The Return of The Welfare Queen (revised)
As public policy, “Welfare Reform” has been a mixed bag, although it would surely be less so if the Democratic Congress elected in 1992 had not declared the nuanced and moderate proposals Bill Clinton had put forth in his first Presidential campaign as DOA. I am among those who believe that the Gingrich revolution of 1994, and its Contract on America, might have been forestalled, and some of the more draconian aspects of “ending welfare as we knew it” could have been avoided, if Democrats had endeavored to follow through on the effort to make welfare a “second chance” instead of a “way of life,” rather than leaving that effort to the Party which wanted it to be neither.
Perhaps the most salutary effect of “Welfare Reform” has been its impact in diminishing the politically-motivated bashing of the impoverished as a means of ginning up voter resentment. Prior to that time, Republicans could have a field day calling up the spectre of “Welfare Queens” buying filet mignon and champaign with food stamps before driving away in their Cadillacs (Of course, they were no more insinuating a subliminal message about race than I am insinuating a subliminal message about subliminal messages about race).
Sadly, even that small consolation has now come to an inglorious end. In the last few weeks of the campaign, as the economy has gone south, desperate Republicans have dredged up and dressed up that old reliable strawgirl “Welfare Queen” in new clothes to take her out for one last spin. The McCain campaign and the Right Wing Noise Machine’s blame the victim strategy has recently cast the underclass and working poor as the cause precedent for both our very real economic recession and the virtually non-existent problem of “voter fraud.”
Victim bashing is not a new phenomena, but blaming the poor schlub who's lost his home to foreclosure not only for his own problems, but for yours as well, is not merely cruel, it's absurd. It's repugnant enough to say Jodie Foster brought it upon herself by teasing the guys in the poolhall, but please don't say she's responsible for Bristol getting pregnant, especially when you're the one who's been riding bareback. Yet that is essentailly what the Republicans have been doing.
In the new Republican politics, the blame for the meltdown of our markets has been laid entirely at efforts to help poor and working people, or things that have that flavor. “Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Wachovia and WAMU? Never heard of ‘em. Why, it’s simple friends, the entire crisis in confidence bringing down our economy has its roots in Fanny Mae, Freddie Mac and the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 (CRA).”
Let’s take the only leg of this wobbly chair of an argument that is solely concerned with helping poor and working people. CRA, a law which applies only to depository banks regulated by the Fed, does require that such institutions make efforts to expand homeownership to working people, but has no requirement that such banks check their common sense at the door. And, more to the point, the major culprits in the orgy of greed leading to our economic collapse have not been the heavily regulated depository banks, but those like Bear Stearns and Lehman, which operate outside such sunshine. And in fact, before the orgy commenced in earnest, many efforts to extend homeownership to the working poor, facilitated by CRA, had spectacularly successful repayment records.
But let’s not make unregulated banking institutions the total scapegoat here, when there is plenty of unregulated blame to go around. Is insurance too subject to regulation for one’s convenience when there’s a quick buck (or a billion) to be made? Why not call it a “credit default swap” instead and allude those pesky regulations?
As to our friends Fanny and Freddy, they weren’t exactly eunuchs at the orgy, but their role was hardly central; they didn‘t make subprime loans, but they did buy subprime loans made by others. In the riot which took place, they didn’t throw the brick through the window, but like many others not necessarily disposed to criminal activity they weren’t above entering the store and taking a television and a box of diapers.
But blaming this crisis on Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the CRA is like blaming the Federal Budget deficit on earmarks. What idiot would do something like that? Part of the problem? Of course, but eliminate it from the mix and it won’t make much of a difference. One might as well blame the spread of AIDS on KY Jelly.
In point of fact, the effort to shift the focus to Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the CRA is nothing but an attempt to obscure who’s to blame for the lion’s share for the mess we face, a mess stemming largely from too little regulation and too much greed.
Virtually the same J’accuse Strategy underlies the Republican effort to concoct a voter fraud scandal. Last week, the New York Post ran an op-ed on the matter authored by none other than Former Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, a man once caught trying to throw out thousands of valid voter registrations because they were taken on the wrong paper stock, and thus a bonafide expert on the topic of illegal and unethical ways to manipulate a vote count. Republican efforts to throw roadblocks in the way of efforts to increase voter participation by students, the poor and minorities, by any means possible, have been a hallmark of their campaigns at least since the early 1980s.
Mr. Blackwell was one of the key players in such efforts in 2004, but surely not the only one. In fact, perhaps the leading Bush administration scandal (a great honor, given the competition) stems from the battle to scare off efforts at increasing voter participation. As has been documented, the firing of US Attorneys across the country stems in great part from the administration’s obsession with facilitating prosecutions for election fraud, even if, as was nearly always the case, actual efforts to cast illegal votes had never taken place.
The “Welfare Queen” Republicans seek to demonize here is an organization called ACORN, largely involved in empowerment efforts among the working poor and underclass.
I think I can speak with some credibility here, as my writings make clear that I have a long history as a critic of both ACORN and the NY Working Families Party (WFP) in which ACORN plays a central role. I have, in the past, accused ACORN, the WFP, and Bertha Lewis, a leader in both groups, of, among other things, circumventing campaign finance laws, taking legal bribes from developers to support projects of perhaps questionable merit, trying to unduly influence elected officials, and being involved in sleazy campaign tactics. One of these articles was written in the last 30 days. It would be hard to brand me as an apologist for ACORN or anything affiliated with it. If I thought there was credible evidence that ACORN was involved in helping fraudulent votes be cast, I would surely have written about it.
What has been documented about ACORN is that their efforts have resulted in a lot of voter registration forms of dubious quality. This is unsurprising. ACORN pays people working in its voter registration drives $8 an hour. This sort of work attracts two types of people: idealistic young kinds and those who can find no other work. While ACORN does not pay by the form gathered, it is quite clear that those who do not regularly make their quotas are not allowed to continue in their employment. Since the very nature of door to door voter registration efforts involves people becoming separate from supervision, there is both motive and opportunity for workers to pad their numbers. It is unsurprising that some do.
The hilarious nature of some of the bogus registrations which have been uncovered goes a long way to disproving conspiracy theories. If one were making an effort to actually vote non-existent registrants, one would probably not give them the names of the Dallas Cowboys’ front four.
The problem is exacerbated by some of the laws enacted to prevent dubious practices. Because there is an awful temptation not to file forms filled out by potential voters who may be unsympathetic to one’s agenda (say, for example, those forms where a voter has chosen to enroll as a Republican), most states have laws which require submission of every form a group collects, and people have actually been prosecuted for not submitting such forms.
Most importantly, nationwide non-partisan studies, and the vigorous efforts of US Attorneys throughout the country, have uncovered almost no incidents where such bogus registrations have actually led to illegal votes being cast.
As such, I can safely report that this year the “Welfare Queen” is feasting not upon on Filet Mignon but rather Red Herrings.
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