THE SHOPPER IN FRONT of me in the supermarket line the other night paid with two peculiar checks with the letters “WIC” prominently inscribed on them. The acronym, which denotes a welfare food-assistance program, stands for “Women, Infants, and Children.” He was none of the above.
The elaborate tattoos on his arms advertised priorities. Tax dollars that ostensibly allow him to feed his face, or the faces of the women, infants, and children in his orbit, really enable him to recolor his body. Perhaps my assumption rests on too many assumptions. For all I know, he could have paid for the intricate ink designs prior to losing his job at Lehman Brothers. Somehow, I doubt it. The man’s expensive sneakers, designer T-shirt, gold chain, and body art bothered me less than his reaction to the clerk’s informing him that one of his items wasn’t covered by the WIC program. Rather than retrieve an acceptable product, he instructed the cashier to fetch it for him. She dutifully returned with a gallon of milk. Whereas the first one presumably didn’t pass muster with the government, the second one didn’t pass muster with him. Flustered, she instructed another worker to exchange the milk for his favorite flavor or brand or whatever. All the while, a late-night line curled into an elongated “L” shape. As he waited for his free milk, we waited at the one open register to pay for our groceries, too, after we paid for his.
I envied the man enjoying servants without their expense. Sorta. Kinda. Compelling your neighbors to spring for your midnight snack, and imperiously commanding the minimum-wage cashier to shop for it, that’s the life, right? Naturally, I searched the World Wide Web for my eligibility in this World Wide WIC. I took a government test—also available in Spanish and Chinese—indicating that, yes, a child under five lived in my home, and no, I did not have EBT benefits. The digital bureaucrat cruelly informed me, “Based on your responses, you may not be eligible for WIC benefits.” With my dream of a Welfarian tribal band—or perhaps merely a “WIC” tramp stamp—dashed, I took heart in the site’s instruction to visit another government site entitled, “Your path to government benefits.”
Surely this wasn’t the path less traveled, with a record number of Americans—15 percent of the U.S. population—currently depending on food stamps to pay for their dinners (or their tattoos?). The government’s long-winded questionnaire asked many prying questions. “How many times have you been married? (0–10).” “Have you run away from home or are you thinking about running away from home?” By the end of the burdensome process, the site informed me that I may be eligible for 78 federal programs. Among these were “Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Treatment Program,” “Tax Relief for Divorced or Separated Individuals,” and “Military Sexual Trauma.” But getting addicted to narcotics, divorced, or raped seemed cost prohibitive for any government benefit, however generous.
WIC isn’t cost prohibitive. Neither is an EBT card. That’s why, presumably, nearly 50 million Americans—up from a modest 1 million recipients in 1966—rely on Uncle Sam rather than their own labor to provide this most basic need. Unlike a program for the sexually traumatized, food handouts incentivize the condition they aim to eliminate. As a result, the Welfarians may be the fastest-growing demographic in Obama’s America. The catch-22 of the staggering economy is that many hardworking people depend on food stamps for lack of suitable employment opportunities, a burden on commerce which in turn decreases suitable employment opportunities for hardworking people. Even for Welfarians who didn’t join the demographic through bad habits, isn’t government assistance habit forming? Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what your country can buy for you.
Thieves exhibit ingenuity, embrace risk, and exert labor. The permanent denizens of WIC America and the United States of EBT do nothing for the fruits of their, uh, existence. In my urban New England outpost, the more ambitious ones hassle drivers for spare cash, a nuisance prompting the city council to outlaw curbside panhandling. Their signs say they need food. Everything else about them says, “I need crystal methamphetamine.”
Statewide in Massachusetts, the commissioner of the misnamed Department of Transitional Assistance recently resigned in the wake of a report that the state can’t account for 47,000 welfare recipients and wastes $25 million annually in payments to ineligible beneficiaries. Driving downtown, I spot a storefront sign: “We take EBT.” Beneath it, another sign appears: “Elizabeth Warren for Senate.” First rule of capitalism: Know your customers.
Perhaps the patient cashier running in-store errands for the tattooed ingrate understands this rule, too. After 10 minutes of making others in the line wait, the consumer completed the purchase without proffering a word of appreciation. Instead, the clerk, in addition to bagging his groceries, issued a “thank you.” People expecting society to give them groceries can’t be expected to give back anything, not even gratitude. We resent our benefactors.
Meet the new normal, same as the old abnormal.