust

          A few observations. Reference is made to the “International” Meat Market. “International”, like “Caribbean” indicates an ethnic clientele. I have no idea of the ethnic make up of Woonsocket. When I was a kid, it was thought of as French Canadian.

          “Subsidized housing”, HUD. This is an industry now. It can no longer deal with individuals and is restricted to “non-profits”. When politicians “retire” they become “HUD Consultants”. Naturally, they lobby for it endlessly. The scams and scandals are endless. I remember when Mass. Senator Ed Brooke became an “un-indicted co-conspirator” in one. He now has a courthouse named after him. I may exaggerate slightly, it is my impression that outside of major, wealthy, cities, it is only possible to build a large residential project with subsidy. Observe the response when Rhode Island killed it’s “Historic Property” credit (which are salable, giving cash to create the “down payment”).So, the government provides the developer with his “down stroke”.

      • To all contributors,
        I could not agree with you more. I understand how Section 8 and subsidized housing in general has ruined big cities(and even small ones like Woonsocket). The 2 family housing developments which were constructed for families when their spouse came home from WWII, has turned into a Police and Fire Dept. nightmare. Drug sales and use are rampant, the Rescue gets called like it’s their private ambulance, etc. It is disgusting. Again, Woonsocket residents in general did not turn those developments into the cesspools that they are today, politicians did. And with lobbyist monies from all types of social service agencies, these politicians just keep on throwing good money after bad and continue to ruin the City. Jason, you make a good point. After seeing Woonsocket and what it is like today, why would anyone want to become like that. If you are familiar with RhodeMap RI, it is the Democrats in Washington’s hope that the state will be overrun by subsidized housing coming to a neighborhood like yours (Obviously, I don’t know where you live, but I’m sure you get my point).. Then we can ALL be like Woonsocket. Between the Feds at HUD, and the State Planning Commission, they all hope we just let this happen and don’t fight them on it. Well, everyone had better start fighting, or we will all be like Woonsocket in the not-too-distant future if they have their way.

        • Mike678

          I share your concerns with one caveat–it wasn’t politicians that “turn those developments into the cesspools that they are today”–it was the people living there. We need to focus responsibility on where it belongs. The politicians just enabled them, giving them, as the Baltimore mayor did, time and space to destroy.