The 19th century railroad tycoon and robber baron Jay Gould is said to have bragged that he was so powerful he could make one half of the working class kill the other half. Gould was likely referring to the Great Southwest Railroad Strike of 1886, which he was able to break by hiring replacements for the 200,000 striking workers.
The aim of those who are sounding the most extreme alarms about “welfare fraud” these days would appear to be, like Gould’s, to make one half of the working class kill the other half. But not by hiring strikebreakers. Instead, by stoking the resentment and fear of those who may not be too far away from poverty themselves against those who are so poor (income of less than $13,000 per year for a family of three) that they qualify for welfare ($618 per month). About 51,000 families receive welfare in Massachusetts today, although many more than that number are living in extreme poverty (and although you wouldn’t know it from the rhetoric, our welfare program has a work requirement).
So, how to set the working class against itself in our time? Widespread economic insecurity — there are many more job seekers than jobs — makes for a good start. Add to that an obsessive focus on the mere possibility of abuse (in order to dispose of the inconvenient facts that public benefits programs are largely well run and what is needed to improve them further is better technology and more staff). To wit: Representative Shaunna O’Connell offers stories of EBT cards with balances of $7,000 on them. Representative Dan Winslow suggests that applicants for housing assistance are likely to have secret real estate holdings, stock and bond portfolios, recreational vehicles and watercraft (what is it with this guy and boats, anyway)? And Representative Brad Jones claims that hard working citizens are seeing their money go to welfare cheats at the same time that they are being asked to pay “billions” more in taxes. Which of course is not true — there’s no current proposal to increase taxes by that amount, in part because of the unanimous objections by the minority party to the idea that those who can afford to pay more ought to do so for the benefit of all of us in the Commonwealth.
I bet Jay Gould would smile.