Televisions came ablaze in the battleground states last week, with Mitt Romney pants on fire ads accusing Barack Obama of issuing an order to free public assistance recipients from forced labor requirements. The ad goes like this, as if speaking directly to imagined welfare bums: “Under Obama’s plan you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check.” While using this reliable red meat Republican campaign meme is debatably problematic on many levels, there’s one thing that’s certain—it’s a blatant lie. But don’t take my word on this.
What the Obama administration’s Department of Health and Human Services did was create a mechanism for states to apply for waivers from rigid federal welfare guidelines in order to institute experimental projects mostly designed to cut costs. This is a conservative state’s rights issue that Republican governors have been lobbying for since midway through the George W. Bush presidency, when Romney, as governor of Massachusetts, joined a host of other Republican governors in petitioning the White House to enact the very order that the Obama administration just issued.
While this fact alone would clearly shine a light on Romney’s over-the-top hypocrisy, statements last week from George W. Bush’s former senior advisor on welfare policies, Ron Haskins, illuminate the dishonesty in Romney’s attack. Haskins, who spent 14 years as welfare council to the Republican staff on the House Ways and Means Committee, told NPR that, “There’s no plausible scenario” by which the Obama administration move would constitute “a serious attack on [conservative Clinton-era] welfare reform,” including the controversial “workfare” requirement. It just gives states leeway to institute their own policies—none of which will likely eliminate work or training requirements. Now compare that to what Romney’s ad says.
The so-called workfare requirement instituted by the Clinton administration as a federal mandate, however, is quite problematic, and does indeed need to be rescinded. In practice, the rule mandates that people on welfare work for the government in order to receive benefits. This sounds fair, except that the compensation or salary, which we misguidedly call “benefits,” is often well below the minimum wage, and many states demand that such “benefits” be repaid in the future, should the “recipient” (employee?) land a paying job, or otherwise come into money. It gets worse, the jobs that such recipients are assigned, such as cleaning public parks and thoroughfares, were formerly carried out by paid employees earning living wages. Under the “reform” scenario, those jobs are gone. In extreme cases, laid off workers forced to go on welfare could, theoretically, be forced to do their old jobs as scantily compensated and societally denigrated welfare recipients. But unfortunately Romney lied and the Obama administration so far, has actually let this mandate stand.
No matter what the reality of this latest Romney camp accusation, scapegoating welfare recipients has been a reliable meme in Republican electoral playbooks going back decades. And oftentimes this meme infers an erroneous blackness to welfare recipients, with the term “welfare” itself, becoming a racial code word used to incite white racist voters. The actual face of welfare recipients in the United States is more likely white, and often rural. But you’d never know this listening to Republican or Dixiecrat rhetoric.
Earlier in this campaign season, Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich railed to a white New Hampshire audience that, “If the NAACP invites me, I’ll go to their convention and talk about why the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.” It’s obvious that an unemployed public assistance recipient, given the injustice of workfare or the inability to survive on food stamps alone, would demand a proper job and salary. So why single out African-Americans? And why do it in front of a white audience in the fourth whitest state in the country? Such rhetoric reinforces the racist myth of black folks somehow living large on welfare checks. The Republican leadership, rather than ask Gingrich to apologize, has invited him to speak at their national convention later this month.
Then there’s former GOP presidential hopeful, Rick Santorum. At a campaign stop in Iowa, the fifth whitest state in the country, Santorum bellowed, “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money; I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money.” Again, the same red meat to shamelessly ignite the same racist base, and the same very tired old stereotype, which needs to finally be put to rest.
This all brings us to first term New York State Senator, Mark Grisanti. Grisanti recently sent out a mailing. Side one bore the recipient’s address and two lines, “Senator Mark Grisanti: Protecting Your Tax Dollars,” and “Stamping Out Taxpayer Abuse.” Side two bore a large photo of a New York State electronic benefit card, like those used by public assistance recipients. The sole message of the mailing was that Grisanti was one of the co-sponsors of a bill to stop welfare recipients from using their benefit cards to make ATM withdrawals at “places like liquor stores, casinos and strip clubs” and stop welfare recipients from using their cards for “free” “cigarettes,” “alcohol,” “strip clubs” [sic.] and “lottery tickets.”
This all sounds quite reasonable. But the bill, what Grisanti calls, “My bill,” was actually authored by Senator Thomas Libous of Binghamton, who gets no mention in Grisanti’s mailing. Grisanti signed on as a co-sponsor, but co-sponsoring a bill is usually rather routine, and doesn’t often warrant a special mailing to constituents—unless, apparently, it corresponds with the politician’s party’s national push to exploit the welfare meme in a presidential election year. Then we get a rather vapid campaign mailing, which this clearly is. But here’s the rub. Despite blazoning the front of the mailing with a picture of a rubber stamp stamping, in red ink, the line, “Stamping Out Taxpayer Abuse,” Grisanti, slipped this mass mailing out on the public dime, charging it to the New York Senate.
The state government, as in taxpayers, does pay the cost of a senator’s postage, when that mailing is related to official business. Historically, politicians have stretched that definition, often sending out their glossy newsletters at taxpayer expense around election time. The caveat, however, is that they are ostensibly newsletters. They are informative, usually letting constituents know about programs, services and events in the community, as well as letting people know about everything their elected official has been doing in their name. They look different from the politician’s campaign mailings. But not in this case. Still, Grisanti’s welfare mailing fits within the letter of the law, but the hypocrisy here is over the top.
There’s more. The Grisanti bill, which is actually the Libous bill, stems not from any initiative on the part of anyone in Albany, but instead is a rather routine piece of housekeeping, bringing state law into compliance with federal mandates. In this case, the Libous bill brings New York law into sync with recent legislation out of Washington, signed by President Obama in February, stating that states must enact rules or laws barring use of public assistance payments in strip clubs, casinos and liquor stores.
For his part, Libous claims he first became aware of the problem when constituents complained of seeing welfare recipients at Wal-Mart and at liquor stores buying liquor and cigarettes. But here’s the rub. While Libous’s bill is supposed to prevent welfare recipients from using their benefit cards to withdraw cash at ATM machines in casinos and stores selling alcohol (but not cigarettes), it exempts ATM machines in stores such as Wal-Mart, “which sells both alcoholic beverages and staple foods.” And it exempts machines in any retail store selling staple foods that is “located within the same building or complex as a casino.”
So, in practice, the law would prohibit a public assistance recipient from using their benefit card like a credit card to buy a case of beer or carton of cigarettes at, say, Wal-Mart. But they can still use their benefit card at an in-store ATM, or, in stores that allow it, to get cash back at the cash register, which they can then use in a separate transaction to buy alcohol, cigarettes or lottery tickets. With alcohol, tobacco and gambling all being very addictive vices, it’s unlikely that this easy extra step will stop any addicts hell bent on getting their fixes, making the law worthless as anything other than a campaign meme.
Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and media studies at SUNY Buffalo State . His previous columns are at artvoice.com, archived at www.mediastudy.com, and available globally through syndication.
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