December 21, 2011

A Local Conservative Celebrity

Patrick Laverty

It seems that we have a local conservative celebrity in Rhode Island. If you haven't already heard, Providence College junior Christine Rousselle is getting some national attention for a column she wrote for The College Conservative at PC. She's going to be appearing on The Today Show on January 9th to discuss her article.

My Time at Walmart: Why We Need Serious Welfare Reform is attracting the attention as she details her time working the cash registers at her local Walmart in Scarborough, Maine. She'd writes of abuses of government entitlement programs such as

People ignoring me on their iPhones while the state paid for their food.
This one sounds similar to the mini-excitement that came about when a man in line to eat at a homeless shelter was being served by Michelle Obama and he took a picture of her while on his Blackberry Pearl.
People using TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) money to buy such necessities such as earrings, kitkat bars, beer, WWE figurines, and, my personal favorite, a slip n’ slide. TANF money does not have restrictions like food stamps on what can be bought with it.
And one of the favorites, the hot dog man:
A man who ran a hotdog stand on the pier in Portland, Maine used to come through my line. He would always discuss his hotdog stand and encourage me to “come visit him for lunch some day.” What would he buy? Hotdogs, buns, mustard, ketchup, etc. How would he pay for it? Food stamps. Either that man really likes hotdogs, or the state is paying for his business.
I guess we can consider that one a small business government grant. It's just coming out of the left pocket instead of the right.

Probably the most surprising thing to me about her article and the reaction to it isn't so much the content of her article. I don't think it is new news. These are all things that some have seen for a long time. One other area of fraud that she didn't touch on, maybe because there's no real incentive for Walmart to engage in it is the SNAP swap. Someone on the food stamps can head into their local convenience store, hand over the equivalent of $20 to the store and get $10 in return. It's a win for the store and it's a win for the customer, assuming neither gets caught.

One way that much of this abuse could possibly be lessened is instead of giving people money for their food, give them the food itself. The problem is that we want people to have at least the essentials, so let's provide them with that. Even if we need to have deliveries to the homes themselves, bring a package of the necessities as they are needed. If the people want something else, they can go buy it with their own money. But at least they'll have the necessities of things like milk, bread, vegetables, and proteins in some form.

Before the flaming starts, I will say that while I do believe that the type of fraud and abuse described both by Rousselle and myself does happen, I truly do not believe it is widespread. I don't believe it is anything even close to a majority. I believe it is an extreme minority. However when there are millions of people on the system, even a small minority of "millions" can lead to a lot of abuse. Hopefully Rousselle's column continues to open eyes to this system and we find areas to improve these programs.

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A very good article. She is brave for writing it.

One of the most misinformed recurring pieces of advice I used to get was that I should move to Maine because it is more "libertarian." I don't know where this perception came from - perhaps its rural nature or its proximity to libertarian New Hampshire - but Maine is truly the worst of both worlds. It has every wasteful, overly generous, backwards welfare program ever devised in this country, high taxes, and the social bigotry and anti-intellectualism associated with the worst elements of the conservative movement. It is an failed statist experiment through and through. Rhode Island should thank its lucky stars for Maine or it really would be last place in every category.

Posted by: Dan at December 21, 2011 3:52 PM

If you want to be outraged all over again check out the quality of vehicles you'll find in the parking lots of "low income" subsidized housing.

Posted by: Tim at December 21, 2011 6:07 PM

Dan, try Vermont for a truly failed "statist" state.

As to the events recited in the article, I can give you similar examples dating back to the Roman Republic. It is just human nature, it has to be anticipated.

"Someone on the food stamps can head into their local convenience store, hand over the equivalent of $20 to the store and get $10 in return."

While that was very common, and promoted the survival of "mom & pop" stores, I thought that the EBT cards had severely curbed that. Is my assumption erroneous? Do some states still use the stamps?

"instead of giving people money for their food, give them the food itself."

It seems to me that RI used to do that. Too many complaints about the type of food. Lots of lard, lots of peanut butter,etc. A little "bad old days", a relative in Virginia was in charge of handing out food in the Depression. According to him,they had to stay open until after dark in order to get people to come. True???

Posted by: Warrington Faust at December 21, 2011 6:18 PM

Hopefully this will be the push this issue needs to bring the welfare fiasco to light. I hope the media doesn't paint this young woman as a racist right wing tea party wingnut but that's probably too much to ask.

Posted by: seirra1 at December 21, 2011 6:59 PM

For those who've hit the trifecta of public assistance, that being Section 8, food stamps, and welfare cash for extended periods, I like the idea of an all inclusive, institutional style suite, sans cells and barbed wire fences. You know, three hots and a cot. The basics. Free to leave whenever opportunity knocks.

Just my 2 cents.

Posted by: swamper at December 21, 2011 7:07 PM

"It is just human nature, it has to be anticipated."

I think this may have given the wrong inpression. I meant that fraud has to be anticipated and measures taken at the outset to prevent it. In truth it is probably a tiny, but very visible, segment which is taking advantage of the system. It seems to me that 15% of Massachusetts is on them. Still, we all see them in convenience stores, and wonder why they are not stretching them at places with better prices.

It has to be remembered that a significant impetus behind food stamps is the benefit to agribusiness. Perhaps fraud reduction is not encouraged.

It seems to me I heard a radio interview in Massachusetts where they talked about how the EBT cards had reduced fraud. Of course, debit cards had been around for 15 years before the state got onto it.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at December 21, 2011 7:39 PM

You are dead wrong - the fraud is massive and widespread!

Posted by: Mike Cappelli at December 21, 2011 7:40 PM

Patrick, I agree that the fraud the occurs is a small sliver of the total amount of money exchanging hands, but it is significant. Also, you'll see that some of the farther-left folks willing to ignore it: SNAP benefits 'come from the federal government', they actually 'help the local economy' by 'bringing in out-of-state money'... That's sort of true in a rats-on-a-sinking-ship sort of way.

A bigger concern is how eligibility is handled. Rhode Island has a tremendous 'underground' economy. I know of people who work three part-time jobs with only one 'on the books', then collect SNAP and heating assistance. I went to several barbecues this summer thrown by folks who collect and also 'consult' or work underground.

It's clear to me that the actual quality-of-life at the bottom of the wage scale is pretty bad (I've been there), and living on the dole offers about the same. I'm not sure the 'stick' of cutting benefits would help much unless it's coupled with some sort of 'carrot' that made hard work seem worthwhile.

I'm actually starting to think a 'hybrid' of Patrick's idea (the food, not the purchasing power) would be good: Let anyone who wants it have it for free. That's right, set up some standards on what's offered, buy it in bulk, distribute it to food pantries, meals-on-wheels, schools, nursing homes, and hospitals. Let anyone access it sans-paperwork. You could privatize the production and distribution. No army of state workers to process paperwork; just the shame of having to serve your family rice, canned beans, and steamed broccoli. This is all actually feeding right into Justin's argument, but I think 'feeding everyone' is something the majority can agree on as a bare minimum in a country with such a high per-capita GDP.

Another benefit to the plan I just outlined is that it would allow the state to do -some- manipulation of the market for our own good. It's clear that handing people money (or equivalents) will lead to lots of fast food cheeseburgers and heart attacks. Maybe using government to 'keep the channel open' between our plates and vegetables is a win, especially considering that right now the government simultaneously subsidizes cheeseburgers, pays for heart attack surgery, AND employs non-profit farming advocates.

Posted by: mangeek at December 21, 2011 8:00 PM

"You are dead wrong - the fraud is massive and widespread!"

No I'm not. It's not.

Ok, now that we're even on the "ridiculous and unfounded statement scale", maybe we can get to real discussions.

Mike, if you have proof to back up your statement. I'm all ears.

Posted by: Patrick at December 21, 2011 8:33 PM

"You are dead wrong - the fraud is massive and widespread! No I'm not. It's not."
Maybe it's my line of work but it is massive and widespread I see it on a daily basis, not being "ridiculous" here just stating fact. I could do a post a day of a new welfare scam recepient who's abusing your tax dollars.

Posted by: seirra1 at December 21, 2011 9:07 PM

There's no real way to know how widespread this sort of thing is one way or the other. There is no "welfare abuse task force" that patrols the Walmarts and Shaws Supermarkets checking IDs or auditing people's bank records.

We've all seen the obese welfare queen in line at the supermarket with her four screaming children buying cookie cakes, magazines, and Doritos with EBT while arguing into her touchscreen phone. What we don't know is how representative this is. Listening to people who deal with this stuff everyday is one good way. At a minimum, we should agree that it is a major problem that is undermining the integrity of our entire society and creating a permanent underclass of people. Nobody is a winner with this kind of generational dependency (except RI Democrats).

Posted by: Dan at December 21, 2011 10:53 PM

Section 8 tenants move in across the street, drive later model and higher end vehicles, are observed swiping EBT cards in grocery store, and work as waitstaff. Cars parked haphazardly in front lawn when not driven exactly 150' to pick up junior from school bus.

Isolated case?
I don't think so. I think we all know of at least one or two examples of people gaming the system. When taken collectively, I would dare say that the abuse rises to the level of widespread.

Posted by: swamper at December 22, 2011 7:26 AM

"Patrick, I agree that the fraud the occurs is a small sliver of the total amount of money exchanging hands, but it is significant."

Not only that, it is contrary to "good order and discipline". I am sure it is admired by those who do not have the ability, or sufficient incentive, to participate in the faud. By its very existance, it degrades the entire system. The thought that "everyone is doing it" is not an incentive to honesty or fair dealing.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at December 22, 2011 7:35 AM

To the people who say they believe this fraud is widespread, maybe like sierra who sees it in the workplace, I think we need to take a look at how sampling is done and see "sampling bias". I'm not saying you're biased, I'm referring to an actual research term. Here's an example. I work in an IT department with about 200 people. Thus I could surmise that everyone in the world understands computer programming and networking, because I see it a lot at my office.

It's akin to a story I was told by an older member of my family who is a bit umm, racist. I asked why and was told it is because when he was younger, he had a friend who was black but then when this friend got around other black people, he turned his back on my family member. First, I don't know what the color of the guy's skin had to do with it, but this is an example of sampling error. This had an N of 1. Yet all others are lumped in together. Just because one behaved a certain way, everyone else in the group will behave the same way and should be treated accordingly? I disagree. Similar to where I think many are seeing the fraud and abuse. To me, "massive and widespread" would mean at least a majority. There are millions of people receiving aid. If the majority of millions were defrauding the system, it'd be easy to root out and eradicate. Heck, it might even be justified to end the whole system if it was a very large majority. However, I would guess that even Christine Rousselle would admit that many others using their EBT were using it correctly and for the stated purpose. You just don't tend to notice those as much because it's "normal". You notice things that are out of normal and those are the ones that were remembered and mentioned.

That's my thinking behind my statements where I said I don't believe it is widespread.

Posted by: Patrick at December 22, 2011 8:38 AM

"To me, "massive and widespread" would mean at least a majority."

I don't see the value in that metric. Maybe when discussing who is to blame abstractly, but certainly not in any statistical or policy sense. The 51% marker is as arbitrary as 49% or even 5%. In many systems, even a small percentage (<10%) of people can be significant enough to bring down the entire system or have extremely serious effects. The Pareto Principle is one common manifestation. Similarly, a relatively small percentage of people are destroying our healthcare system for everyone through overuse and abuse, but in aggregate the scope of the problem is widespread and the effects are massive. To say nothing of the collateral social effects and multiplier through dependents.

I'd rather err on the side of overinclusiveness when it comes to discussing welfare reform than downplay or qualify the problem out of political correctness and see nothing done at all. It is also worth pointing out that even though your principle about sampling bias is valid, there is the equally valid "cockroach" principle that for every abuse you see, there is a whole lot of abuse you aren't seeing.

"If the majority of millions were defrauding the system, it'd be easy to root out and eradicate."

Also disagree. More abuse means more money to fix it, and money is what we don't have. Statistically, most police and fireman in various RI municipalities retire on disability, which is prima facie evidence of fraud on a massive scale. This has been widely publicized for at least a decade. How many individuals have lost their disability status as a result? None. It's still easier to deny the problem (union position) or just accept and live with the problem (taxpayer position) than to actually do anything about it. Many consider welfare fraud just the cost of buying off the underclass in our society. Keep them fat and happy and out of our hair, etc. I am not one of such people for a number of reasons.

Posted by: Dan at December 22, 2011 9:06 AM

Mom gets the benefits, applies for SSDI for the dysfunctional kids that they constructed through abuse, and boyfriend buys all the goodies (Escolade, 55 inch TV, smartphone, etc.). That is a scenario that is far too pervasive. Not widespread, but significant.

Also, get to your corner store on the first and watch the folks buying their potato chips, snack cakes, and diet soda using their "gold card" and you will understand what true abuse looks like. Maybe abuse is too strong a word, let's just call it raw ignorance.

After you see enough of this, being only cynical is a step up.

Posted by: John at December 22, 2011 9:28 AM

Dan, I think it's a semantic issue. It's what the general public understands. If there is a "massive and widespread fraud" situation reported on the news, are people thinking that it's 1 in 20? 1 in 10 or are they thinking it's at least 50/50? They're not thinking that it means it's costing the state millions of dollars through just a small minority of people doing it. That's where I think the semantics and phrasing come into effect. It's like saying "I got hit by a car!", what immediately comes to mind? Some idiot speeding down a road and carelessly running me over. When it could mean that, it could mean it was rolling along at 1 mph in the driveway and bumped into me.

So many words that people use to describe things are subjective and they often don't realize it. This is why I like putting an objective term like "at least half" on it to describe it.

Posted by: Patrick at December 22, 2011 9:40 AM

"Mom gets the benefits, applies for SSDI for the dysfunctional kids that they constructed through abuse, and boyfriend buys all the goodies (Escolade, 55 inch TV, smartphone, etc.). That is a scenario that is far too pervasive."

Oh yes. Don't forget the $200 a month in FS for each kid.
First reform needed-stop giving kids "crazy checks".
Clinton kept his word to "end welfare as we know it"---everybody went on SSI and SSDI.

Posted by: Tommy Cranston at December 22, 2011 1:07 PM

"Maine is truly the worst of both worlds."

Maine teabagged the progressives by electing a Republican governor and legislature last year while we elected Chafee,Roberts, Kilmartin, Reed, Sissyline and a 90% Dumbocrat legislature.
Tell me again who is "worst".

Posted by: Tommy Cranston at December 22, 2011 1:12 PM
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