The Common Good
March-April 1995

A Proud Welfare Queen

by David Batstone | March-April 1995

I am a welfare queen. There, I've said it.

I am a welfare queen. There, I've said it. It is really hard to admit it publicly, especially now that we (did I say we?) are being assigned primary responsibility for adding zeros onto the national debt. But it's true. Now wait, before you dial up the "turn-in-a-welfare-queen hotline," give me a chance

to defend myself. It snuck up on me, honest.

See, up until recently I've never owned my own four walls and a roof. Like most other welfare queens (irony is, in those days I was not a we), I just wrote out a monthly check to my landlord and that was it. I never saw the money again once it went down that dark hole.

Then last year I bought a home. So now, instead of sending a check to a schmuck who lives out in the suburbs and works at a bank, I send a check to a schmuck who works at a bank and lives out in the suburbs. Not that earth-shattering a change, really. Or so I thought.

But my world began to crumble last week when I got this official-looking letter in the mail informing me that I was now eligible for a new program. The message was terse: "Congratulations. You are now living in subsidized housing."

It turns out that every single penny that I had sent that schmuck in the bank was going to be subtracted from my taxable earnings. In short, I was in line for a balloon payment from Uncle Sam. Sure, they gussied up the language with technical terms like "mortgage interest" and "income deductions," but I knew. It was nothing but...[gulp]...public assistance.

I couldn't sleep for days. I got nauseous, then started worrying that it was the first sign of an unwanted pregnancy. You have to understand, there is no prayer for us. Actually, for a while I had hopes that prayer would be my salvation. If only Newt Gingrich and his posse would tie up Congress over a school prayer debate, maybe they would forget about us. I realized what a pipe dream that was once I heard the president of the Christian Coalition say that the country wasn't going to change by virtue of "acts of public piety," but only once they started rooting out people like us. I don't know what I was expecting from a coalition called "Christian"; maybe a little bread and wine?

Well, it's funny how old adages have a way of coming back to you and meaning something when you least expect it. Spend your whole life scratching your head over some hand-me-down-saying, then boom! revelation. "Misery loves company." That is what saved me.

I WAS IN MISERY, no doubt about it, when flipping through my weekly dose of Time magazine. To be honest, I usually skip the perfunctory quarterly article on arms sales since I am easily bored by the makes and years of fighter jets. But on this particular occasion, something caught my eye.

The Pentagon, my mag informed me, is currently allowing Sweden to wiggle through a loophole in federal regulations that require overseas clients to pay a share of a weapon's development. Sweden was willing to cough up $300,000 apiece for a number of air-to-air missiles made in this country, but balked at the $100,000-a-missile development fee. So, with a wink from the administration, Sweden was left off the hook.

Who ends up paying for the weapon's development? Yep, you and me, babe-that is, we-while Sweden and the arms manufacturer walk away with bucketloads of public assistance. It doesn't stop there, of course. The article was jam-packed with ways that government agencies and arms companies are ripping off tax coffers to the tune of billions of dollars.

Was I angry? Heck no, try comforted. From now on, if I am going to be persecuted by political conservatives for being a welfare queen, I am determined to take the high road. "Call me what you will," I'll shout back with pride, "but I am proud to be an American."

My country. Right or wrong.

DAVID BATSTONE is professor of religion and culture at the University of San Francisco, and the author, most recently, of New Visions for the Americas (Fortress Press, 1993).

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