Today on the way home from work I stopped by the local market to pick up a bottle of wine to share with my honey for a quiet Valentine’s Day evening. The fellow running the cash register was a newbie, and not a particularly young one. In front of me was a young mother wearing frayed sweats and flip-flops, with a toddler in a stroller. She was buying a pile of Valentine’s Day candy and cookies. Because the register screen faces the customer, I could see that her bill was $21. As I was pulling out my debit card, I heard the cashier say, “It says insufficient funds.” I glanced again at the screen: It said EBT card, foodstamps balance $9.20.

The customer began returning the couple of bags she had already stuffed into the stroller, and the cashier called for help. His trainer came and asked the lady, “Do you have cash to pay the balance?”

“No,” she replied, “just what’s on the card. My husband…” and her voice trailed away.

She returned most of her items, keeping just a couple packages of candy. The cashier, with the help of his trainer, cancelled the original transaction, and rang up the $2.58 for the remaining items, leaving a small balance on the EBT. When my turn came, the cashier apologized for the delay. “It’s not your fault,” I said. “It just makes me angry with the government. People have no idea that they’re being locked into poverty when they sign up for these programs.” The cashier, rightly, didn’t comment, efficiently processed my debit card, and I was on my way.

This got me to thinking about similar encounters I’ve had recently right here in town, some at the same store. A few weeks ago a couple, perhaps in their thirties, were trying to purchase a large can of beer. They apparently didn’t have an EBT, or it was already out of funds, because they were laboriously counting out coins. It took them an eternity to figure out how to make their pile of coins match the price on the screen.

A bit longer ago I was on my way into a take-and-bake pizza store. A disheveled woman, again thirty-ish, I suppose, placed herself between me and the door, and offered to use her EBT card to buy my pizza, if only I would give her cash. She was willing to take less cash than would have been drawn from her card. I rather huffily said “No.” Later I realized that this was a woman who needed rescuing, but that I didn’t know from what or how.

I sometimes get into arguments about these issues on Facebook. It’s a fascinating fact that the most vehement protestations come from people I don’t know… our only contact is a discussion on the timeline of a mutual friend. This one fellow was saying that it is always wrong to blame the poor, that the poor are always justified in receiving government benefits, and that it is cruel to suggest otherwise. The only problem is that we are too stingy with our benefits. We should guarantee everyone everything they need. Not surprisingly, this fellow never directly responded to any of my points or questions of him. He would just move on to the next talking point. But I wonder about such people. How is it that they don’t see what I see?

There was the couple I saw a few weeks ago in a local store. The woman had the EBT card. She paid for their stack of stuff until the card was depleted. Then he pulled out a wad of cash and paid the balance. She looked to me like she had never held a job. He looked like he had just gotten off work. I wondered whether they were married. I doubt it.

Just a couple weeks ago I learned that a girl I know was told by her mother that because the girl has turned 18 she will have to move out. This is because whatever government benefit the mother was receiving by virtue of raising her own daughter in her home expired when the girl turned 18. She hasn’t even graduated from high school. The girl approached a mutual friend, asking if she could move in, because if she could find a place to stay she could qualify for food stamps. The mutual friend, who has a good job, as does her husband, said, “No way!”

Though I know that this is a true story, I am still astonished. This is all your children mean to you, an opportunity to increase your welfare check? Really? When the money dries up you’re out of here? And you’ve trained your daughter that the way to survive in life is to leech off of other people?

One more story. A person I have known all my life has a mental illness. It is all the rage today to claim that the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill has been disastrous. I’m here to tell you that the institutionalization of this person was disastrous. It absolutely sapped him of all sense of initiative. He came out much more disabled than when he went in. In his thirties he mustered the will and stamina to earn a bachelor’s degree. But that’s where his initiative and determination stopped. As far as I know he has never applied for a job. He got himself on Social Security disability, and is now approaching his seventies with a total income, provided by Uncle Sam, of $640 per month. He once said to me, “The last concern of the welfare system is customer service.”

This fellow has been locked into poverty his entire life. The government determines his standard of living. The government determines the nature and quality of his health care. He, and tens of millions of Americans like him, are locked into poverty by the very government benefits that purport to save him. He lives by very severe rules. He is not permitted to accumulate more than $2000 in financial assets. He is not permitted to supplement his government payments in any meaningful way. Even family members and friends cannot help pay for his rent or food, lest he lose his “benefits.”

Back now to tonight’s encounter with the EBT blues. I know nothing of this young lady’s history, or even of her present circumstances. All I know is that she has a child, some relationship with a man, and a tapped-out EBT card. I hope that tonight’s experience embarrassed her. I hope this for her sake, because she faces a crossroads. She can continue to submit herself to the government welfare grind, or she can cast it aside and become an independent, and possibly prosperous person. The first path guarantees that she will have some sort of roof over her head and money to spend on Valentine’s Day candy. It also guarantees that she will never own her own home, will never fulfill her potential as a human being, and will remain in the throes of poverty her entire life. This guarantee is good until the Congress decides it isn’t, or until the economy collapses, or both.

The other path does not carry this guarantee. It carries risk. She might find herself without income for a time. There is a possibility that she and her children could become homeless. A lot here depends on her ability to network, what is the nature and extent of her family, what communities she is connected to, etc. Still, the upside of NOT allowing herself to become permanently welfare-dependent is astronomical by comparison. She could discover the enormous psychological benefits of fending for herself, of making her own way in the world. She could discover her life’s vocation and do it. She could live free from all the rules and bureaucrats that now rule every corner of her existence. She could make a LOT of money. She could volunteer at the local food bank, and mutter, “There but for the grace of God go I.” And she could live free of the embarrassment of stopping a grocery line because her government dole had run out.