Some Always Lose in a Musical Chairs Economy

If you are ever in need of “a shot of hate,” read the online comments section after many newspaper reports that relate to recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Sometimes you’ll even find similar remarks about those helped by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, commonly known as food stamps) or even some of the fast food workers who have gone on strike over their minimum wage pay.

I noticed this again recently when Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich issued an audit report in which he identified about $722,000 of “questionable transactions” out of $96 million in electronic card transactions in 2012 for the TANF program.

The report admitted that some of the purchases, most of them out of Missouri, may have actually been perfectly legitimate, given that Missouri has eight border states. Some reporters noted that the transactions that were termed questionable amounted to just a fraction of one percent. And yet, commenters latched onto this tidbit immediately.

So why is so much hatred spewed on those unfortunate enough to qualify for Missouri’s very low TANF or SNAP benefits?

Government and academic studies show that most use help from TANF for less than two years, and some studies have also shown that as many as 60 percent of mothers on TANF have experienced domestic violence. Where is our compassion for our neighbors? Why not call for an end to domestic violence instead of an end to TANF?

In thinking about public assistance and my brothers and sisters in low-wage employment, I am thankful to Washington University professor Mark Rank who used the game of musical chairs as a way to view the U.S. economy in his 1994 book Living on the Edge.

Rank reminds us that if a chair is a symbol for jobs that pay enough to sustain a family, some will always be left without a seat in our economy. Those who shout “Get a job!” at TANF recipients or who vilify SNAP recipients for “taking our tax dollars,” may be making life even harder for people who are doing the best that they can with their current circumstances.

Some TANF recipients are caring for a child or parent with a disability, very hard work, but not paid employment. Some low wage workers have mental illness and are holding the best job that they can get. Why point the finger when we do not know the full story?

As we settle into a new year, we would do well to practice what academician, theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman called, “the work of Christmas,” all year long. Rather than assuming the worst about persons who work in low-wage jobs or access public aid, what if we put our energy into the tasks listed in a Thurman poem:
“To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry….”

That is certainly my New Year’s wish as we move into the 2014 Legislative Session of the Missouri General Assembly. Expanding Medicaid to almost 300,000 low-wage workers would be a great step in the right direction. Refusing to make life even more difficult for TANF recipients with bills such as the pre-filed HB 1213 would also show a firm grasp on reality and a heart filled with compassion.

Let’s do the hard work of creating a game in which each person has access to a chair instead of hating those currently without a seat.


Health Forward Foundation
2300 Main Street, Suite 304
Kansas City, MO 64108
(816) 241-7006