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. 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.
Other things witnessed while working as a cashier included:
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.)
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.
c) Extravagant purchases made with food stamps; including, but not limited to: steaks, lobsters, and giant birthday cakes.
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.
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.
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). 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. 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. 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.
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.
Christine Rousselle // Providence College // @Crousselle