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.


LeBron’s Bikes

Auckland         As the sports commentators often say, LeBron James is “part of the conversation” on who might be the greatest basketball player ever.  Having played with the Cleveland Cavaliers where he brought them a title finally after decades and the Miami Heat where he won two championships, he has been in the finals for umpteen consecutive seasons.  Recently, at the end of a contract, he signed another with the storied Los Angeles Lakers to continue his career.   LeBron knows basketball, so why is he at the center of yet more of President Donald Trump’s racist dog whistles to his base?

Well, in defending fellow superstar and longtime opposition competitor Steph Curry’s comment earlier in the year that he and the Golden State Warriors had no interest in visiting the White House as long as Trump was running the circus there, LeBron had called the president a “bum.”  Most of us would have thought that Trump would have been grateful.  There were so many other things he might have said, as we all well know, but Trump thrives on conflict, so it was on.

Trump bided his time but saw an opportunity.  LeBron James continuing to be an ambassador for northeast Ohio and his hometown of Akron, opened a school there called “Promise Academy.”  Trump pounced on him and insulted his intellect in a signal of racism to his hater band.  He tried to get his goat by saying, “I like Mike,” meaning in the arguments between the two he favors Michael Jordan for the GOAT award.  Jordan for his part voted for LJ, meaning LeBron James.  Melania Trump, the first lady, earned some respect, saying for her part, she would love to visit Promise and see what they are doing for children in Akron.

Most interestingly, I was captivated by the fact that LeBron gave every one of the children coming to the school a bicycle, explaining that having a bike when he was a boy opened up the greater world to him and allowed him to experience its potential and meet people, including white folks, and understand something outside of his home experience.  What a wonderful story.  Not the standard iPad or computer, but a door to the rest of the world and a way to exercise and be mobile at the same time.

Trump had a golden opportunity, but he blew it.  Some mass marketer or philanthropist will hopefully jump on the bandwagon soon to start a national program, let’s call it “LeBron’s bikes” to try and get bicycles to young people everywhere.

And, if Trump doesn’t think LeBron is smart, how brilliant is it of LeBron to be identified with bicycles and not just basketballs.  I bet there is a long line in front of his agent’s office of bike companies from around the world wondering what it would take to have LeBron pitch their bikes or how many of them they can give to children hoping for one.

To miss this opportunity to make some huge social changes you must be some kind of loser bum.