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December 9, 2002

Of Ribeye Steaks and Private Educations

So I'm drifting across a few message boards the other day. As luck would have it, one poster hit upon a subject that, due to some experiences during my high-school working years, I've always done my best to avoid.   But what the heck . . . it got me thinking again. So here goes:

During high school, I spent my after-school and evening hours working at a small corner grocery store in a low-income neighborhood.   After working there for a short while, I learned to do everything:   work the registers, cut and wrap meat, stock shelves . . . the whole retail enchilada.   So there I was, a west-side kid employed at an east-side grocery.

It was an economically enlightening experience.

I remember the store owner frequently saying that if it weren't for the 1st and the 15th of the month (food-stamp distribution days), his store would have no chance of keeping its steel-barred doors open.   And he was right.   Probably 70% of his revenue came within a span of two or three days around those dates.

Put simply, what I saw during those years (late 1980s) told me that our welfare system in America was probably a dismal failure.

As I watched these families use their food stamps and such to make their food purchases (primarily meats), I couldn't help but notice that most of them were likely eating better than I was.   Family after family used their government assistance funds to load up on sirloins, t-bones, ribeyes, thick-cut pork chops, hot links, thick chuck roasts, and the like.   Sure, they'd buy a little of the cheap stuff (hamburger, chicken), but not in proportion to what they were spending on the prime cuts.   And when their food purchases left them with cash change, it usually got "pooled" with other families' change in the parking lot outside (this ritual I got to watch as I carried sacks out to cars) and then went toward either cigarettes and beer for the adults, or candy for the kids.

Couple this with the fact that I often saw parents instruct their kids and their kids' tag-along friends to get down on all fours and search for coins beneath the food freezers and soda refrigerators, and perhaps you can see why I get just a bit irritated when I hear mention of welfare assistance and its accompaning entitlement mentality.

I observed these folks month-in and month-out.   Probably ninety percent of their faces were immediately recognizable as soon as they hit the door:   The same folks came like clockwork, twice each month, envelopes thick with food stamps in hand. In one sense, they were my paycheck.   In another sense, they were my paycheck's tax dollars being spent with monumental waste and inefficiency.

The pattern of "repetitive entitlement" was plainly evident, and the "I deserve better than hamburger" attitude was voiced amongst folks waiting in the meat-counter line on more than one occasion.   It occurred to me that were I ever in a position where I was unable to provide for my family without public/government assistance, I would likely feel such utter humiliation and self-contempt that I'd DO ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING to get out of that situation as fast as possible.   Obviously the mindset I'd developed by that time (my mid-teenage years) was 180 degrees different than that these customers, most of whom were easily 30 or 40 years old or more.   The low-income life had definitely taught them something, and it was teaching me something too.   Evidently the two "somethings" were in direct conflict.

Which brings me to today.   I stumbled upon this article from the Amarillo Globe-News.   It's a quick story about how food-stamp users are helping out our stressed economy.   It goes like this:   The U.S. economy is in recession, so more people are out of work, so more assistance money is doled out by the government to those folks.   In turn, that government money (which might be spent otherwise but for the economic situation) makes its way back into the retail economy, thus helping to offset the recession.

One of the article's interviewees, a Lisa Rizzo (32-year-old mother of four; disabled fiance; $1,600 per month income), seems to make a pretty good case for her own financial assistance needs.   After all, I imagine that a $1,600 montly income doesn't go far in Rochester, New York.   But then comes this little factoid:

"Rizzo uses some of the money she saves by being on food stamps to pay for her 15-year-old daughter's tuition for private school."

Nice.   So in effect, New York taxpayers are subsidizing Ms. Rizzo's child's private-school education.   Apparently Ms. Rizzo thinks this is just fine; else she probably wouldn't have mentioned it to the reporter.   I wonder how many families in Rochester are (1) paying their share of taxes, (2) not receiving any sort of federal income assistance, and (3) desirous of sending their kids to a private school but simply cannot due to the high cost of such an education.

Granted, Ms. Rizzo's indirect use of the assistance money to bump up the quality of her kid's education isn't misuse at its worst.   She could conceivably be using that "saved money" to run a meth lab out of her basement, or to keep up a relative's drug habit, or something even darker than that.   But we also read that Ms. Rizzo doesn't own a car. (She says she's "saving" for a vehicle also.)   She and her kids rely on public transportation to cart them to work and school.   Good thing these resources are available to her − but I suspect public transportation is not an inexpensive day-to-day option.

Last time I checked, private schooling was a priviledge, not a necessity, because there is a viable alternative:   public education, which is free.   And for most folks, transportation certainly is a necessity.

But, as they say, it's pretty easy to spend other people's money while paying little heed to that money's intended uses.

I just hope all those steaks tasted good . . . and those private educations paid off.

Michael | December 9, 2002

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