Amanda Clayton won a million dollars in the lottery. But she is still receiving “state food assistance”, which I assume is food stamps.
This is the kind of story clearly intended to trigger today’s 2 Minute Hate. In fact, if you only have time for a 10 Second Hate before Idol comes back from commercial, CNN totally has your back, with their “Story Highlights” on the left side of the page. Quote:
-A Michigan woman won a $1 million lottery prize
-She is receiving monthly food assistance from state
-She claims she is unemployed and “struggling”
-A state lawmaker wants such assistance ended
Joseph Campbell couldn’t have structured that better. Back-story, inciting incident, a villain emerges, a hero sets out to right the wrong. What does the author want to be true? “She claims she is unemployed and ‘struggling,’” NB the scare quotes. How hard is it to find out if somebody is employed or not? Does CNN no longer employ investigative reporters? Did they spend that budget on the Situation Cube?
As in all things, context illuminates. Clayton’s point of view: she assumed they would automatically cut her off, but since they didn’t, it must be okay. This is government as God: If you don’t want me to sleep with my best friend’s wife, Lord, strike me down now. No? Awesome. And as long as I’m not in jail at this very moment, I can keep cashing the checks with Uncle Sam’s full approval and avuncular pride.
Michigan State Rep. Zorn has a problem with that. “Taxpayer dollars should be going to those who really do need assistance.” Taxpayer dollars, he says, need protecting, lest the 1% of welfare queens yoink them out of the government’s sweaty fist. His solution is an assets test (not a means test) if anybody wins more than $1000 from the lottery. Why the low number, when the problem here is a millionaire? After all, if you’re poor enough to need food stamps, a thousand bucks is (to paraphrase Lewis Black) not enough money to help, just enough money to remind you how fucked you are. Perhaps Zorn believes this is a chance to ride some public outrage all the way to backdooring the restriction of government funds from people who don’t need them, like the 99.9% of all US households wealthy enough to own their own refrigerator (where else would they store the caviar?). But what Zorn is actually doing is contributing to the very notions that have brought Clayton onto our viewscreens.
Let’s look at the money. The key figure here isn’t the million (although we’ll get to that), it’s that her state assistance is $200 a month. If you gave 200 bucks to every millionaire in Michigan, you’d be out the price of a used 2000 Mazda Protégé. And while the impoverished, cold, hungry, very bored (I don’t know much about Michigan, but I assume it’s awful) children of that state could no doubt feed on that Protégé for a week (the trick is boiling the tires), that’s not going to do them a lot of good in the long run, or indeed even the short run. The point being that the 4 hours Representative Zorn spent thinking about his new law, he probably earned enough to buy a newer, much tastier Mazda. The real point being, how can Clayton say with a straight face that she needs that money any more than Zorn can say with a straight face that the state does?
Answer: she didn’t win a million dollars. After taxes she ended up with 500 grand, so she’s already paid into the system vastly more than she’s getting out of it right now. Then she took that money and bought a house and a car. Take her at her word: she’s struggling, she has bills to pay, two houses are more expensive to maintain than she realized, she actually needs that 200 a month. What does that say about her state of mind? She won some money, but banking it didn’t make her feel rich; she spent the money, but having two houses doesn’t make her feel rich.
People who have never been rich assume that rich means infinite money, when it really just means more money and a higher level of consumption. See the Bloomberg article (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-02-29/wall-street-bonus-withdrawal-means-trading-aspen-for-cheap-chex.html) about Wall Streeters struggling to make ends meet now that their bonuses have been downgraded from obscene to merely obnoxious. $350,000-income but it’s not enough to cover the private school, the summer house, and the massive NY apartment. The takeaway is that more money, spent with the same attitude, the one that’s seeking an identity and a holy inner stressless peace by buying things, isn’t going to kill that poverty feeling. When you live so precisely at your means that 200 a month makes a difference, no amount of money is going to help you; you’re just going to buy more and bigger houses to starve in. For somebody like Clayton, who doesn’t know of any other way to deal with their finances, winning a million is not enough to save you, just enough to make the rest of us hate for the 10 seconds before Idol.
And Zorn? He wants to test assets, not means, which is how he tells Clayton what to do with her winnings in the first place: home ownership means God and Uncle Sam can pound sand, because you’re doin’ fine.