M.D. Harmon: Telling the Truth about Welfare


What she wrote on Dec. 13 has become hugely controversial.

She’s been accused of being a racist; she’s gotten five marriage proposals; Ann Coulter, her role model, tweeted her with an attagirl; her column got 2,686 comments as of Dec. 21 on a conservative website; the Bangor Daily News’ “Maine Debate” blog had 212 replies on the same date when it listed the column for comment; and she’s not the least bit apologetic about what she wrote.

And all she did was report for a site called “The College Conservative,“ a project of Young Americans for Freedom (as a college student, I too was a YAF member), about what she saw happen right in front of her own eyes when she worked as a clerk for two summers at her hometown Walmart.

Christine Rousselle of Scarborough watched with increasing astonishment and dismay as the customers coming through her checkout counter who were on some form of state-provided aid (dare we use the word “welfare”? She did) spent the money they were given on things that could hardly be called the necessities of life.

Let the 21-year-old Providence College student speak for a bit: “I understand that sometimes, people are destitute. They need help, and they accept help from the state in order to feed their families. This is fine. It happens. I’m not against temporary aid helping those who truly need it. “What I saw at Wal-Mart, however, was not temporary aid. I witnessed generations of families all relying on the state to buy food and other items. I literally witnessed small children asking their mothers if they could borrow their EBT cards. I once had a man show me his welfare card (dated in 1991) for an ID to buy alcohol. … I was born in June of 1991. The man had been on welfare my entire life. That’s not how welfare was intended, but sadly, it is what it has become.”

She saw people buying steaks, lobster and giant cakes; she saw a man buying supplies for his business with his state card; she saw these people use iPhones that cost $200 and required a $25 monthly fee to run; she saw “people using Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)) money to buy such necessities such as earrings, Kitkat bars, beer, WWE figurines, and, my personal favorite, a Slip n’ Slide. TANF money does not have restrictions like food stamps on what can be bought with it.”

And she encountered what she called “an entitlement mentality” that led some recipients to blame her when their cards came up short for the items they wanted to buy. Whenever there was a question about whether something was actually an eligible purchase, her superiors told her to ignore the law and approve it anyway, clearly seeking to avoid confrontation.

So, she concluded, “Maine has a problem with welfare spending. Maine has some of the highest rates in the nation for food stamp enrollment, Medicaid, and TANF. Nearly 30 percent of the state is on some form of welfare. Maine is the only state in the nation to rank in the top two for all three categories. This is peculiar, as Maine’s poverty rate isn’t even close to being the highest in the nation.

“The system in Maine is far easier to get into than in other states, and it encourages dependency. When a person makes over the limit for benefits, they lose all benefits completely. There is no time limit and no motivation to actually get back to work. Furthermore, spending on welfare has increased dramatically, but there has been no reduction of the poverty rate.

“Something is going terribly wrong, and the things I saw at work were indicators of a much larger problem. Something must change before the state runs out of money funding welfare programs.”

She finds the allegation of racism laughable, because the people she describes were almost all white.

You can imagine the kind of comments she got. The BDN itself was supercilious: “Because the writer describes in detail what she witnessed, it brings into sharp focus what many conservatives imagine when they make the case for limiting welfare. But like policymakers attacking aid programs, Ms. Rousselle misses a significant part of the welfare picture. It’s a distorted view of the social safety net, focusing only on recipient consumption.”

You must have to be a liberal to say that when someone sees something with their own eyes over a period of two years, they are “imagining” it. And focusing on the actual outcome of a program (rather than what — its supporters’ dreams about it?) is a “distorted view.”

Denial is a river in Bangor, I guess.

But many commenters supported her observations with their own experiences, and while it’s true that “data is not the plural of anecdote,” there’s enough examples out there to comprise a fairly comprehensive set of data points by now.

Yes, people can need help. But if the goal of a welfare program is not to get the able-bodied to function on their own after a reasonable period of time, then it needs serious scrutiny and substantial reform.

Putting successive generations on handouts isn’t “aid,” it’s an insult to human dignity.

Thank you, Ms. Rousselle, for opening our eyes to that once again.

M.D. Harmon is a retired journalist and a free-lance writer. He can be contacted at: