Do We Open Our Mouths Or Stay Silent?

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Thanks to weather that was unusually mild for a North Dakota December, my wife and I spent part of this weekend shopping at Walmart for outdoor Christmas decorations. And, because we had the kids with, we of course spent way too much money. Because daddy doesn’t very often say no to his girls.

As we neared the cashier in a checkout line that was, thanks to the oil boom compounded by the holiday shopping season, easily 200 feet long we saw the woman in front of us buying groceries with food stamps. We noticed because there was some issue that the cashier needed a manager for, and we overheard them talking. But what really caught our attention was the fact that this woman, after buying her food with food stamps, proceeded to buy a cart load of other luxury items including an Xbox and a number of games.

Our first reaction was, of course, consternation. My wife and I haven’t taken a penny of government assistance in our entire lives. Nor have we always been as well off as we are now. I can remember, when we were younger, living hand-to-mouth. I remember, as much as it embarrasses me now, going to bars not to drink to but to cash in on free food offerings as a way to stretch our budget to the next pay check.

Those days didn’t last long because we’ve worked hard, and managed our finances prudently, but when things were tight we did without a lot of luxuries. The first six years I wrote this blog I did so through a dial-up internet connection on an aging desktop computer because I couldn’t afford broadband or a newer computer. We didn’t have cable, nor a stick of furniture that wasn’t either a gift or used. Or found on someone’s curb. Our cars were reliable and safe, but far from new. Our clothes were from garage sales or the local thrift shop as often as they were new. We didn’t have cable. A dinner and a movie was a lavish treat. Heck, renting a movie was a fairly rare treat. And Christmas presents? We bought ourselves and our kids things we needed, like clothes, with maybe a book or a small toy as the treat. The grandparents bought the big stuff.

But we made it. Even with the unexpected expenses and disasters, we made it by working hard and spending smart. I reveal this part of my personal life to you, and exposing it to the ridicule of the always-present comment critics and hate-mailers, to show that I’m not some plutocrat who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. I know what it’s like to be poor. I know what’s like to worry about keeping the lights on, the house warm and bellies full. Which is why it’s frustrating to see someone who apparently can’t pay to feed themselves loading up on luxury items at the grocery store.

I’ve never been opposed to social entitlements for the truly needy. We are a prosperous society. We can afford a safety net for those who truly need it. But I am absolutely opposed to safety nets becoming hammocks, which is the point we’re at with social policy today.

After what we saw at Walmart my wife and I had a discussion about what we should have done. Was it ok to stay quiet? Should we have said something? We don’t know the entirety of this woman’s story. Maybe grandma and grandpa slipped her some money to get the kids some nice gifts for Christmas. Maybe someone gave her a gift card. So making a scene in a checkout line full of flustered holiday shoppers probably isn’t the right venue for denunciations of the welfare state.

But at what point do we speak up? At what point do we say that it’s wrong to subsidize irresponsible lifestyles? At what point do those living the irresponsible lifestyles need to hear it from the people around them?

People who must be fed by the taxpayers ought to feel shame. Shame that they can’t provide for themselves and their family. But these days the shame seems to fall with those who question the amount of tax dollars going to social welfare, as if compassion were measured by government appropriations.

We need to stop feeling ashamed of speaking out on this issue. And not in letters to the editor or on talk radio shows or on political blogs but in our day-to-day lives.

The when, where and how is the question.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com. In 2011 he was a finalist for the Watch Dog of the Year from the Sam Adams Alliance and winner of the Americans For Prosperity Award for Online Excellence. In 2013 the Washington Post named SAB one of the nation's top state-based political blogs, and named Rob one of the state's best political reporters. He writes a weekly column for several North Dakota newspapers, and also serves as a policy fellow for the North Dakota Policy Council.

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