Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Whose welfare is it, anyway?

Near the end of the Obama/McCain presidential campaign, a Florida television station recorded a woman who was extactic that--if Obama were to win the election--she wouldn't have to worry any more about paying her mortgage, or filling her gas tank. Yes, it's gotten to the point that some people appear to think that Uncle Barack will provide for everyone.

This reminded me of a discussion I had with some of my students way back in 1994.

I was a teacher in an inner urban school, during the period when the Republicans in Washington wanted to reform welfare and make it Workfare.

One of my students walked up to my desk in front of the class and asked me; “Sir, what do you think about them taking away our welfare?”

“Our Welfare? What do you mean, ‘our’ welfare?”

“I mean, it’s mine and my Momma’s, it’s what we need to get by.”

So I asked him, “What makes you think it’s yours?”

“Well, ‘cause we are the ones that need it, so it’s ours.”

I looked at him carefully, and noticed that—as he was a basketball player—he was wearing a pair of expensive Air Jordon’s that cost about three times what my shoes cost.

“Do you have a job?” I asked him.

“What? You know I don’t, Sir, I’m a basketball player!” he protested. “My Momma works two jobs just to support me and my brothers!” Understandably, he seemed indignant that his momma had to work so hard.

“Why does that mean, you can’t have a job?”

“Because I have practice every day, and I have games every week, I don’t have no time to be working at no $5 a hour job!” he answered, indignantly.

“OK, that makes sense.” I commented... “those are nice Air Jordon’s, buddy. Who bought those for you?”

“My Momma did,” he said, a little cautiously.

“Nice Momma, you know those are worth more money than I could afford to pay for shoes, right?” I asked

“Yes, you do wear some lousy shoes!” he joked, and the class laughed.

“Right. Now, whose shoes are those?” I asked.

“Mine!” he quickly answered.

“Are they? Let’s pretend for a moment that your Momma bought you those shoes so that you would do really well at basketball. She hopes you will work hard, and get a scholarship, and build a future…”

He smiled. “That’s right, she does.”

“But let’s pretend that instead of working hard, you loafed around in the gym, and didn’t practice, and just chased the girls, and your Momma got really mad and said to you, ‘Son, I paid for those shoes to give you an advantage, to help you succeed, and you blew it! Instead of working, you just lazed around, so since you don’t appreciate what I gave you, I’m taking those shoes away, and I’ll give them to your little brother, who is willing to work hard!’ Now, she would have the right to do that, wouldn’t she?”

He was silent. The whole class was silent. “So…really, whose shoes are those?”

He paused, thinking about the question, and obviously uncomfortable with the conclusion to which I had led him. Finally, he sheepishly answered: “My Momma’s.”

“Because she paid for them. Right. Now, who pays for ‘your’ welfare?” He didn’t answer. “I do. And all the other teachers do. And all the other workers do. We give you all some money to help you—not to ‘get by’, as you put it, but to get ahead. And here you are, wearing shoes I can’t afford, and not working because you are an athlete, and making your Momma work two jobs, and talking about how all of this is yours. It is NOT yours. I bought the welfare, I paid for it, it’s mine. And I have the right to demand that you and everyone else who receives it do something with it, and work for it, and not just laze around chasing girls. Your Momma has the right to demand that you work for your shoes, and I have the right to demand that anyone who receives welfare work for that money. Now, that’s what I think about that.”

An amazing thing happened. That huge, 6 and a half foot tall black athlete stood up tall, looked at me very critically, and then gave me his hand. And he said, “You know what, Sir? That’s why we all love you. You say it the way it is.”

He went to his seat and that was the last we ever talked about it.

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