I wish Mary Mayhew had read the rest of FDR’s 1935 speech

I’m wondering if Mary Mayhew ever read the FDR speech she quoted recently. Mayhew was reacting to the news that former Maine conservative operative and former LePage staffer Tarren Bragdon will be working on welfare policy with the Trump administration.

Bragdon’s Florida-based group, The Foundation for Government Accountability, has worked with the LePage administration in its effort to reduce welfare rolls and will be working with the Trump administration in a similar capacity.

Judging from the article I read, Bragdon and Mayhew are looking forward to a Republican president and a Republican Congress.

Mayhew hopes the new power dynamic in Congress will lead to what she calls disruptive change to break what she sees as a powerful dependence on public assistance. Steve Mistler, Maine Public

Mayhew even threw down an FDR quote:

Welfare is a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit. And we must escape the spider’s web of dependency.” FDR/Ronald Reagan

The way the article reads, both sentences are attributed to FDR; however, only the first sentence was FDR’s. Reagan added on the second sentence during his 1986 State Of the Union speech. Reagan was quoting FDR’s 1935 State of the Union Speech.

I wonder how many conservatives have actually read the FDR speech they keep grossly under-excerpting. If they had, they’d know FDR was justifying requesting increased investment in and the refocusing of his public works program that made paid employment available during the Great Depression.

We find our population suffering from old inequalities, little changed by vast sporadic remedies. In spite of our efforts and in spite of our talk, we have not weeded out the over privileged and we have not effectively lifted up the underprivileged. Both of these manifestations of injustice have retarded happiness. No wise man has any intention of destroying what is known as the profit motive; because by the profit motive we mean the right by work to earn a decent livelihood for ourselves and for our families.

We have, however, a clear mandate from the people, that Americans must forswear that conception of the acquisition of wealth which, through excessive profits, creates undue private power over private affairs and, to our misfortune, over public affairs as well. In building toward this end we do not destroy ambition, nor do we seek to divide our wealth into equal shares on stated occasions. We continue to recognize the greater ability of some to earn more than others. But we do assert that the ambition of the individual to obtain for him and his a proper security, a reasonable leisure, and a decent living throughout life, is an ambition to be preferred to the appetite for great wealth and great power. FDR, speaking to a joint session of Congress in 1935

(Anyone else troubled by how true these words are still ringing today? Do we learn nothing from the past?!?)

Stock photo

Franklin Delano Roosevelt  Stock photo

FDR broke down the population still needing government assistance after the stock market crash into two groups: the employable and those who for some disabling or age reason were not as able to compete in the workforce. FDR acknowledged a government obligation to support the latter, but did not blame the former for their economic circumstances and dependence on government support.

FDR was disappointed in the level of work available through government employment programs and desired that these programs be revamped.

It is a duty dictated by every intelligent consideration of national policy to ask you to make it possible for the United States to give employment to all of these three and one half million employable people now on relief, pending their absorption in a rising tide of private employment. FDR, speaking to a joint session of Congress in 1935

I have yet to hear Mayhew or anyone else fond of misusing FDR’s words in this capacity advocate for public employment of welfare recipients pending a “rising tide of employment” that pays a living wage. Which brings me to my point and its a simple one:

If conservatives want to trim welfare rolls, the best way is to figure out how to create ample jobs that pay a living wage.

In my personal and professional experience, most recipients do NOT want to receive welfare assistance. Contrary to popular conservative elitist thinking, it’s no thrill to put up with the endless questions, paperwork, bureaucracy, condescension and hours of phone calls and office visits necessary to get a paltry sum of food stamps that won’t even feed the family for a month.

Or to get the TANF payment that won’t cover the rent that might get partially paid by a housing subsidy after the three year wait it takes for a recipient’s name to get to the top of the waiting list.

If you asked most recipients to choose between being dehumanized by the Department of Health and Human Services to receive benefits that don’t make ends meet or working full-time at a job that will pay all your basic bills, I think (again from ample personal and professional experience) most would pick the job.

And spare me the default conservative crap about all the jobs needing to be filled at this moment. Sift out the jobs that don’t pay a living wage, the jobs that require a high level of education, and temporary contract jobs, and there’s not much left.

Like, a friend of mine said he knew a contractor who needed a bunch of laborers at $15 an hour for a new job he just got, but the contractor was having a hard time finding help. The contractor reported that one interviewee told him he couldn’t take the job because the pay was just high enough for him to lose his Section 8 housing voucher assisting with the rent for a family of five.

My friend thought this situation was an example of someone gaming the system, and I said, no, it’s an example of the very basic economics of poverty. If the interviewee in question had taken the job and lost his voucher, the $15 dollars an hour might cover basic bills if his significant other is also earning $15.

(Click here to see the Massachusetts Institute of Technology breakdown of living wages in Maine.)

If the significant other is earning less than $15, that’s just not enough money. Further, if the interviewee were to be laid off at the end of the contract, his unemployment income will not cover the rent for a family of five while they wait years to get their Section 8 voucher back.

The story isn’t a case of a man gaming the system, but a case of a man having to make very uncomfortable, difficult choices in a difficult economy to protect his family’s basic longterm interest.

If Mayhew and her welfare reform-obsessed conservative cohorts want to advocate for the kind of values, principles and programs detailed in FDR’s 1935 speech, I’m behind them 100 percent.

However, if these folks are going to strip select phrases to justify trimming the welfare rolls without the context of the macro- and microeconomic realities of poverty that FDR understood, all I can say is, leave that man’s words alone.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.