No Exit for Poncho – The Life-sapping Effects of a Mis-guided Welfare System

| January 20, 2011 | Comments (5)


Poncho is a handsome, smart  21 year-old neighbor and friend of mine here in the South Bronx. At 6 feet, he is slender and walks with an athletic gait; he radiates what I call leadership. When he speaks he is confident and friendly, respectful and somewhat of a tease. He’s a whiz at  math and knows how computers think. He can coax the meanest, slowest laptop (mine) to cooperate and perform.

But Poncho dropped out of school when he was in the eighth grade and had just turned 14. He  has never held a job since he left school and aside from an occasional, passing remark about finding work, has never, to my knowledge, made a serious attempt to be gainfully employed.

He has failed the high-school GED equivalency test so many times  that just mentioning it to him puts him in a bad mood. He lives with his “girl”, a 33 year-old woman with three children;  the youngest  is 13 month-old Poncho Jr. The five of them live with their three dogs and two cats in a three-bedroom Section 8 apartment in the South Bronx. For those of you who don’t know, Section 8 is a government program that provides free housing to low income families.

In addition to their free housing, Poncho and his nuclear family get food stamps and comprehensive free medical care  under the MEDICAID health insurance  program for low income people. Some of their friends and relatives also receive early social security payments, having qualified for medical disability. (Without commenting on the bonafide nature of  many of the  medically  disabled – and I agree that there are many justified cases – I must register my surprise at the number of able-bodied, cane-wielding  young men walking the streets of my neighborhood who obviously have no need for a cane.)

Poncho spends most of the day hunched over his computer pursuing his obssession – video games; he is particularly crazed by X-Box. When he is not “gaming”, he messages me saying he is bored and depressed and wants to go out and get wasted.

As somebody who has done a fair amount of mentoring and counseling, I am stumped by Poncho.  He won’t cram to pass his GED and he is not interested in boring, entry-level burger flipper jobs. He is like many of his friends whose only aim in life is to suddenly  be at the “top”; which for them means somehow miraculously materializing into a hip-hip mogul, a super model or a basketball star. None of Poncho’s crowd are interested in being what my friends and I aspired to – being teachers, fire-fighters, nurses, librarians, policemen. These jobs are not  “cool” and require a lot of boring grunt work like studying, time wasted when they could just be “chillin’ .”

I hasten to add, at this point in my story, that I am a latte-sipping, New York Times-reading liberal who is in favor of our country’s having a safety net for those needy citizens who require it. My only reservation is: have we gone too far? Have we spread the goodies so widely and so indiscriminately that folks like my young friend Poncho see no need to get off their backside and actually go to work, maybe at first in a job they don’t particularly relish?  Like when my Father got his first job in 1932 sweeping the floor in a greasy spoon in Washington. DC because he needed to eat and pay for a roof over his head.And he already had a Master’s degree.

Part of moving ahead in life is challenge and necessity. If these elements are removed from life’s radar screen and we are provided the basics without making an effort to acquire them, we risk falling into slothful, self-pitying, scapegoat-seeking lassitude.

I hate to see a  potential winner like Poncho turning into a loser, but as sure as death and taxes, if he keeps up the way he has been doing, there is no hope for him and his ilk.

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Comments (5)

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  1. Putri says:

    I did not get it, what are you trying to publish his informantion, that is what most of young people with no income and no education wants just have easy life.

  2. Roger Cranse says:

    Moving and troubling portrait of a young man. And sympathetic too. Sam’s example of his father doing menial labor to survive resonates with many of us. His holding out this example as a critique of the young man, or the young man’s culture, raises a number of other questions.

    I’m going to answer in short by saying that we live in a society where the prosperity of many rests upon the poverty of a few. Or to put it more severely, the incredible wealth of a few depends upon the poverty of a great many more. Simply put, labor is exploited to redistribute wealth upward.

    So people at the top and the bottom have their devices. The rich have tax dodges, hedge funds, off-shore assets, and the like. Screwing the rest of us.

    The poor have welfare fraud, medicaid fakes, endless excuses, futile dreams. Pissing us all off.

    Yes, we have to get tough with folks at both ends. But the real answer to all this is expanding the middle class where, generally speaking, neither abuse nor excuse cut it. Is this just a silly dream or what? Roger C.

    • Sam says:

      Very thoughtful reply, Roger. Another comment I received today pointed out that people with serious medical problems, in this case someone with an autistic child, are forced to stay at the poverty level to avail themselves of the comprehensive care that only MEDICAID provides. What does that say about our system ? Why oh why don’t we have a good National Health System like France or Canada or the UK ? And to you nay-sayers who shriek about the evils of socialized medicine, I say Bring It On ! 85% of the people who have it in those countries swear by it ! People seem to forget that medicine in the USA until not that many years ago, was not based primarily on profit. I feel strongly that certain sectors of life – health, education, public safety and national defense – should NOT be run primarily on a profit-making basis. Halliburton is evil !

    • Sam says:

      Following your comment and my response to it, I received another comment which castes my connection to Poncho in an unexpected and rather menacing light….
      Here is the exchange:
      “J”, I know……that thought and the reservations that it carries with it have crossed my mind many times. And basically, you are right.

      I have spun scenarios about Poncho that are scarey, but I guess I am a foolish, daring person.

      I really appreciate your comment. I will invite you to my funeral !!



      In a message dated 1/23/2011 10:52:33 A.M. Eastern Standard Time, “J” writes:
      Dear Sam, Since you DID ask my opinion. I’ve been wondering if it’s really wise of you to have someone who is as you point out value impared visit with you in your house. Bad enough we have to sometimes walk through minefields to leave and get home, why invite trouble in?

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