'My Time at Wal-Mart' Blogger is Wrong About Welfare

Young college student Christine Rousselle generated some internet buzz, and even garnered some main-stream media attention, with her blog article about her experience working as a Wal-Mart cashier during Summer breaks. Specifically, she attacks people who are on welfare or public assistance, while demanding welfare reform, rather than addressing the true root causes of poverty. This is my point-by-point rebuttal to her propaganda piece, exposing her flawed arguments and bias, which are typical of those who would rather attack poor people than strive to change the conditions which put these folks on welfare in the first place.

Her article is hosted by The College Conservative and can be viewed at that link.

My Time at Walmart: Why We Need Serious Welfare Reform 

Dec 13 by Christine Rousselle
During the 2010 and 2011 summers, I was a cashier at Wal-Mart #1788 in Scarborough, Maine. I spent hours upon hours toiling away at a register, scanning, bagging, and dealing with questionable clientele. These were all expected parts of the job, and I was okay with it. What I didn’t expect to be part of my job at Wal-Mart was to witness massive amounts of welfare fraud and abuse.

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.

The temporary nature of any aid is directly correlated to what created the need in the first place, and how long it will take for those conditions to be mitigated, if they ever are. This goes to the root causes of why we even have a need for a welfare program in the first place. The sad fact of the matter is that the relationship between government and business in this country have set economic conditions which induce a condition of permanent poverty in our country. Sure, some people may get on the welfare rolls, while others manage to make it off of welfare and get back on their feet. But overall, there remains a permanent underclass of citizens for which there is no economic opportunity whatsoever to be self-sufficient, and that underclass continues to grow each year as the job market continues to deteriorate. So long as those conditions persist, the temporary nature of welfare is idealist rather than realist. These are concepts that this young college student might have difficulty understanding though, so let's cut right to the chase here. Even in her own experience, she is not the expert she pretends to be.

Working for two summers at Wal-Mart is hardly comparable to working there for "generations." Unless she has worked there long enough to see one generation to the next come through her line using foodstamps, then she is in no position to render such an assessment authoritatively. Did she see Bob Jones come through her line every month for 18 years, with little Bob Jones Jr., who now also comes through her line every month with his own foodstamps? No, the only thing she could possibly have seen was parents buying food for their children, using an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card. Is it her position then that children should be barred from welfare benefits? Personally, I can't think of anyone more worthy of help than a hungry child.
I once had a man show me his welfare card for an ID to buy alcohol. The man was from Massachusetts. Governor Michael Dukakis’ signature was on his welfare card. Dukakis’ last gubernatorial term ended in January of 1991. 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.
Here was have already caught Miss Rousselle in a flat out lie. Massachusetts did not even begin using the EBT card until April 1, 1997. Before that time, benefits were paid by check, and foodstamps were actual paper certificates which were torn out of a booklet, which are facts that she is too young to remember. The idea that she even remembers the name of someone who was governor of some far-off state when she was born is very difficult to believe as well, and exposes how she was really reaching too far in order to try to make her point. I can't even remember who was governor of my home state when I was born, and seeing it written on some tattered 20 year old ID while I was at work wouldn't do much to sear it into my memory either.

It is also a fact that, contrary to popular belief, welfare does indeed have a time limit. Massachusetts happens to be one of 17 states with a shorter time limit than the maximum Federal benefit of 60 months. That is a maximum of five years, over the course of a person's entire lifetime, that they can get public assistance funding should they find themselves in need. The state where the imaginary ID was issued, offers even less time.

Seeing this blatant lie, it is clear that anything else this young woman has written might be entirely fabricated as well, but we will go ahead and continue here as an academic exercise. Other things she claims to have witnessed as a cashier, we will go ahead and itemize here.
a) People ignoring me on their iPhones while the state paid for their food. (For those of you keeping score at home, an iPhone is at least $200, and requires a data package of at least $25 a month. If a person can spend $25+ a month so they can watch YouTube 24/7, I don’t see why they can’t spend that money on food.)
Having a telephone and an internet connection is not simply a luxury, it is a necessity to function in our society. You can't even apply for a job in this day and age without an internet connection. And a telephone? Well that really should be obvious why someone needs a phone. To call to make a doctor's appointment, to talk to your social worker, to call 911 if your house is on fire, there is a long list of reasons why a person needs a telephone.

By using this blogger's logic, we might just as easily say that if a person can spend $100 a month for electricity, then they should use that money for food instead. Or toilet paper, if they can afford toilet paper, they can afford food, after all, poor people were born with hands. Toilet paper is a luxury. Go out and pick leaves if you don't want to wipe with your hand.
b) People using TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) 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.
A pair of cheap Wal-Mart earrings is hardly luxurious spending. Making oneself presentable in public is indeed a necessity if one ever hopes to get back off of welfare. Walking into a job interview with no makeup on wearing a pair of old sweatpants is hardly the way to make a good first impression.

Judging by the rest of this list, and in particular her repeated disdain for children, it seems clear that Christine believes if you are poor, you should take no pleasure in life whatsoever. Kit Kat bars huh? Well maybe sugar for someone's coffee should also be made illegal for poor people. While we're at it, let's just force all poor people onto the old bread and water diet, then make them sit in an empty room staring at the walls all day. And her "personal favorite" the slip n' slide. What exactly is wrong with that? It's not as if someone went out and built a new swimming pool with a waterfall using tax dollars. I hardly find it offensive that my tax dollars went to buy a sheet of plastic so that some kids could have a little fun running around and keeping keeping cool playing with a garden hose in the hot summer months.

If someone walked in and bought a $3,000 flat screen the size of a panel van and paid for it using TANF dollars, that might be considered an extravagant purchase. A few token purchases of minor, simple pleasures is hardly abuse of welfare. Recreation and relaxation are necessary to the mental health and stability of human beings.
c) Extravagant purchases made with food stamps; including, but not limited to: steaks, lobsters, and giant birthday cakes.
Oh, the old steak and lobsters routine again. Every time there is a conversation about food stamps, there will be some right-winger who pipes up to tell us all about the time he saw someone use foodstamps to buy seatk and lobster. It's bullshit. People who are getting foodstamps are next to starvation, they aren't going to go blowing that money on a lobster. Not without a damn good reason anyway. Maybe this is their gift to them self, or their spouse, for their birthday, and they won't eat the rest of the week in order to afford this one treat for themselves. A steak is not necessarily even a luxury at all, but simply food, a necessity. Chuck steaks have long been a staple food for households on a lean budget. And birthday cakes. Again this young woman attacks children, and this time she wants to take away their birthday. Would you really walk in to a poor person's house, and take away their child's birthday cake? She probably would, along with their brand new favorite WWE action-figure. After all, we don't want the children of poor people to grow up spoiled with a sense of entitlement.
d) A man who ran a hotdog stand on the pier in Portland, Maine used to come through my line. He would always discuss his hotdog stand and encourage me to “come visit him for lunch some day.” What would he buy? Hotdogs, buns, mustard, ketchup, etc. How would he pay for it? Food stamps. Either that man really likes hotdogs, or the state is paying for his business. Not okay.
If this is actually true, then this would indeed constitute fraud. It would also be easily solved with a quick phone call to the local Social Services office. Obviously she knew who the man was, and where his hot dog cart was, yet she did nothing about it. It's also possible that the man did actually declare his income from the hot dog cart, but still didn't earn enough from the venture to put him over the threshold to be eligible for some foodstamps.

As far as the state paying for his business though, maybe we should take a closer look at what the state is paying for the Walton family for their little business, known as Wal-Mart. Low wages, lack of benefits, lack of overtime work and full-time positions makes the company one of the worst employers in the country, leaving taxpayers on the hook to make up for the shortfall. Thanks to the low wages paid to WalMart employees, US taxpayers must subsidize those workers to the tune of $2.66 BILLION annually, for things like Medicaid and Foodstamps. In Florida alone 12,300 WalMart employees are on Medicaid. The combined net worth of the six members of the Walton family is the same as the combined net worth of the poorest 40% of Americans, yet this young little Wal-Mart worker is attacking a small-business man trying to run a hot dog cart.

Let's Kick Wal-Mart Off Welfare

Why Wal-Mart Loves Welfare

Rep. Robert Hagan slams Wal-Mart over workers needing public assistance

Wal-Mart Welfare

So we wind up with only one of her four examples could even really be considered to be possible welfare fraud, while at the same time the very same company she works for actually forces employees to get on welfare in order to survive. That is not some temporary need. That is the new reality in America, that even people who get up and go to work every day, still need welfare in order to get by. That is not entitlement, that is Wal-Mart policy.
The thing that disturbed me more than simple cases of fraud/abuse was the entitled nature of many of my customers. One time, a package of bell peppers did not ring up as food in the computer. After the woman swiped her EBT card, it showed a balance that equaled the cost of the peppers. The woman asked what the charge was, and a quick glance at the register screen showed that the peppers did not ring up as food. (Food items had the letter ‘F’ next to their description.) The woman immediately began yelling at me, saying that, “It’s food! You eat it!” 

This wasn’t the only time things like this happened: if a person’s EBT balance was less than they thought it would be, or if their cards were declined, it was somehow my fault. I understand the situation is stressful, but a person should be knowledgeable about how much money is in their account prior to going grocery shopping. EBT totals are printed on receipts, and every cell phone has a calculator function. There’s no excuse, and there’s no reason to yell at the cashier for it.
It sounds to me that the real sense of entitlement here is coming from Miss Rouselle herself, as if someone using an EBT card owes her more respect than the average customer. Let's face it, working with the public is a strenuous, infuriating job. But just because someone is on welfare doesn't mean that they have to checkout their groceries in silence with their heads bowed, groveling to the emotional needs of the cashier. If the green peppers rang up wrong, it is your responsibility fix the problem. You may not have programmed the computer system that week, it may not be your fault, but you are the person standing there in front of the customer. That is what you are being paid for, to be a representative of the company, and to serve the customer.

As far as yelling at a cashier about the balance on their EBT card, I will agree that it's not very good manners, and it's certainly not the job of the cashier to monitor someone's account balance and spending habits. But just the same, even poor people are entitled to have a bad day once in a while, and might actually be expected to be having a bad day just about every single day. So you might try cutting them some slack. At the very least, don't pretend that this sort of incident is exclusive to EBT card users. Anyone who has ever worked in retail can tell you how frequently someone with a credit card or a bank card freaks out when their card gets declined, or won't swipe because the card was damaged. Stupid, pain in the ass customers come from all walks of life. Just because someone is getting government assistance in no way makes obligated to kiss your ass.
The worst thing I ever saw at Wal-Mart Scarborough was two women and their children. These women each had multiple carts full of items, and each began loading them at the same time (this should have been a tip-off to their intelligence levels). The first woman, henceforth known as Welfare Queen #1, paid for about $400 worth of food with food stamps. The majority of her food was void of any nutritional value. She then pulled out an entire month’s worth of WIC (Women, Infants, and Children program) checks. I do not mind people paying with WIC, but the woman had virtually none of the correct items. WIC gives each participating mother a book containing actual images of items for which a person can and cannot redeem the voucher. This woman literally failed at image comprehension.
After redeeming 10+ WIC checks, Welfare Queen #1 had me adjust the prices of several items she was buying (Wal-Mart’s policy is to adjust the price of the item without question if it’s within a dollar or two).
Now our young Conservative remarks about the "intelligence levels" of a few of her customers. If someone is indeed of low IQ, wouldn't that actually show more of a need for assistance than the average person even? Someone who cannot perform even basic and simple tasks would be considered handicapped. But maybe we should just let all the people with autism, or brain injuries just starve to death in the streets.

Paying for $400 worth of food with foodstamps is not abuse. The woman obviously had a family, and trying to feed an entire family on only $400 a month is not easy. People on welfare get a monthly allotment, and will often spend it all on one trip, rather then spending money going back and forth whenever they need something. Many people on foodstamps don't even have their own car, and can only get to the supermarket when they find a ride with someone else.

Admonishing the woman for her selections and the lack of nutritional value in the food she was purchasing reveals the ignorance of the young cashier. Because poor people cannot afford to make a trip to the supermarket a few times a week, they cannot buy much fresh food, leaving their cupboards filled with nutritionally deficient packaged and processed foods. Healthier food is also much more expensive. It is more important to not run out of food in the middle of the month than it is to eat fresh and healthy. Besides, as Christine tried to tell us earlier, things like beef should not be on a poor person's menu anyway, so bologna and Spam it is then.

She then closes one paragraph and opens a new one literally contradicting herself. In one breath she is telling us that the woman can't read pictures and didn't have the right items to go with the WIC checks, but then turns right around and tells us that she processed ten of those WIC checks. If she didn't have qualifying items, then what were those 10+ checks actually spent on? Did Christine commit fraud by falsifying the record of what had been purchased? Or is Miss Rouselle full of crap yet again, going out of her way to make a false portrayal of her "experience" as a Wal-Mart cashier?

Finally, as far as adjusting prices goes, when every dollar counts, it's hardly surprising that a person would be watching that tally closely to make sure there were no errors, and that the person would expect any errors to be corrected. Again, that's your job, so do your job, and don't complain about it when a customer expects you to do your job.
She then pulled out a vacuum cleaner, and informed me that the cost of the vacuum was $3.48 because, “that’s what the label says.” The vacuum cleaner was next to a stack of crates that were $3.48. Somehow, every other customer was able to discern that the vacuum cleaner was not $3.48, but Welfare Queen #1 and her friend Welfare Queen #2 were fooled. Welfare Queen #2 informed me that she used to work for Wal-Mart, and that the “laws of Wal-Mart legally said” that I would have to sell her the vacuum for $3.48.
This bit I do actually find believable. Anyone who has ever worked in retail has at least a few stories like this. But again, pain in the ass customers come from all walks of life and are just a part of the job. It has nothing to do with how someone pays for their groceries.
After contacting my manager, who went off to find the proper vacuum price, Welfare Queen #1 remarked that it must be tough to stand on a mat all day and be a cashier. I looked at her, smiled, shrugged, and said, “Well, it’s a job.” She was speechless.

Speechless, probably because it's a crappy job, that if you weren't still living at home with Mommy and Daddy, you would have to be on welfare too. While this "welfare queen" was probably feeling bad for the young girl, and maybe even a little guilty for being a difficult customer, the cashier was passing judgement on someone she knows nothing about.
After they finally admitted defeat, (not before Welfare Queen #2 realizing she didn’t have enough money to buy all of the food she had picked out, resulting in the waste of about $200 worth of products) the two women left about an hour and a half after they arrived at my register. The next man in line said that the two women reminded him of buying steel drums and cement. I said I was reminded why I vote Republican.
An hour and a half huh? That has to be a new record for slowest cashier in a Wal-Mart ever. She's not doing much to make Republicans look good here.

I am wondering how $200 worth of products were wasted too. Unless it was $200 worth of deli meat, you take the cart and go put the stuff back on the shelf. Again, pretty common task in retail and in particular working in a supermarket, reverse-shopping.
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% 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.
I don't live in Maine and have never made a study of Maine's welfare system, so I cannot speak with authority on those details. However, we have already established that there is indeed a time limit for welfare benefits, and what she states there is plainly false.

She does make a statement here that does not seem to fit with the tone of the rest of her article, when she mentions that a person loses all benefits if they earn just a little too much. This is true, and is a factor in why a person might not take a few extra hours when offered, or otherwise partake of small opportunities that will jeopardize their lifeline. Is she suggesting though, that earning caps should be raised, so that people on welfare can stay on welfare even if they earn a little too much?

Finally, I do agree that increased welfare spending and no reduction in poverty are of very serious concern. But those problems will not be solved by attacking the intelligence of some lady at the grocery store who is trying to feed her kids with precious few resources. These problems are not a matter of personal choice, but the result of bad government policy overall, not only as they pertain to the welfare system. You aren't going to get rid of welfare by attacking the people who are on welfare. The only way to get rid of welfare is to give them job, real jobs, where they can earn an honest living. With 30 million people looking for work, and many millions more earning far less than what is needed to survive, welfare is absolutely necessary, unfortunately. Attacking the victims of flawed economic policy is nothing but a distraction from the real problems, and the real culprits. It is propaganda designed for the government and the corporations to scape-goat their own responsibility, to shift the blame. Meanwhile, the reality is that someone needs to earn more than double minimum wage, twice the rate of poverty, simply to get by. It's not a matter of personal choices, work ethic, or social graces. It's simple arithmetic.

Here is a sample budget, from a friend who lives in upstate NY. Feel free to comment if you believe it's unreasonable.

$1000 rent (trailer)
$100 electric
$50 cooking gas/hot water heater
$100 heating oil (monthly fee for lock-in price)
$300 groceries (including household goods such as soap, trash bags)
$50 clothing (laundry, underwear replacement when necessary, shoes)
$50 cellphone (basic prepaid service)
$100 triple-play (home phone, basic cable, internet)
$130 auto loan payment ($4k/36 mos/12.5%)
$120 auto insurance (under 35 with no tickets)
$150 gasoline (local only)
$50 auto maintenance (minimum)
$250 medical


That's over $15 an hour, TAKE HOME pay, just to survive. More than double minimum wage, BEFORE TAXES.

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