How to write an anecdote about welfare

Because she's black!

Because she’s black!

Let’s say it’s April 16th and you hate taxes, because 98% 12% of it goes to social safety net programs, better known as welfare. As everyone knows, most people on welfare don’t even need it. They just don’t want to work, and they probably make more money from lapping at the government teat than you do at your horrible job. The welfare queen has a storied history in American political discourse. We all know she’s out there, and most of us have a pretty good idea what she looks like. The problem is that the poor have so much power in America that specific welfare queens are carefully hidden. An actual person who picks up his food stamps in a limousine is almost impossible to find. So what do you do? Do you wait for the government to create a welfare queen for you? Of course not—you’re a hard-working American, so you make one up yourself.

Consider this exemplar of the form, from Facebook:

Dear Mr. President:

During my shift in the Emergency Room last night, I had the pleasure of evaluating a patient whose smile revealed an expensive Shiny gold tooth, whose body was adorned with a wide assortment of elaborate and costly tattoos, who wore a very expensive Brand of tennis shoes and who chatted on a new cellular telephone equipped with a popular R&B ringtone.

While glancing over her Patient chart, I happened to notice that her payer status was listed as “Medic…aid”! During my examination of her, the patient informed me that she smokes more than one costly pack of cigarettes every day and somehow still has money to buy pretzels and beer.

And, you and our Congress expect me to pay for this woman’s health care?

I contend that our nation’s “health care crisis” is not the result of a shortage of quality hospitals, doctors or nurses. Rather, it is the result of a “crisis of culture”, a culture in which it is perfectly acceptable to spend money on luxuries and vices while refusing to take care of one’s self or, heaven forbid, purchase health insurance.

It is a culture based on the irresponsible credo that “I can do whatever I want to because someone else will always take care of me”. Once you fix this “culture crisis” that rewards irresponsibility and dependency, you’ll be amazed at how quickly our nation’s health care difficulties will disappear.



First of all, if you need to communicate with the President, just go ahead and write on your Facebook wall. The FBI computers will see the character string “Dear Mr. President” and forward your message to the right person. Second, my indignation train was derailed by the discovery that this thing was based on an actual letter to the editor of a Mississippi newspaper by an actual Dr. Starner Jones, a name I thought was surely made up. The Facebook version has been improved, however, in subtle ways that preserve the mean-spirited pride of the original.

The capitalization is much more exciting, for one thing. Our patient also gets pretzels in addition to beer, has an “expensive Shiny gold tooth” instead of a shiny new gold tooth, and “chatters” on her telephone instead of just having it. Wisely, the editor has preserved the “R&B ringtone” which, along with the gold tooth, assures us that we are not accidentally calling a white person lazy.

Can you believe that woman can find 99 cents to spend on a ringtone, but not $250 a month to spend on health insurance like the rest of us? The implicit claim is that Patient X wastes her money on sounds and gold dental crowns instead of racially neutral porcelain ones, because the government gives her free health care. That causes a crisis of culture. If we stopped giving people free health care, the culture crisis we have mistakenly called a health care crisis would disappear. Irresponsible people would stop relying on government handouts and merely sicken and die.

Fixing the crisis of culture would be much easier than the Affordable Care Act, too. Instead of going through the complex and politically difficult process of changing the US health care system, all the President would have to do is remake American culture. That’s an unfair characterization of the Facebook version of Dr. Starner Jones’s argument, though. It doesn’t make a policy claim; it makes an ethical claim and presents it as an argument about what government should do.

The fundamental contention of this letter is that it’s okay not to help sick and/or poor people. That’s a tough sell, so the author wisely implies that they’re not really poor. People on Medicaid could totally afford to buy private health insurance, but they spend all their money on tattoos and tennis shoes because they’re irresponsible. Ergo, we should deny them emergency medical care. It’s okay to do that, because it’s their own fault they didn’t buy insurance. It’s the same reason ER doctors won’t treat you until you can prove that your injuries were not caused by your own mistakes. If you’re having trouble picturing yourself watching another person die because she has managed her money poorly, try imagining that she is black.

The argument in Dr. Jones’s letter us that we are not ethically obliged to give people medical treatment unless they pay us for it. It’s a position that contravenes two millennia of ethical thinking, but it appeals to elements of human nature much older than that. They’re the ones that thousands of years of civilization have tried to correct. I would say that idea—that we shouldn’t help poor people because it’s their fault—constitutes a real cultural shift in America. I suppose that whether it’s a crisis depends on how much money you make.

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  1. I hope this letter shows up on my facebook so I can link them here. You pinned the argument both on facts and underlying argument. No one wants the poor to suffer. But people have very inconsistent stances when poorness is accompanied by other stuff, like blackness, their desire not to part with their own money, or see their own poor decisions in a critical light. Then, what was a policy position on poverty, becomes an identity-confirming exercise.

    The value of studying history is that it undermines about 50% of the ideas currently floating around in society. For example, the scientific racism of the 19th century doesn’t hold water in the hoi polloi anymore. It’s reformed in a few ways, no doubt, but advancing the argument that Leonardo Decaprio’s character does in Django Unchained about the “negro brain” does not happen anywhere in the U.S. public anymore.

    I think even a cursory look into the history of poverty provides the same sort of historical appreciation for how made up the ideas surrounding it are. We talk about welfare and the people it serves in the same way we’d have talked about the neurological basis for negro submission in centuries past. I’ve convinced of this, having given a cursory look into the history of poverty, at least in America. If you read the brief “About this Book” synopses of the following texts, you’ll have ammo in the chamber for your next discussion with a Starner Jones.

    Unwelcome Americans: Living on the Margin in Early New England –

    Pitied but not Entitled: Single Mothers on the History of Welfare –

    The Color of Welfare : How Racism Undermined the War on Poverty: How Racism Undermined the War on Poverty –

    Personally, I found these books fascinating because they, especially Unwelcome Americans, are grounded in academic standards, so don’t assume a bunch of liberal values in the reader to make their arguments. They just spray a stream of facts in your face, causes you to rub your eyes and look around in 2013.

  2. Here’s an irony: Blue Dental appears to pay less than 30% of the cost of a “racially neutral” porcelain inlay FOR PEOPLE WHO HAVE PAID FOR THE DAMNED INSURANCE, because they could have chosen a “silver one”. (Do they still have mercury in those things?) That’s what I learned yesterday, the hard way. Good thing I didn’t go for the gold.

    My nominations for welfare queens? Blue Cross, wherever they have a monopoly on individual health insurance; Halliburton (emeritus status), who got a no-bid contract, then failed to provide millions of dollars worth of meals ready to eat in a war zone; and the entire House of Representatives of the United States (with the Senate closing fast), who collect their fat salaries, pensions and subsidized health care of obstructing the business of the people.

    As a well-fed American, I hope I never get taken to an emergency room where the attending physician is more worried about whether I’m “getting over” than whether I’m getting treated.

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