“I thought maybe it was okay because I’m not working”

There’s a story making the rounds about a young Michigan woman who won a $1 million state lottery jackpot.  She took a $700k lump sum and paid about $200k in taxes, leaving her with a $500k windfall.

A local TV station caught her at the grocery store, still using a Michigan food stamps card:

Local 4 tracked Clayton down to her Lincoln Park home where cameras spotted her and a U-Haul truck, getting ready to move into a new house—that she paid for in cash—now that she has struck it rich. She also bought a new car.

She said she gets $200 each month, from taxpayers, to foot her food bill.

When confronted, Clayton said she didn’t think she was doing anything wrong.

“I thought that they would cut me off, but since they didn’t, I thought maybe it was okay because I’m not working,” she said.

“I feel that it’s okay because I mean, I have no income and I have bills to pay,” she said. “I have two houses.”

Ladies and gentlemen, meet the new face of America.

A brand-new house paid for with cash – two houses actually, according to her – and a new car.  And no steady income.

No money to pay for homeowners insurance or auto insurance or property taxes, when the money runs out.

No money to pay for upkeep and repairs on either the houses or her car, when the money runs out.

And when she is broke again (which will probably be a lot sooner than she thinks) what will she do?

There was a time when average Americans understood the value of money.  They had no choice but to be productive in order to be able to pay for what they needed.  And they understood the differences between needs and wants, between necessities and luxuries.  You paid for your needs first, and saved what you had left over to spend on luxuries.  You took pride in the things you owned, because they were a reward for your hard work.  “Entitlement” was a function of accomplishment – you were entitled to the good things in life after you had accumulated the means to afford them.

Obviously Amanda Clayton has no idea what that means.  She represents a new generation of Americans who believe that they are entitled to all the consumer goods that superficially define an upper middle class lifestyle, yet have almost zero understanding of what those possessions are really worth in terms of the wealth that is required to develop, produce, and maintain them.

About a year ago, Victor Davis Hanson observed:

The cars of our poorer brethren in our major discount stores are late model and often expensive. People get into them with full carts of food and clothing. Housing here is cheap and good. How to square this circle between official poverty and misery and the veneer of a well-off general public?

I’ve been discussing these disconnects with farmers, a professor or two from CSU Fresno, and local business people. All come to the same conclusions. There is a vast and completely unreported cash economy in Central California. Tile-setters, carpenters, landscapers, tree-cutters, general handymen, cooks, housekeepers, and personal attendants are all both finding work and being paid in cash.

And yet for all the cash economy, it seems almost everyone in the food stores and doctors’ offices are on food stamps, Medi-Cal, and rent subsidies.

The result is statistically we are impoverished with near 20% unemployment; but in reality something stranger and weirder is transpiring. Prosperity and well-being are mostly assessed in relative not absolute terms … easy credit, combined with little shame or penalty in defaulting on what one owes, has allowed a superficial parity with the upper-middle class. Massive government transfers and relaxed eligibility have ensured households thousands of dollars in entitlements and subsidies.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that such an arrangement is not sustainable.  Either we run out of money, or the producers simply run out of patience.  That being said, people like Amanda Clayton and millions of others will never really be able to experience a sense of satisfaction with what they have acquired.  This sense of dissatisfaction and emptiness is, I believe, a primary motivation behind the Occupy movement and the rhetoric of politicians eager to give away more goodies – like a drug dealer giving a free fix to a curbside junkie – in exchange for votes.

When I think about it like that, I almost feel sorry for Ms. Clayton.  Almost.

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If you like Victor Davis Hanson, you should also read this essay entitled The California Corridor, if you haven’t already done so.

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