Society’s Polygraph

A writer for the Washington Post describes the harrowing experience of receiving stares when collecting welfare benefits in her husband’s luxury car. Her true self-awakening occurs only after deep reflection reveals what a devastating effect collective judgment has had on her feelings of identity and self-worth. The greatest injustice of all, she realizes, is that she has been made to feel ashamed for having a mortgage, car, and children she can’t afford.

In the following passage she describes the utter humiliation to which she was subjected in the process of receiving her WIC and Medicare benefits:

I had to fill out at least six forms and furnish my Social Security card, birth certificate and marriage license. I sat through exams, meetings and screenings. They had a lot of questions about the house: Wasn’t it an asset? Hadn’t we just bought it? They questioned every last cent we’d ever made. Did we have stock options or pensions? Did we have savings? I had to send them my three most recent check stubs to prove I was making as little as I said I was.


Proof of identity! Verifying financial status! Horror of horrors!

Isn’t her giving her word enough? Who knew getting your hands on free money would be so difficult?


The question-mark guy on TV never mentioned any of this!

Back to the titular Mercedes:

That’s the funny thing about being poor. Everyone has an opinion on it, and everyone feels entitled to share. That was especially true about my husband’s Mercedes. Over and over again, people asked why we kept that car, offering to sell it in their yards or on the Internet for us.

“You can’t be that bad off,” a distant relative said, after inviting himself over for lunch. “You still got that baby in all its glory.”

Sometimes, it was more direct. All from a place of love, of course. “Sell the Mercedes,” a friend said to me. “He doesn’t get to keep his toys now.”

If you look closely, you can see some faint indications of properly functioning cultural norm. Being on welfare is supposed to suck. People are supposed to question your expenses and offer you help and advice. You are supposed to feel ashamed about not working and living off other people, regardless of whether or not you are primarily responsible for your financial condition. These are all components of a healthy society with incentives properly aligned toward working, managing expenses properly, and getting off of public dependence.

All of this is supposed to be the case because the alternative is having a system that encourages dependency and inaction. The other option is having people on welfare who drive Mercedes-Benz sports cars going totally unexamined. Is that the world you want to live in?


4 thoughts on “Society’s Polygraph

  1. Thanks for including the article you are referencing. A good read on how middle class people are undone when they realize the safety net has more than a few holes in it. It reminds me of stories of good upstanding people who get arrested and cannot believe the treatment they receive. Your comments peg you though for your lack of , of I do not know how to say it – intelligence? compassion? irony? Your posts have taken on a certain talk radio feel.

    • I always include the articles I reference. I didn’t see any “holes” in the safety net from the article, nor anyone “undone.” In fact, it seems to have functioned just fine in this woman’s case, except she wants her welfare guilt-free. Well, sorry, but guilt serves an important function in these situations in aligning incentives toward positive outcomes and discouraging abuse.

      Do you have any specific points to make about my post, or are you content to stick to petty insults?

      • Specific Points? It is your complete lack of understanding. You made it about her and her car. Reading it, I thought it is what mothers do for their children. Is that so hard to understand? It informs me about the thin line that exists now between middle class sufficiency and a big drop down. The author gave a personal account of that. Her point was that there is something bigger going on than her predicament. You seem to be either willfully ignorant or blind to addressing that point. Instead you write a post that sounds like so many talk radio rants. My Petty attack? Don’t we often use words that describe ourselves when we use them for our enemies?

      • So you’re declining my invitation to provide any specific criticisms, and you’re doubling down on how I’m unintelligent and lack understanding. Quite the thoughtful analysis.

        I made it about her and her car? Since the title of the article is: “This is what happened when I drove my Mercedes to pick up food stamps,” and since she discusses the car in no fewer than 10 paragraphs – including the first and last – it’s safe to assume that yes, the car is a focal point of the article. Of course she’s making broader points about welfare than *only* the car – it’s a narrative tool – which I fully acknowledged and addressed in my post. The article wouldn’t be worth mentioning if it were only about a car.

        What point do you think I missed, specifically? Your comments are so vague it’s impossible to tell. You mentioned holes in the safety net – what holes would those be? From the article, it appears her family resumed a comfortable life to the extent where she is now a stay-at-home mom.

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