Blessed Solstice

Winter Begins

Winter solstice takes place on Thursday, Dec. 22 at 12:30 a.m. EST. This lovely image is your tax dollars at work, from

The cool astronomical diagram is from the BBC. If you are even a little bit nerdy you will enjoy the explanation of how the seasons are measured. I never knew that winter is the shortest season, I always thought February was three months long.

Circuit of the Sun

My minister, quoting science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, said, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

That’s why I like Solstice as a winter holiday. You don’t have to believe in it, it doesn’t demand faith, it just happens as it has since long before life began on this planet.

Don’t put too much credence in the ‘shortest day’ hype, though. The days do not begin to lengthen appreciably until early February, when we celebrate Candlemas, the halfway point to spring.

Exploiting Human Resources

I’ll just post a link since Kristin says it all…

My name is Kristin Rawls. I am thirty-one years old. I am not a drug user. I am not an alcoholic. My crime is that I went to school, and then I got sick. Today, I cannot even rent an apartment on my own without a co-signer. And the way things are going—the more things are deregulated—I’m not optimistic that that will always be enough.

‘I Cannot Eat Your Prayers’–how student debt changed one woman’s mind on Christian charity.

Christine Rousselle is Cuter than Ronald Reagan

Christine Rousselle has given the Republican Party an early Christmas present, wrapped in anecdotes, with a ‘Welfare Queen’ bow. She published an essay called, ‘My Time at Walmart: Why We Need Serious Welfare Reform’.

Rousselle, a 20 year old student at Providence College, worked summers at a Walmart in Maine, and discovered that the public can be hard to work with. She transformed the trials of service work into an opinion piece on The College Conservative that got her major blog hits and five marriage proposals according to the Providence Journal.

With a sharp eye to who was using food stamps and what they bought, Ms. Rousselle exposed the rudeness, bad dietary choices and apparent abuse of the system she had to witness from her stool behind the cash register. If any poor working families were stretching their food budget by shopping at Walmart, grateful for the food assistance, Ms.Rousselle doesn’t mention it.

That left-wing rag, the Bangor Daily News, ran this article last summer…

AUGUSTA, Maine — While there are indications that Maine’s economy is slowly rebounding from the recession, the federally funded food stamps program is growing significantly, helping more poor families get food and, in some ways, the state’s economy as a whole.

“It’s really a combination of factors that are causing this increase,” said Barbara Van Burgle, director of the Office for Family Independence. “One is that we have a lot of families where a parent is working but they do not make very much and are still eligible for the food supplement programs. That is 45 percent of the families.”

The latest statistics indicate there were over 248,000 Mainers — up 7.5 percent from a year ago — benefiting from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which used to be called the food stamp program. That is nearly 128,000 Maine households. The average monthly benefit per person is $129.17.

“This is a supplemental program” Van Burgle said. “It is not meant to be the only source of food for a family.”

The federal government pays for all of the benefits and half of the cost of administering the program. Any person with income less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level is eligible for the food assistance program.

The federal poverty level is $10,890 a year for an individual and $22,350 for a family of four. Van Burgle said in a poor state such as Maine, a lot of families with working parents are eligible for benefits.

“We have a lot of families in this state where the parents are working hard, some at two jobs, but they just do not make a lot of money,” she said.

Van Burgle said another factor in Maine’s numbers is the state’s demographics. She said more than 10 percent of those on the program are over 65 years old and retired. She said as more Mainers retire without adequate retirement incomes, the more will qualify for food assistance.

Maybe Ms. Rousselle didn’t notice the old ladies. We used to have lurid stories in the recession of the 70’s, about widows surviving on cat food. Ms. Rousselle is appalled that ‘Nearly 30% of the state is on some form of welfare’. The worst recession in thirty years seems to have escaped her notice. Some day her own parents might depend on welfare. We call it Social Security.

The minimum wage in Maine is $7.50/hr., which gets you $1200 a month if you work 40 hours a week. Maine recently voted not to increase their state minimum wage, which is a lavish 25 cents above the federal. This puts a full time, low wage worker in line to get food stamps.

So, speaking of wages, how does Walmart, our nation’s largest employer, stack up?
According to Walmart, pretty good.

As of October 31, 2011 (End of Q3), the average wage for regular, full-time hourly associates in Maine is $13.10 per hour (Walmart Discount Stores, Supercenters, and Neighborhood Markets). Additionally, eligible associates receive an annual incentive based on the company performance. lists a lower rate, $7.50-$10.55 for cashier. Since Walmart has pharmacies, I wonder if they are including pharmacy techs or even pharmacists in their ‘average’? This is very unclear. There are other ways to game the labor market, such as hiring part-timers who don’t qualify for benefits. From Caitlin Kelley at

The median retail wage in 2010 was $8.90 for a cashier and $9.86 for a sales associate – down from $9.50 an hour in 2006, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. More than three-quarters of retail workers are older than 25, contradicting the popular belief that only teens living at home work retail for a little extra pocket money.

One-third of all retail workers are the sole income for their families, working for poverty-level wages. Many of them want to work full-time, but retail employers, who clearly have the upper hand in an era with few other available jobs, consistently and increasingly offer them only part-time positions without benefits. Part-time workers earn a third less than those employed full-time, despite the physical and emotional labor — and the skills and product knowledge that retail work requires — being identical.

With wages remaining so low, many full-time retail workers need food stamps to boost their incomes.

Did Ms. Rousselle ever talk to her co-workers who were not just there on college break?

Maybe things are different in Maine, but here in Rhode Island I work with people who are on assistance, I guess you could call it welfare. They made bad choices. They raised children and married men who worked hard and died, leaving their widows on Social Security and yes, food stamps. They married and had children with health problems who needed expensive medical care. They got themselves hit by cars or afflicted with illnesses. They struggled in school and found themselves stuck in low-wage jobs. They lost their jobs in the recession.

Anecdotal evidence is compelling, but it’s only what you see. Ronald Reagan won the Presidency with colorful stories about welfare queens and drunks buying orange juice for their cocktails with food stamps. The stories were so good, they just had to be true, and Reagan was a performer, after all.

Still, anecdotes are biased toward the exceptions, the compelling dramas.

Imagine if we took this approach to, say, Providence College. There are about 3800 students attending, and most of them are hard-working decent kids, but let’s not dwell on that.

Let’s look at something more alarming. Underage drinking and lawlessness.

The College Atlas named PC as one of the top ten beer-drinking schools. And according to the Providence Police, they don’t pay much attention to legal age.
In fact, GoLocalProvidence rates PC as one of the most dangerous colleges and universities.

If we were to collect anecdotes from some of the bars in Elmhurst, and bartender’s stories about obnoxious customers, how would PC shape up?

I know that some years ago, the modest working-class neighborhood that surrounds PC was having to petition the city for relief from loud parties, vandalism and crime coming from PC, and the college was not very responsive. The administration really had an attitude. Kind of like a twenty year old smirking at the people who have to use food stamps. But that’s opinion, I admit.

Christine Rousselle is correct that welfare can be abused and needs reform. Every big system needs reform just like every big complicated machine needs maintenance. Welfare is a poor substitute for jobs, and jobs are what every state has lost in the recession. I’d go for a new Works Progress Administration myself, but the Republican party opposes any stimulus that comes from government, and Walmart is not picking up the slack. Who’s to blame? Bring on the Welfare Queens, it worked in the 80’s.

And some of what Ms. Rousselle says she saw does sound like fraud. Fraud is a bad thing. This is what the government wants you to do about fraud…

Assistance Fraud
Residents who know of, and wish to report fraud or abuse of the cash assistance, food stamp, Medicaid or any other benefit program provided by the Department of Human Services, should call the 24-hour hotline for fraud at (202) 673-4464 in the Office of Program Review, Monitoring and Investigation (OPRMI). Anonymous calls are accepted. Callers who give their names can request confidentiality at (202) 671-4496.

I don’t think there are government sanctions against being a lousy customer, service workers just have to put up with that. But Ms. Rousselle claims that she witnessed “massive amounts of fraud and abuse.” That would make Walmart an accessory to fraud. I’d like to know if Ms. Rousselle called the hotline, and if not, why not?

Having slept on this, I wake up thinking that Walmart Corp. might not be as totally delighted by Ms. Rousselle’s internet success as she is. Would you shop at a place where the clerk is watching what you buy with your EBT card so she can expose you on the internet? Good publicity for Ms. Rousselle, but not so much for Walmart.

Speaking Ill

Salon’s Glenn Greenwald does a Mother Theresa on Christopher Hitchens.

To allow significant political figures to be heralded with purely one-sided requiems — enforced by misguided (even if well-intentioned) notions of private etiquette that bar discussions of their bad acts — is not a matter of politeness; it’s deceitful and propagandistic. To exploit the sentiments of sympathy produced by death to enshrine a political figure as Great and Noble is to sanction, or at best minimize, their sins. Misapplying private death etiquette to public figures creates false history and glorifies the ignoble.

Good point– that private and public are not the same. I sympathize with Christopher Hitchens’ wife and children, who lost a father too soon. Perhaps the center of this issue is the need not to bury the history of the Iraq War with the declaration of its end, because the suffering caused here and in Iraq will not be undone in our lifetimes.

Making Trouble Elsewhere

I am not well read on Christopher Hitchens, and I find his support of the Iraq War inexplicable, but on the other hand he had the nerve to take on Mother Theresa.

Are they sipping tea together somewhere on the edge of eternity, or is there a space large enough in collective memory that spirits can rest, or unrest?

He suffered a terrible final illness with grace and without self-pity. Not so unusual, but a fine example to leave us. He was a passionate and compulsive writer– of his many vices, most of all addicted to the word.

Here’s a link to my minister
, who posted one of Christopher Hitchens’ bravest moments, on the waterboard.

BBC has a nice eulogy.

Nomi posted a nice link to one of Christopher Hitchens’ best sayings, on the difference between dogs and cats.

Story Behind the Story

I’m linking to Xavier Onassis, EMT because once again we see in the news that a fire department stood by while a house burned.

This is the second incident of this kind from Obion County, Tennessee.

When I blogged about this the first time, Xavier responded with a passionate and informed comment in defense of the firefighters, who have seen their resources stretched to the breaking point. As so often is the case, this may be good workers and citizens caught in a failing system.

He challenges Progresives…

A very popular position among progressives:

The firefighters who responded and did not control the fire are immoral cowards, motivated by Tea Party or Libertarian ideology;
they are so petty that they think it serves that woman right to lose her home because she did not pay $75;
they are too stupid and incapable of independent decision making to know when to break the rules.

From this position, the guilty parties are the first responders on scene and the mayor of South Fulton, Tennessee. Blame is placed at the very bottom of the chain of command, for not refusing to follow departmental guidelines when someone is in need. Support for these firefighters is viewed as immoral under this breakdown.

The rest of his post outlines the damage, starting with Reaganomics, to the essential foundations of a working community. Go visit Medic 343 for another view than what you will see in the headlines.

And thanks to friend, Sekanblogger, at Kansas Mediocrity, for help finding the link.

Newt Would Understand

When I see a story like this I always say a little prayer, ‘Please God, let it not be a Democrat.’ More often than not, my prayers are answered.

An anti-gay, religious conservative Republican politician who ran for Governor of Alabama on a morality platform has expressed family values in a new and unexpected way. Pam, at
Pam’s House Blend
put the link on Facebook. Pam has been accused of trying to re-invent marriage because she and her wife want legal equality even though they are interracial in the South. And they’re a same-sex couple.

But Bill Johnson’s approach to fatherhood, arguably, is far less traditional than two ladies setting up housekeeping. He seems to think he was working on a nice surprise for his wife, but she is not taking it well. I would not blame her if she takes it to a lawyer’s office, but that’s her decision.

Dear friends, take this as a reminder that when someone uses vague phrases like ‘family values’, you cannot take that to the bank, because it’s totally open to interpretation what those values are.

Bill Johnson doesn’t meet Kmareka’s standards of deportment, so I’ll post the link, straight outta Alabama, here.

I heard that Newt Gingrich is promising not to commit any more adultery. That’s nice. He would have broken promises to two women who married him, but those marriages were annulled so it doesn’t count.

Expecting politicians to have integrity in all areas of life is like trusting a dog to guard your lunch. I long ago learned to settle for ‘good enough’. But when a politician attacks his or her opponents on moral grounds, and then flamboyantly breaks rules and hearts as well– it’s just too hard to resist a few snarky words. Sorry.