Leaving Las Vegas?3 min read

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Where is Sheryl Crow when you need her? The Los Angeles Times reported this week the sensational news that poor people don’t always stay put here in California. Sometimes they go out of state and sometimes they actually taste the good life. The mainstream press reacted in horror and declared in unison, this waste, fraud and abuse must end.

To read Jack Dolan’s truly sad piece you would think it is just one big party on CalWORKs. $69 million withdrawn from state issued electronic benefit cards out of the state of California. Mr. Dolan made sure to drop all the anguish causing details into the story: Vegas, Miami, Hawaii, cruise ships, even Disney World. The story just leaves you breathless.

But there is one little problem. Not one single case of actual fraudulent behavior was found and no evidence is presented that even one penny was spent inappropriately. It is all just innuendo and rank speculation designed to pull the public’s chain. The story documents just $13 million of the most egregious examples – the kind designed to draw in readers. Funny how the $34,000 withdrawn at a 7-11 near a casino gets a mention but the author does not disclose that the bulk of funds used in Las Vegas were at WalMart and Winco stores. But that doesn’t make you spit your coffee out on the front page in anger, now does it?

What about the other $56 million that the LAT found? According to the media uproar, all these funds represent a wild spending spree of taxpayer funds. Really? Well we know that funds were taken in out in 49 states. So that means our vacation loving welfare recipients decided to go to North Dakota for the big get away? And who could pass up the charm of Nebraska in the winter? Maybe the surging Tea Party movement in Delaware drew true believers across country to the shores of the polluted Delaware River?

How about this? Maybe, CalWORKs families have family and friends in those states. And sometimes people get sick, they die, they have Christmas. Like families everywhere, they want to be together. So does that reflect a character flaw of the poor – that they care as much for their families as other people do for theirs?

Mr. Dolan actually missed the real story. The state’s EBT vendor has reported that California EBT cards are being found abandoned in Nevada casinos. CalWORKs families have no reason to do that – so are the cards being stolen? Looking into that story might do some real public good. Instead we get a story that smears all poor families even if more than 99 percent of them are not abusing the system. At some point shouldn’t the LAT realize that the probative value of these stories is far outweighed by the prejudice they create?

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Mike Herald is a legislative advocate for the Western Center on Law and Poverty who has advocated on public benefit issues in the state Capitol since 2002.

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