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Charlie Mitchell: Mississippi borrows a bit of strategy from Gen. Patton

 

Charlie Mitchell

 

OXFORD -- In "Patton," George C. Scott portrays the aggressive and effective World War II general. He finds an otherwise able soldier cowering in a hospital and slaps him. 

 

The script then calls for Patton to apologize to his entire army. Remember? The officers and enlisted men and women assemble in a courtyard. Patton walks to a parapet and says, "I can assure you that I had no intention of being either harsh or cruel in my treatment of the soldier in question. My sole purpose was to try to restore in him some sense of appreciation of his obligations as a man and as a soldier. 'If one could shame a coward,' I felt, 'one might help him to regain his self-respect.' This was on my mind." 

 

Mississippi is borrowing that bit from the movie. 

 

Drug-testing welfare recipients, which could start in July, will be for their own good you see, a charitable act. 

 

Not punishment. 

 

Kindness. 

 

Witness the press release from the office of Gov. Phil Bryant: "(T)his screening process will aid adults who are trapped in a dependency lifestyle so they can better provide for their children. ... This measure will help make a positive difference for families impacted by drug abuse." 

 

Nice. 

 

Of course, a more realistic view is that "helping people" was not on the minds of Mississippi lawmakers when they passed H.B. 49. 

 

They were as angry as Patton/Scott was with that coward. 

 

The reason? All around this state there are families busting their buns to make it -- to keep up with mortgages or rents and car payments and to put food on the table. These folks are outraged at what they perceive to be a rising level of grift. They believe more and more are living the good life out of the pockets of others and that what these bums need is a slap in the face or a kick in the somewhere else. 

 

The numbers tell a slightly different tale. 

 

"Welfare" is no longer an official term. Remember? Bill Clinton ended "welfare as we know it." The payments are now TANF, an acronym for Temporary Aid to Needy Families. 

 

During Clinton's presidency, Congress set five-year lifetime maximums for any person to receive monthly checks. (That provision was largely rescinded in 2008 during the economic implosion, but is still technically on the books.) 

 

But what people really need to know is that welfare (or TANF) is really a minuscule portion of the aid picture. The latest figures show 25,000 Mississippi households receiving checks -- a number that actually declined 1.3 percent from the year before. (There was a 2.3 percent decline nationally during the same year.) 

 

Compare those numbers to food stamp benefits (now known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP), which are posted to the electronic accounts of 680,000 (one in four) Mississippians. 

 

TANF is also not very generous. A two-adult household with four dependents collects $244 per month. That's $60 per week and, truth be told, that won't buy a lot of drugs. 

 

Anyway, the new law takes effect in seven weeks. 

 

Current recipients must complete a questionnaire. New applicants must complete a questionnaire. 

 

No one knows what's on the questionnaire. The governor's office says questions will be developed by a consultant and designed to detect likely drug abusers. 

 

Not sure how that works either, but those who flunk will be asked to undergo screening at state expense. Refusal means no check. Refusing to undergo treatment for substance abuse (and pass) means no check. Pass the test and everything's hunky-dory -- payments of $110 to a head of household plus $34 for a second adult and $24 per month per child will continue. 

 

It is beyond doubt that some people on the TANF rolls are engaged in fraud. It's beyond doubt that the same cheaters bilk all of the dozen or so mainstream assistance programs -- SNAP, housing, utility assistance, WIC, day care subsidies, SSI, Medicaid. 

 

It's certainly the duty of the Legislature to protect the public purse from what amounts to theft. The question remains, though, whether drug-testing selected applicants in a small program -- probably the smallest program -- is an effective means to that end. 

 

Or whether it is the equivalent -- in terms of sincerity -- to Patton's apology. 

 

Want to help people? Stop trying to shame poor folks and be more selective about who gets aid in the first place.

 

 

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