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Thursday, March 8, 2012 12:58 am

The Cadillac Queen drives again

Should one’s stand on dependency depend on who does the depending?


Readers who were around back when Ronald Reagan was just another lying politician and not yet a saint will remember the Cadillac Queen. She was a Chicago welfare recipient who starred in Reagan’s stump speeches for having used 80 names, 30 addresses and 12 Social Security cards to collect benefits for four husbands who were not only not dead but never existed. In all, she bilked the government out of more than $150,000.

Turned out that this fabled doyenne of the professional poor did not exist. Like any good fabulist, the Sage of Tampico had invented her to convey in comprehensible human terms his argument that welfare spending on the poor is a fraud that cheats the honest taxpayers and corrupts the poor – and never mind that her crime was fraud, and not merely being on welfare.

Looking back, this conniver’s gaming of the welfare system doesn’t look any different – apart from its paltry payoff – from a banker’s gaming of the tax code. However, the GOP’s primary candidates hold the poor to a higher standard than they do bankers, excoriating the “entitlement society” being built by our food stamp president.

I would be outraged too if it were true that, as Kevin Drum recently put it, “there’s a vast stream of federal money going to people who are sitting on their asses eating Cheetos instead of going out and earning a living.” Happily it is not. According to a Congressional Budget Office analysis published last year, the share of federal benefits going to the poorest one-fifth of U.S. households has declined from 54 percent to 36 percent in the past 30 years or so. More to my point here, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that the part that goes to the nonworking poor – the tax-sucking wastrels of legend – is only about 10 percent of all federal welfare spending or about 5 percent of all federal spending.

The other 90 percent of federal welfare spending goes to the stalwart yeomen of our middle classes. It takes the form of Medicare and Social Security, disability and unemployment benefits, veterans benefits of a dozen kinds, home care assistance for their sick relatives and free school lunches for their kids. Also, more and more working members of the middle class enjoy the income subsidy of the earned-income tax credit, which is available to families making up to $49,317 a year.

The ideological heirs of Reagan regard this as a cancer eating away at the heart of the Republic. Interesting, then, that the more a state’s people are dependent on federal aid, the more fervently that state’s voters support anti-government Republican candidates. Such mysteries are beyond my ken. Certainly, ignorance can’t be ruled out as an explanation. Surveys consistently show that two of every five G.I. Bill beneficiaries and Medicare recipients do not believe that they have benefited from a government social program. Many of these recipients, I expect, believe they are entitled financially to federal aid in the form of Social Security because it’s actually “their money” and not a tax-paid benefit.

That’s true enough if one is a retiree who earned average wages and paid into the system over a lifetime of work; however, the many working people who made less than the mean annual wage get back much more than they paid, if indeed they paid anything at all, which nonworking spouses do not. As for Medicare, the average geezer gets three times more in benefits than he paid in payroll deductions.

No doubt other aid recipients see themselves as morally entitled because, even if they are not working now, they worked once. Or because they are unlucky victims of layoffs or injury or illness who have no choice. Their uneasy consciences about accepting charity becomes them, but I’m not sure how a builder drawing disability after he wrecked his back in a shower fall has worse luck than a dropout crippled from birth by ignorant and inattentive parents, lousy food and worse schools and a childhood in a culturally barren home in which no one worked because they didn’t know how to work.

I wish I could believe that the issue for Republicans really is our dependence on governments to help when friends, family and neighbors can’t or won’t. And I could believe it, if the bills that Republicans have introduced in several states to require drug-testing of welfare recipients also were meant to apply to, say, flooded-out farmers. But they do not, and will not. The conclusion I must draw is that it is not the size of the check that troubles them, but the color of the hand that accepts it.  

Contact James Krohe Jr. at

Charles Blanchard’s work is available at