, Newburyport, MA

November 26, 2012

Put entitlement programs under the microscope

Chris Cluney

---- — There’s a family I’m close to who live in a near-by city. They’re the average young family, sort of like the Berenstein Bears: Momma, Poppa, Brother and Sister. They go to Sunday school and soccer practice and Scouts and sometimes swimming at the Y. They live in a neighborhood with many young families like them, where you can ride your scooter on the sidewalk and chat with friends over back fences. They don’t go on vacation very often as a family and rarely even go out to dinner, but they’re happy and healthy, enjoying life.

Unlike the Berenstein Bears, Momma and Poppa work. Four jobs between them. Sometimes Momma leaves the house in the morning before the rest of the family is awake so she can get to work on time several cities away from home, and Poppa has three jobs and is home only one night during the work week. There is the mortgage to pay for, along with new shoes for growing feet and food and, of course, day care.

So you can imagine how delighted this young family was to learn that the city where they live decided last year to fully fund all-day kindergarten. Wow. The younger child will be in kindergarten next year. No more day care. Wow. Maybe Poppa will be able to drop one of his three jobs and be home at night. There is a light at the end of this tunnel.

This family is delighted, of course. And the teachers are delighted as well. Instead of spending time in first grade getting half-day kindergarteners from the year before up to speed with those whose parents paid for full-day kindergarten, they can now hit the ground running and have a real first-grade curriculum.

But no. That’s not what the city government intended. “Fully funded all-day kindergarten” is fully funded only for those families who can’t afford it. It’s for those families who don’t work extra jobs to pay for day care and all-day kindergarten, and if you work, you’ll pay, just like you did before.

So this family is back to square one. At least one more year paying out. One more year without replacing the old car, one more year where Momma and Poppa take separate vacations so that someone is home during the summer weeks when school is out, maybe one more year before Poppa can be home for dinner too.

And here’s the kicker: Poppa is a social worker, employed by the state of Massachusetts. His clients are, for the most part, young people who need help navigating the system in which they, perhaps through no fault of their own, have run amok. Poppa’s clients, besides getting his help and advice, also get things like clothing allowances. Poppa was astounded when he learned the amount of money his clients receive for clothing. Each client receives from the state an amount that would clothe his whole family of four. And while Sister is delighted to wear the hand-me-downs she is given by friends and family and the shoes on sale at Target, and Brother proudly shows off his new sneakers from the 40 percent off sale at the outlet, Poppa’s clients wear top-end designer sneakers so they will fit in with their friends and not stand out as being on welfare.

I know I’m probably being melodramatic. And I know this family of whom I speak will probably be embarrassed to be the subject of this piece. And before you jump down my figurative throat, I am fully aware that most of the people who will have that kindergarten tuition paid for by the government and who receive public assistance really need help. There are mothers who are alone after the fathers of their children skipped out, and there are families where the bread-winners lost their jobs in this terrible economy. There are people who are loathe to accept public assistance and can’t wait to be working again.

But for every one of them, for every one of the people who use public assistance for emergencies and as temporary stop-gap measures for which these programs were designed, there are those who fully believe that the state and federal governments, to say nothing of the whole world, owe them a living. They deserve to be supported by the taxpayer, they are entitled to this. They see nothing wrong with not working, not paying into the system, only taking out of it. My old department head at the high school used to supplement his own income teaching night school. He once told his students, mostly young, single, teenage mothers, “Do this. Finish this course. Get your diploma. And then you can get a job and support your kids.” To which they replied, almost in one voice, “Why? Why would we do that? Right now, we don’t have to work. We get paid to do just what we’re doing right now.”

The recent election is what spawned this whole piece. And more than that, the “fiscal cliff” awaits and it scares me. I don’t really have faith that either the recently re-elected president or even his opponent can — or could — do much about it, and Congress certainly shows no signs of fixing the problems. Raising taxes isn’t the biggest piece of the puzzle, as I see it. (That’s a whole different argument I don’t have the space to address here).

It’s the entitlement programs that need to be examined. I don’t really care that Democrats will criticize my point of view as a Republican one. That kind of thinking is what got us into this fix in the first place. Governments at the state and most certainly at the federal level need to make sure that Momma and Poppa and the people just like them who contribute to the system are not overlooked for those who don’t.


Chris Cluney lives in West Newbury.