New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is getting a lot of traction calling out public sector employees as 21st century welfare queens. Thirty-five years ago Ronald Reagan popularized the phrase during the 1976 presidential campaign, spinning elaborate tales of women, mostly black, who abused the welfare system. The image of profligate black women fleecing hard working Americans played well; ‘welfare queen’ is a term that invites a visceral response. Reagan eventually won two terms as president; the parties tripped over themselves to enact welfare reform, and when President Clinton ended ‘Welfare as we know it’ in 1996 by replacing Aid for Families with Dependent Children with the stop-gap TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families), welfare queens disappeared from public discourse. But back in their glory days, 1977 and 1978, I had the good fortune to know one very well.
I spent that academic year as a VISTA volunteer in Levelland, Texas, providing housing and energy conservation assistance to the poor and elderly of the South Plains. This required a disparate set of skills – absorbing arcane government eligibility regulations, palling with cowboy booted USDA county agents, learning Spanish, designing solar hot water heaters, driving 2,000 miles per month, praising the cornbread and Jell-O salads at the endless covered dish luncheons, shooting a gun (my first and only time), downing Tequila shots, getting stoned, and dispensing hundreds of thousands of dollars in energy and housing assistance funds to the polyglot of whites, blacks and Latinos who scrape a living from this broad swath of earth dominated by huge corporate farms. The fields were beautiful, miles of speckled white cotton and brilliant yellow sunflowers undulating in an immense inland sea; the towns were ugly, squat and pale; the people friendly and accommodating.
One day I canvassed the black neighborhood north of town, across the tracks, within the shadowy stench of the soybean processing plant, to tell people about the energy improvement / heating bill assistance available. I knocked on the door of a wide, narrow house with a long front porch. A black woman answered, medium height, medium weight, medium expression, a few curler papers stuck to the ends of her damp hair.
Emmer Lee Whitfield leaned against the door, listened for a few moments, nodded, then spoke. “I could use that. This here house is so drafty and my bills is so high.” I wrote down pertinent information. It took a long time. Emmer Lee reported that she was disabled; she had two high school aged children. She received food stamps and AFDC and SSI and Medicaid; her son was part of a CETA job training program, her daughter was in a different program. Within ten minutes Emmer Lee rattled off the details of these programs with impressive fluency. She knew the income limits, eligibility requirements, funding cycles. I distrusted her. She didn’t look disabled, her house was no palace, but it was better than most on the unpaved street, she was clearly smart enough to work. I took all of information and left, resolved to find some way to disqualify her from receiving yet another government program.
Back in the office, I asked about Emmer Lee Whitfield. Everyone smiled knowingly. She was a professional welfare recipient, receiving virtually every form of assistance our Community Action Agency offered. And even though it galled me, she qualified and received energy conservation assistance. As the year progressed I ran into Emmer Lee from time to time. She was pleasant and soft spoken but having decided she was a fraud, I gave her little opportunity to justify herself.
The next round of energy conservation assistance funds arrived with more complicated eligibility requirements. One provision required forming committees of local citizens charged with evaluating and disbursing the funds. The committees had to include members from the community at large, the utility companies and the ‘target population’, a bureaucratic euphemism for poor people. My job was to assemble and facilitate these committees in seven counties, which meant a meeting pretty much every night. When I considered who might serve in Hockley County, of which Levelland is county seat, Emmer Lee Whitfield topped my list.
In a typical meeting of a Community Energy Conservation Group, four to six folding tables and chairs sit in a square. The utility executive arrives in a suit; as does the community member that I cajoled from our board. They sit next to each other in the front of the room. Other representatives of these groups sit nearby and take notes. I sit to the side with my huge stack of applications. The target community representatives sit in the far corner in their work clothes. I describe an applicant; pass the paperwork around the table. The executives scan and comment. The target representatives nod. Whoever the suits recommend gets the money.
But the first meeting in Levelland was different. The Vice President of the utility company set himself in the main seat. Emmer Lee Whitfield came in and placed her purse right next to him. She wore a shirtwaist dress of satin sheen, small pumps and a single set of pearls. With the natural order of the room disrupted, the rest of the group found chairs as they could. I started through the applications. Emmer Lee looked them over first. She checked the name and provided an opinion. “Bertha Mae really needs this because husband is laid up… Wanda’s boyfriend is working nights on a rig down in Denver City, they are doing fine…Millie doesn’t need the cash so much, but she could use some repairs that she can’t manage now that her son has left home.” She commented on every black applicant and a good number of the whites and Latinos as well. Emboldened, the other target representatives spoke up. The meeting took longer than usual, but when we were done we had actually allocated the money according to an understanding of need much deeper than the application forms could describe.
I walked home that night, past the quiet courthouse square and the bank sign flashing time and temperature. Eighty-two degrees at 10 pm on a quiet May night. The sky never exhibited more stars. In two months I would be leaving; I was ready to go. Hopefully I had touched some people during my tenure, but that night it was me who witnessed an event that would shape my perspective forever; a woman of extraordinary ability at the top of her game. Emmer Lee Whitfield was the most accomplished welfare recipient I ever met, and even if it is not a skill we condone, I had to applaud her ability, a poor black woman in a backwater of our country with scant education and few prospects. In 2011, a well dressed articulate black woman sitting next to an executive might be accepted as an important member of the proceedings, but in Levelland, Texas, 1978, she was brazenly out of place.
I believe Emmer Lee Whitfield understood the options that life presented her with a clarity few of us can claim, and she understood that her best opportunities lay in extracting the most from the welfare system. I am confident that without welfare, Emmer Lee would have survived; perhaps she would have even exceeded the limits that the welfare life imposed. But I acknowledge her decision to be a welfare queen as a rational one. Each of us, every day, absorbs the world around us, assesses our strengths, our opportunities, and determines how to engage with the world. The systems our society has established, whether they be Wall Street or welfare, are key factors in these decisions.
The principle lesson I learned in my year in VISTA was almost the opposite of what I expected. It was not a lesson of altruism or virtue. It was the stark, Ayn Randian reality that “All people act in their self interest” and the corollary acceptance that “Self interest is always the best possible motive for action.” The magic of realizing this reality in the context of a VISTA year is that it begs the question of what constitutes self-interest. I believe Emmer Lee Whitfield acted in her best interest, very astutely, as a welfare queen.
Fast forward to 2011 and we have Scott Walker facing off the unions in Madison and Chris Christie stirring venom in Trenton, demanding that the ‘welfare queens’ of the public sector forego collective bargaining rights and accept the insecurities that we pension-less, seniority-less, private sector employees have learned to endure.
Like so many points of tension, this is a debate about self-interest. Out of fear, the public employees perceive their self-interest lies in the status quo. Proponents of less government envision collective benefits from lower taxes and they rattle the taxpayer’s sense of injustice to strip benefits enjoyed by a dwindling few. Each group defines self interest in a narrow, niggardly way, fomenting division by defining a limited resource pie that must be sliced into winners and losers.
No one acknowledges how the systems we create twist individual self-interest out of whack with broader objectives. Having had the good fortune to know a woman who made clear, rational decisions and ended up a welfare queen, I know that our conflicts about competing self-interests will continue until we change the tenor of the debate. First we must define the collective interest, and then develop political and economic systems that align individual interests with the common good. Each individual will also always act in his or her best interest, and I think that is good. How individual interests reinforce the collective interest; that is what defines us as a society.