I must have a heart made of granite, but I just can’t feel sorry for Caroline Payne,  the off-and-on welfare mother/credit-card binger who’s supposed to an example of our nation’s beleaguered working poor, the “millions at the bottom of the labor force who contribute to the country’s prosperity” but don’t get anything back, as writer David K. Shipler puts it in “A Poor Cousin of the Middle Class,” this week’s sob story in Sunday’s NYT magazine–in which Caroline whines about her $6.80-an-hour job at a convenience store.

From the way I read Caroline’s saga, it’s prosperous America that’s been handing out tens of thousands of dollars worth of freebies to Caroline over the years (Shipley is coy about her age), and Caroline who’s given very little back. One big reason that Caroline hasn’t moved up the economic ladder looks pretty simple to me: She refuses to wear her (free, Medicaid-supplied) dentures (check the photo). Sorry, Caroline (and oh-so-politically correct Shipler, who remarks sarcastically that Caroline is “missing that radiant, tooth-filled smile that Americans have been taught to prize as highly as their right to vote”). This may sound harsh, but if you want a job that entails interacting with the public or supervising employees, you gotta have teeth. Ask George Washington.

My heart does go out to Caroline in one respect: She has a 14-year-old daughter who’s mentally retarded. As someone who grew up in a family with members suffering from mental disabilities, I understand the hardships, both economic and emotional, that such impairments entail for all concerned. But even the doctors, teachers, and social workers who dealt with the daughter’s disability agreed that Caroline ought to have made some smarter decisions regarding daughter Amber’s education–such as not moving around and pulling the girl out of school every few months as Caroline did. (Shipler, predictably, blames the girl’s plight on poverty, as he blames everything else).

Meanwhile, just for starters, here’s a list of the government benefits that, according to Shipler, Caroline has received over the years: welfare; Social Security disability for her daughter; Medicaid; public housing; lodgings in a homeless shelter on at least one occasion; a virtually free community-college education  that resulted in a two-year associate’s degree in office management and information technology (which Caroline has never used, because she apparently couldn’t get the CEO position she’d been dreaming of–although she did run up $17,000 in student loans in the process); a program that enabled her to buy a house on $1,000 down and another program that handed her $17,000 in grants for repairs to said house; and now, she hopes, $403 worth of job-training designed to turn her into a certified nursing assistant.

Caroline’s white, so she can’t claim racial discrimination. Furthermore, that house of hers, in Claremont, N.H., cost Caroline only $37,000 in 1997. $37,000 for a Victorian house! And it was only a 20-minute walk from Caroline’s not-too-awful job at Wal-Mart at the time. Shipler, predictably, complains about that walk, too–as though most Americans wouldn’t kill to have only a 20-minute job commute. Shipler also moans that Caroline’s house was “mostly owned” by a bank. Yes, David, there are these things called mortgages.  
Now, here’s what Caroline has done with herself: She’s run up mountains of debt over the years. Shipler doesn’t say whether she ever paid back those student loans, which ran up to $20,000 what with deferred payments, but he does mention that she filed for bankruptcy at one point–after racking up from 10,000 to $12,000 on her credit cards. As Caroline put it:  ”I always wanted things….’I can get spending and overdo things sometimes.”

She quit her job at Wal-Mart in a snit because she didn’t get promoted. Other jobs she quit because she didn’t like her boss, or her co-workers didn’t like her, or they wouldn’t put her on the day shift, or they didn’t appreciate her toothless grimace, or whatever. She essentially lost her house, selling it for less than what she’d put into it, because one day out of the blue she decided that the schools in Muncie, Ind. (of all places), might be better for her daughter than those in the Granite State (they weren’t, as it turned out). Smart move, Caroline. That meant that she had to pay back most of the $17,000 home-improvement grant as a penalty, Shipler points out lugubriously. Boo hoo. Middle-class people have to pay a penalty, too, when they sell their homes before holding onto them long enough. It’s called a capital gains tax.   

Then there were the rotten men, some of them husbands, others not. Didn’t you have a little choice there, Caroline? You didn’t have to move in with all of them. It’s also not a good idea to smoke and eat mostly junk food during pregnancy, as Caroline says she did with Amber (and no, David, fresh, nutritious food doesn’t cost more–have you ever visited a supermarket?).

Nor to have all your teeth pulled out, even the reasonably healthy ones, as Caroline did, because you’re apparently under the mistaken impression that Medicaid wouldn’t pay for any dental care except dentures. Wouldn’t it have been a good idea to check out the rules before you went to the dentist? Then, as Caroline says, her first free pair of dentures didn’t fit, but she didn’t have the $250 to pay for repairs. Always enough money for credit-card binging, but never enough for life’s necessities. But even now that Caroline has a brand-new set of dentures courtesy of American taxpayers, she still seems determined not to wear them.

According to David Shipler, it’s all the fault of the American economy. Caroline’s problems would have been solved, he says, if a social worker could have called her boss and told him to give her a raise. Wait a minute. Someone–and that means a functioning economy in which businesses are supposed to make money, not operate as charities–has to pay for all those public services of which Caroline has been availing herself for all these years. Shouldn’t someone tell Caroline that she herself might be just a teeny-weeny bit responsible for what has happened to her. And for God’s sake, girl, bite the bullet (as it were) and wear those teeth! You look awful!