Mother of Three


Confused about the true state of the American economy? The stock market is sinking, but car sales are at record highs. Bidding wars for tech talent are reported next to major layoffs at giants like Morgan Stanley and Dupont. GDP growth is lackluster, but hiring is the strongest it has been in more than a decade.  The explanation for all this “dissonance” may be in part “the changing nature of the American economy.” Some analysts assert that strong hiring in services masks troubling stagnation in productivity gains. Trouble is, nobody knows who is right.

The Week, January 29, 2016, quoting Nelson Schwartz


Thus I came to understand the context, the big picture, as well as the manner in which familiar words get translated into unfamiliar contexts which only economists specifically trained in EconSpeak can understand. Elmore usually got back around to that word correction.  “Recall,” he told me, “it was Alan Greenspan, an economist, who told Congress that the second-worst financial meltdown in our nation’s history was, as he termed it, a ‘correction’ of ‘normal’ market processes—thereby revealing his zealot’s mindset that the endless recurrence of such unholy ‘corrections’ is not tragic but ‘normal.’ EconSpeak regards such avoidable human tragedies and hardships as mere ‘corrections’—labeled unavoidable and taken in stride by learned economists. Mygod.


“At the women’s shelter,” raged Elmore, “ask the chronically-in-poverty inconsolable little mother of three who has just been turned out of her gas mart job, her foreclosed two bedroom home and every last shred of security, dignity and self esteem how ‘corrected’ she feels. Do you feel her anguish? True self interest is mutual interest—for proof, just drop a billionaire into a world with no restaurants and no servants, then stand back and watch. One must wonder if free market ideologues, secure in their comfortable incomes and well appointed interesting lives, can possibly be inured to the real meanings of the words they use, or if they talk that way because they simply cannot bear to think about the heartbreaking realities empathy otherwise would impose on their hard mindsets and conscience. Their knee-jerk advice to the young mother: Get off welfare and go get a job!”

[excerpt from Populist Corrections at ]


*          *          *


I recall an incident. It involved such casual collapse of communication as to constitute a stand-in for our modern America, a dismal caricature of that great nation’s frittering away of its greatness, during the time when it needlessly, uselessly, permitted itself to be subdivided, disintegrated, disunited from the unity that was the glue which had held a nation together, had for generations made it “great.” That time of disuniting is now—this present moment, plus the intensifying disunification that has accumulated over the four decades leading down to the now of this infinitely sad, disunified moment.


I was a guest in someone else’s house, one among other guests and so must of course keep my tact and courtesy up to accepted norms of civility. We were gathered in the kitchen, a good and social place where peoples the world over share bonding over food and the pleasant chatter that ever accompanies it. The eating was done. Full bellies had drifted away, then drifted back again under the magnet attraction kitchens hold as the social center of life. Two of us were seated, others stood variously across and around the room, fitting into the crowded clutter of chairs, table, counter stools. Random conversations proceeded all about, as happens on such occasions.


I don’t really know how the talk with my seated partner evolved into economics. I probably led it there without realizing I was doing so, for while the subject holds great interest for me I am sorely aware this is not a shared interest for most normal people. I suppose the matter calls for definitions of “interest,” “normal” and “economics,” but who bothers with that when you’re pleasantly conversing over a full belly?


I don’t remember how our two-person talk then turned to the subject of social welfare, I remember only that it did. Not do I recall how things then proceeded to my discerning a conversational necessity to call up some mentally stored data on the ratio of welfare recipients who “freeload” (i.e., game the system; get life sustenance illegally) compared to “deserving” recipients who desperately need help to survive and get past some personal financial disaster. I recall mentioning numbers to my conversational partner, something like 5-to-7 percent freeloaders, the remaining 93-to-95 percent being deserving recipients for whom such use of our tax dollars is justified in the name of a compassionate and responsibly caring social commonwealth.


I recall then becoming aware of a sudden silence in a room that had an instant before rung with miscellaneous chatter. Glancing around, I discovered that most eyes in the room were fixed on me, and from those eyes the friendly gleam had gone away. How, I recall wondering, had they all been so suddenly halted from their own conversations by what I was saying in normal voice clear across a chatter-filled room? Had their talk been conducted with one ear cocked my way, waiting in anticipation of some comment I might unknowingly drop? What might that imply? What must be their mindsets? Such questions flitted through my thoughts in the instant after the room went unexpectedly quiet.


“What was that you said about welfare people?” a voice stated, not with an “asking” tone.


Brief digression belongs here. As it happens, I once acquired several years experience working with very large governmental budgets in the arenas of social insurance, social services and public health. It is not possible to be the reviewer-challenger-reviser of budgets measuring in the tens to hundreds of millions of dollars—sometimes a billion or more—without learning quite a bit about them. It goes without saying that reviewing such budgets competently requires attaining some depth of knowledge about what the money is to be spent on. When dealing with governmental welfare budgets, one learns quite a bit about the people on whom the money is to be spent, and why they need it.


There the question hung. And so I repeated the percentages I had a moment before mentioned at normal conversational level in a chatter-filled kitchen. Their repetition in the suddenly changed environment sounded like a Senator’s pronouncement in an echo chamber. What happened next is intriguing, or something, depending on your mindset.


Three hands moved swiftly to three pockets and emerged holding three smart phones upon which three fingers went rap-a-tap-tap. And after a pregnant moment’s pause—I mean only seconds—three voices proclaimed with overtones of malice triumphant: “Wrong!”  Welfare cheats, one stated unequivocally, are at least half of all people on welfare. Mine says it’s up to 75 percent, said another. This says it’s never less than forty percent, squeezed in another, and I noticed the speaking head oscillated rapidly from side to side, almost vibrating, in a subconscious “No!” of indignation at the very thought of welfare cheats being no more than the mere 5-to-7 percent I had claimed.


What would you do? Clearly they had queried some Limbaugh-like sources of falsified truth which they clearly were accustomed to using for quick reference—and so they got the garbage answers they expected. Closed mindsets were as clear and fixed as the noses on their rigid faces, and nothing was to be gained by confronting them with factual truth differing from the bogus facts they wanted. So I said nothing. I did not mention my years of expertise gained through hundreds of hours of intense scrutiny of Very Large Budgets and the human “details” those budgets so impersonally address. I let the moment pass.


Silence quickly transmogrified to their satisfaction over their respective details which, although disagreeing with each other, all consistently disagreed with my put-down claim that very few welfare recipients are genuinely out to cheat tax dollars from the humanitarian systems put in place by publicly elected representatives in some previous, kinder, era of American life. I kept my peace, my cool, I did not raise a ruckus. That five-to-seven percent might even, I thought, be a little off—after all, more than forty years had passed since I did those budgets. (Actually I wasn’t far off. A current internet check turns up four credible modern estimates which are:  Under 1%;  1.32 %;  3-5 %;  and “up to” 10.6% for “improper welfare payments” computed as the sum of 1) errors by the many state agencies that administer most federal welfare programs, plus 2) some actual fraud.)


The moment passed. The day passed. It is unlikely I will ever want to be in that kitchen again, or—certainly—among those angry, misguided comfortably middle-class voters so eager to squirm in pleasure, in their perceived righteous self-rightness, over the immoral wrongness of “those” welfare leeches so defenseless against blame for being victims.


I believe it will take a certain compassion to make America great again—a compassion now faded, jaded, in far shorter supply than it used to be in those great years from 1932 to 1979, when the late, great Greatest Generation saved us from the Great Depression, won World War II, turned us all from the meanness and depraved side of our own natures to great generosity of spirit that saw unlimited value in the least and poorest among us.


That’s what I believe. Do you think the compassionate crowd has the votes to do it?


*          *          *


Observations over a lifetime now in its eighth decade have taught me to discern all humanity as naturally self segregating into two classes of human behavior. One consists of people who often help other people, and seem to be naturally inclined to do so. The other is people who mostly serve themselves, and do so without much concern for others. I observe this basic self-segregating tendency to outweigh all other human tendencies, even those with strong tugs such as nationalism, ideology, race, and even family or tribe.


This fundamental choice, whether to serve others or oneself, is usually made fairly early in life. The choice made, it then tends to dominate an individual’s behavior toward others for the remainder of the chooser’s lifetime, in ways large and small, obvious and subtle. Once made, only rarely does it switch from the chosen option to the other. Look around you. Scan the world of people you have come to know personally, or remotely through news media and readings, and you will easily see this seemingly primal choice in action. Everywhere, in societies all over the earth, you will notice that some people are basically helpful to others, caring for those others… And some are not, their primary service and caring being unto themselves—and if their self serving happens to harm others, well so be it, for they mostly do not care or even notice when what they do disadvantages others.


I believe this to constitute the ultimate human dilemma:  Selfishness versus Compassion.


A great majority of peoples around the earth profess a core belief that our ultimate human purpose is to live this mortal lifetime in such a way that, when the body dies, the human spirit that animated it will live on and return to its place of origin in some indefinable, spiritual Otherwhere—and then, with or without the divine judgment so many believe in, there will in any case be a “review” of whether that homecoming spirit has advanced, has risen, to a status higher than when it entered the body a lifetime ago. This core belief has many iterations under many religions and countless denominations of those religions, with all their differing doctrines and dogmas, but in their various ways they all embrace a universal idea of self improvement, spiritual rising, as the reason for living this lifetime.


Countless sources on the subject say the returning spirit soon encounters the question:  What did you do to help others? So many religions and doctrines, all disagreeing with all the others, cannot all be right—though they could all be wrong. Regardless of that, and in any case, the concept of purposeful betterment over a lifetime stands as a worthy human ideal without reference to religions at all. It seems to me that, in such universal context, a lifetime spent in selfish self serving must be regarded as a “flaw” that impedes human betterment, individually and collectively. Self serving is the opposite of spiritual “rising.” In any context secular or religious, greedy self serving that results directly or indirectly in any harm to others violates every maxim of ethics and morality ever invented by the human species to date. Yet precisely this prevails everywhere today—and it always has.


Why(?) would economically secure individuals—in that kitchen or across the nation—take obscene pleasure in despising a trivial percentage minority of welfare recipients who, in their dire poverty, attempt to cheat out some tax dollars that add up to the tiniest fraction of one percent of a federal welfare budget that measures in mega-billions? Why does their despising consistently fail to loathe, equally, the identical cheating urge so constantly demonstrated by gigantic fossil fuel corporations as they constantly lobby Congress to maintain their billion-dollar subsidies for developing new sources of carbon-based fuels that steadily increase planetary pollution to civilization-crashing levels? Harming is harming and cheating is cheating. Is it any less objectionable—any more excusable—if the cheater wears a white collar and has a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand times more annual income than the lowly welfare recipient in abject poverty?


To be sure, that little welfare mother of three was not entirely blameless for her fall into destitution. No, she had been warned about that shiftless good-for-nothing boy—but he had seemed so handsome, so dynamic and loving when she got pregnant just before her sixteenth birthday. That was her first pregnancy. Two more beautiful babies—one with a heart problem—quickly followed when she was seventeen and nineteen. To his minor credit the boy didn’t just walk away. He made, as well as he could, a show of manhood and family-like responsibility by maintaining employment, mostly, and coming home, most nights, relaxing with a little pot and beer, often ill tempered but, she noticed, often showing affection for his children. And he gave her that gemstone bracelet one Christmas. But he just never did seem to want to be, you know, like, actually married.


While his violence unfolded in small increments through their second year together, he didn’t actually knock her down in drunken rage until their third year of living mostly together, and then she rationalized it as understandable because of the stress he was enduring after getting fired because marijuana showed up in the surprise urine test they so unfairly pulled on him at work. By then, with constantly unstable babysitting for her three children, she was into her second year of employment at the gas mart, a vital supplement of dollars that had enabled them to barely afford the monthly payments for the small repossessed As-Is house they bought with benefit of housing program subsidy. It seemed a small realization of her dream for a normal family life, a small getting ahead toward the famous American dream she so often heard extolled in television ads.


By the time he’d been gone two months, the mortgage unpaid for three, she had no money, no babysitter, no car to get to work thirty blocks away, and no help from any quarter when those men told her the bank now owned her house and she was being evicted for non-payment. They carried out every last thing she owned, such as it was, piling it all on the sidewalk and across the gutter almost into the street where traffic sped by inches from her comfortable old couch. The men had seemed needlessly heartless and rude—she supposed they must do this to people like herself every day, it was how they earned a living. It was all over by five o’clock PM, the evening dark closing down, all three children crying, all three cold and hungry as was she herself. Nothing to eat remained in the refrigerator which, anyway, stayed with the now-padlocked house. She had nowhere to go, no food or shelter, and nothing left in the world but three miserable babes, her inconceivable anguish, and no one in this world to turn to for help as the chill night closed down and cars sped by, the eyes of their occupants looking out at her.


Just before midnight, thanks to some unlikely miracles by two complete strangers who seemed naturally inclined toward helping others, she and her babes were ensconced in a tiny room at the shelter for homeless, abused and destitute women and their children.


In the endless difficult months ahead she and her children would become another statistic in the impersonal public data that came by unknown routes—and obscenely skewed—to three heartless, uncaring, reactionary websites called up by three smart phones in the kitchen where I sat that day of the incident, dismayed by nice ordinary peoples’ sudden, unexpected display of cold indifference, of unconcealed contempt and loathing for—they fiercely believed—welfare cheats who freeload on the grudgingly-paid tax dollars of upstanding industrious true American patriots, like themselves, who have always worked for every dime and made it bygod on their own—free, independent, patriotic and proud.


I suppose to this day they continue, in their great self righteousness, to genuinely wonder:

Why don’t all those shiftless welfare parasites just get up off their ass and Go Get a Job?



©William D. Coffey, April 2019


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