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"They're Not On Welfare"

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Message Tolu Olorunda

“There’s a woman in Chicago… She has 80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards and is collecting veteran’s benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands.”

-          President Ronald Wilson Reagan (1976).

“... This legislation provides an historic opportunity to end welfare as we know it and transform our broken welfare system by promoting the fundamental values of work, responsibility, and family.”

-          President William Jefferson Clinton (August, 22, 1996).

“All I'm trying to do is restore some balance to our economy so that middle class families who are working hard – they’re not on welfare, they’re going to their jobs every day, they’re doing the right things by their kids --they should be able to save, buy a home, go on a vacation once in a while.”

-          President Barack Hussein Obama II (March 18, 2009).

It’s unclear what possessed President Obama’s intimation at welfare recipients as lazy, selfish, uncaring bums, but the suggestion that they are not “working hard,” or “doing the right things by their kids,” is a cruel and mean one. The characterization of poor single-mothers, who coincidentally live a life dependent on food stamps and other government subsidies, as irresponsible narcissists is surely no new phenomenon. One need only look to Ronald Reagan, two decades ago, and find ample relief in his infamous description of financially-disempowered Black and Brown females as, “Welfare Queens.” Obama’s high-fiving of the ‘Great Communicator’ is, sadly, unsurprising, for one who has praised Reagan at every step possible.

In the heat of the ’08 presidential campaign, last year, Obama couldn’t contain his admiration for the man whose economic policies successfully demolished the dignity and dreams of a whole generation of people: “I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.  He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it.” Obama went further in his praise of Reagan, for eliminating “the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s.”A couple of days back, on St. Patrick’s Day, Obama again drew inspiration from the man many—and they are certainly in no short supply—have compared to the devil, on numerous occasions.

Whether Obama understands this or not, the demonization of welfare recipients has to STOP!  As long as the narrative of laziness remains affixed to the character of this group, the right-wing’s war on poverty (the war to perpetuate it) would have foot soldier in the White House—an ally in the most powerful man in the world. Another notion, as it relates to Welfare, that deserves death by a thousand execution squads, is the premise that Black and Brown single mothers are the major recipients, and thus, welfare is but another Affirmative Action-esque ‘handout,’ which must be eliminated, to enforce personal responsibility on these communities. Every legitimate study shows that White women are, in fact, the overwhelming beneficiaries of welfare programs. This detail is not meant to bash economically-handicapped White women, but rather, to put to bed, once and for all, the lies concocted by the right-wing, in attempts to abolish the safety net which has held many families intact, for the last few decades.

In 2000, when Obama enacted a run for Congressman Bobby Rush’s Congressional seat, the then-relatively unknown State Senator sought to convince inner-city Chicago constituents, which Rush represented, that he was not the Ivy-League-Harvard-Educated-Hyde-Park-snub Rush’s campaign had depicted him as. Unfortunately, the charge stuck to him, like a lapel pin, and many Black and Brown residents had a hard time seeing the faces of their struggle in Obama’s eyes and promises. Bobby Rush, the former Black Panther, won handsomely, and without breaking a drop of sweat.

Obama might not have to worry about those claims lingering any longer, but, as every politically-astute observer knows, old ghosts come haunting back—chickens come home to roost. If Obama keeps up his antics of lambasting poor Black mothers for feeding their kids Popeyes Chicken remnants for breakfast, and asserting that a “good economic development plan for [the Black community] would be if we make sure folks weren’t throwing their garbage out of their cars,” it wouldn’t be such a tough sell, next election cycle, for his opponents to argue that, perhaps, the populist President isn’t so populist after all! It might not be so hard to propose that Obama, himself the child of a food-stamps recipient, has forgotten were he came from.

Obama’s remarks, though intensely troubling, might be just the wake-up call progressives could have only dreamed of. In the mid-‘90s, when Bill Clinton fulfilled his solemn vow to “end welfare as we know it,” many Clinton supporters were unable to reconcile the actions of the then-popular president, to the promises—of equality for all—he had made on the campaign trail. In his reflective book, Death Blossoms, political prisoner and prophetic leader, Mumia Abu Jamal described Clinton’s “legislative obscenity” as a “chilling” plot, drafted to dash “the hopes of millions of the poor, all in order to protect his political ass.” Brother Jamal, as always, was right on target, and the question now looming larger than ever, is if Obama might be considering a relative “legislative obscenity,” which might come in handy, in the event of a need to “protect his political ass.” The prospect might look improbable, but history informs us of the moral obligation to remain combat-ready at all times.

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