Making “Welfare” a Curse Word, No Matter How Many Benefit

BOSTON, MA – OCTOBER 14: Members of the National Welfare Rights Organization march along Summer Street in Boston on Oct. 14, 1969. (Photo by Phil Preston/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Kawakawa, New Zealand       Many years ago, we organized tens of thousands of people to demand welfare “rights,” but amazingly to me, the right has managed to usurp a fundamental entitlement by promoting welfare “wrongs.”  The New York Times had a depressing piece on how this tide turned based on an examination of recent work done by Cornell political scientist, Suzanne Mettler.

When I was organizing with the National Welfare Rights Organization in based in Springfield and Boston, Massachusetts in 1969 and 1970, Mettler found that…

7 percent of the average citizen’s income came from federal social transfers, and in 1979 it was 11 percent. By 2014, it was 17 percent, according to Mettler’s analysis of dozens of programs, including means-tested aid like food stamps, benefits tailored to narrow populations like veterans, and broad-based government programs like Social Security.

Of course this doesn’t even count the largest government benefit program we have in terms of cost which is the home mortgage deduction, as I detailed in my book, Citizen Wealth almost a decade ago, because that’s a tax transfer, but because that benefit is enjoyed by the middle and upper classes, no one calls it welfare regardless of the facts.

Ironically, despite the rising number of people benefiting from direct and indirect government benefit programs, Mettler found, surprising none of us, that there’s still no love for the government and these programs, even from beneficiaries.  As the article notes,

Their feelings about government don’t appear connected to their own direct experience of it. But those feelings are shaped by opinions about other people’s reliance on government aid — specifically, on “welfare.”

Welfare has become such a pejorative term in the United States that the Trump administration, fueled by rightwing anti-poor zealots, is trying to rebrand more popular programs as welfare and house them under some agency with “welfare” in the name in order to reduce the support for the programs.  Ronald Reagan doesn’t deserve all of the credit for this, but he was a leader of the hater-pack labeling welfare recipients with a broad brush as “welfare queens.”  Culturally he had help, as many continue to perpetuate myths of themselves and others as the “deserving” poor, rather than the rest of the poor.  All of this despite the fact that thanks to President Clinton and the rest of the gang, there are only 2.5 million people on traditional welfare payments now which is less than 1% of the population.

No small amount of this shaming is evidence of unconfessed racial bias and antipathy to people living in the big, bad city, but no matter the disguise it damages families that need the support and are entitled to receive it.

Mettler is quoted saying that if you want to kill a social program, call it welfare.  She’s probably right, but in every other way, that’s just plain wrong.


Deforestation, New Zealand Style

botanical gardens

Ahipara, New Zealand    Family vacations are wonderful things.  I idealize them perhaps.  After four days in Auckland and Ahipara in the “far north” of the country where we are traveling, I rated not only the trip, but the family interactions in the A+ range.  In organizations there’s something called “founder’s syndrome” which speaks to many issues, some real and some false, but valuably warns of self-delusion.  Perhaps there’s a “father’s syndrome” much like that.  To my surprise not everyone was grading the marks as high as I was.  There was even a B-!

Outside of the car though, there is universal agreement about the beauty and wonders of the country.  We’re not in Lord of the Rings space, that’s the South Island.  We’re in the north island and in the far north, though it is winter here, they refer to the climate as subtropical, and it in fact has been near perfect temperatures.  I hope I didn’t just put my dirty mouth on it.

Of course, it’s crazy expensive, but that’s not atypical of island countries and continents.  A cup of coffee, even at a gas station, is 4.50 NZ which is about $6 and change in USD.  Gas is through the sky.  Food is crazy, but, as I say, it’s what seasoned travelers would expect.  As for driving on the left side of the road, what can I say, thankfully, so far so good.

We visited the Auckland Botanical Garden.  I’m a huge fan of such gardens.  I try to visit them everywhere I travel if I have an extra minute.  The one in Rio de Janiero is my favorite and Kew Gardens outside of London I might have thought was the best, but Auckland might just be in a different league.  It was amazing!

I can’t help but try to find out more about a such a gorgeous and exotic country and environment and of course there’s always other features not visible cruising along the highway.  We picked up some $2 NZ books at the Botanical library.  Reading one, Historic Trails of the Far North from 1981 by E.V. Sale, has been eye opening.  Though ostensibly Sale is writing about what’s along the roads going north all the way to Cape Reinga, he details the bloody missionary and colonial imperialist battles with the Maori including some coverage of the Maori’s inter-tribal wars.  There’s nothing pretty to read here.  This is the American story of exploitation of native peoples with another accent but the same through line.


Every story and plaque talk about the giant kauri forests, yet I’m not sure I’ve seen a single tree.  Some of the sheep grazing on green grass hills along the road are really an example of almost total deforestation.  Kauri was immensely valuable.  The girth of the trees was huge and their height serious.  Ships coveted kauri for their masts and builders for their endurance and ability to stand the weather.  They are protected in some state forests, but they were sacred to the Maori and just commercial to others.  The sap produced a gum and brought thousands of gumdiggers.  Fresh or moistened, it could be chewed, but its real value lay in how flammable it was as tinder or torches.

So far, the only kauri I have seen are as stumps or as tree fall.  There’s a wonderland in New Zealand, but there are also lessons from the past, still important today if anyone is willing to learn.

dunes and deforestation