Sound Off

Friday, Mar 21 2014 01:00 PM

SOUND OFF: Why not publish names of welfare recipients, too?

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    Robert Price is The Californian's executive editor. Email him at rprice@bakersfield.com.

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By ROBERT PRICE, Californian executive editor rprice@bakersfield.com

Reader: I read with great interest your response to a reader (in the March 15 Sound Off column) questioning whether public official salaries should be printed in the paper. Your response was that since it was taxpayer money that funded those salaries the public has a right to know.

Using your argument, shouldn't the amount of welfare received and the names of the recipients also be published and available to the public? Using the exact same argument proffered by Mr. Price, surely he would have to agree.

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Feel free to ignore this (might be too sensible for you nice folks).

— Michael Clark

Price: Surprise! Mr. Price does not agree. The problem with your suggestion is that public employees choose to be public employees, and their salaries are established by state legislatures, municipal councils and county boards, often through negotiations between those bodies and public employee unions. In other words, their salaries are set by entities whose spending practices in general are subject to the review of the people they serve.

“Welfare recipients” don’t choose to be welfare recipients. OK, some do. But the vast majority of Americans who receive aid really need the help. Take food stamps (aka SNAP). Of the households that receive SNAP, 76 percent include a child, an elderly person or a disabled person. Should we publish grandma’s name because she’s at or near the poverty level and therefore eligible for taxpayer-subsidized food staples?

The fashion is to believe that aid recipients are all unemployed layabouts, but millions are holding down jobs. They just happen to be low-paying jobs. Thefamilies of fast-food workers collected $7 billion a year in annual public assistance between 2007 and 2011, according to one recent study. The median salary for those jobs is $8.69 an hour. Two-thirds of these workers are adults and a quarter of them are raising children.

The pay McDonald’s offers is so low, the company has established a “McResource” phone line that helps — in fact, encourages — employees to enroll in state and local aid programs. You’re paying just $4 for that Big Mac because you’re also helping to subsidize your cashier’s next trip to the grocery store.

It’s not just fast food. Wal-Mart “associates” receive $1,000 apiece in government aid every year, according to Florida Congressman Alan Grayson.

Without food stamps, Irma the Wal-Mart greeter might have to choose between rent and her PG&E payment. Should we publish her name in the paper, too? I’d prefer that we share the names of Wal-Mart’s top executives and board members, who earned a combined $66.7 million in 2012. The typical full-time Wal-Mart employee, earning an estimated $22,000 a year, according to PayScale.com, doesn’t deserve that kind of humiliation.

The total amount that taxpayers spend on SNAP and other aid programs is and should be public record, but reporting the level of aid to individual, specific recipients has no precedent or legal basis. It wouldn’t be fair, either.

•••

Price: Last week reader Jack Balfanz complained that we provided slanted, liberal-favoring coverage of a House committee hearing on the IRS scandal (“Oops! My arrogant liberal bias is showing again,” March 15). Turns out, if anything, we gave more emphasis to the conservative position, based on my cursory search of other coverage of the hearing, including the Wall Street Journal and Fox News.

However,  I neglected to address Banfanz’s criticism of “Milk Toast (Dana) Milbank” of the Washington Post, whose column “Issa plan: If you can’t beat ‘em, silence ‘em” appeared in The Californian on March 7. Balfanz called Milbank’s column a “piece of crap by one of your favorite liberal hacks and conservative haters” that “makes (Rep. Darrell) Issa the villain and motor mouth (Rep. Elijah) Cummings the victim and little or no mention of (former IRS official Lois) Lerner's role.”

I looked back at how often our Opinion section’s syndicated columnists have covered the IRS scandal and found that our two conservatives, Rich Lowry and Michael Gerson, have given it far more attention than anyone else. During May-June 2013 they wrote a combined eight columns on the subject, taking the IRS to task each time. Milbank has written about the scandal previously, too. In his column “IRS passes the buck” of May 13, 2013, he quotes Douglas Shulman, who was running the IRS when the alleged abuses occurred, speaking at a congressional hearing: “I feel horrible about this, for the agency, for the people, for the great public servants. I’m not sure what else I can say.”

Concludes Milbank: “How about, ‘I take responsibility?’”

•••

Reader: OK, now I am truly confused. After reading Mr. Balfanz’s long-winded attempt at character assassination, he closes with identifying himself as “your protagonist”? Unless Latin has fallen into such disuse as to be no longer even identifiable in the form of the prefix “pro” or “anti,” he is identifying himself as your best friend and biggest fan. Not to be unnecessarily prolix, I will simply repeat: (?)>

— Beverly Stone

Reader: I was surprised that you failed to correct one other error in (Balfanz’s letter). He referred to himself as "your #1 protagonist." Now, if you are writing a story about him as the lead character, then I apologize. But he probably meant “antagonist.” And based on the other letters, I don't know if he qualifies to be #1. He also must be a listener of Michael Savage, as he refers to you as “Pricey” with the intent of denigrating you through name-calling, just the way Savage does in his schoolyard-type tactics. Keep up the good work, Pricey!

— Kerry S. McGill

Price: I assumed Mr. Balfanz was being sarcastic, but maybe he pulled a Justin Bieber (who, in a recent deposition, used the word “detrimental” when, according to his lawyer, he meant “instrumental”). However, based on the feedback I’ve received, Mr. Balfanz may literally also be my No. 1 protagonist. Or proponent. Or promoter. Something like that.

Reader: I know you're being accused all the time of being a !@#$! liberal. Actually, when I'm reading the TBC I'm always looking for bias toward the “liberal” side of things; mostly I'm disappointed. ... BTW, I think your spelling of milk toast (“milquetoast”) is elitist and only belongs in spelling bees.

— Jerry Sutliff

Price: I have been called many things that start with !@#$!, the most common of which are !@#$! liberal, !@#$! right wingnut and !@#$! slow driver.

Reader: When I write a letter to the editor or a note to Sound Off, I attempt to be as professional and humane as possible. My modus operandi is not to insult people, places or things. I wish you wouldn’t even print letters from people who have an obvious dislike for you and who call you “Pricey.” Mr. Jack Balfanz insulted you by doing that and was hyper-critical of The Californian. My response to him, Mr. Price, would be along the lines of, “Why would you read and pay for a newspaper whose staff you consider ‘utterly contemptible’?” As far as I am concerned, anything other than being addressed by one’s name is utterly contemptible and completely unprofessional.  Maybe Mr. Balfanz failed “Miss Manners” and Business 101.

 — Caroline O. Reid

Price: I appreciate the sentiment, but I look at it this way: The world would be a far duller place without curmudgeons.

Reader: Youse guys need a small amount of levity in thy (thine) lives. Motormouth: a garrulous person, or motor mouth: an incessant talker. The use of bouche de moteur (translation: motormouth) rather than the above would be more fitting. Besides, it brings a continental flair to the conversation. English and punctuation never were my strong suit in school. My late wife Mary Lou was my editor and proofreader so please forgive me for those faults. However, in the fine art of cursing I can hold my own with the best.

 — George Romagno

Price: So either form, one word or two, is accepted? I stand corrected. Mary Lou would be proud of you, George — and impressed with your French, too.
Sound Off isn’t really supposed to be about Sound Off but I’m making an exception this time. My thanks once again to Mr. Balfanz, who has taken possibly more abuse than he deserves. Doesn’t anybody have an actual complaint this week?

•••

Reader: Bummer. Couldn't get the e-edition on either my iPad or iPhone. What's that saying? Don't know what you'll miss until it's gone? Something like that ...

— Pamela Wildermuth

Price: You couldn’t access your e-edition? So much for the no-hitter I had going.

Reader: Maybe it was our problem and not yours. Funny things are going on with our Internet connection, and WHAT an impact!  No e-edition, email ... no Google for the Sunday crossword (answers)!  How is an old lady like me supposed to know who sings “Blurred Lines”? Don't even know the song. Grrr.

— Pamela Wildermuth, two hours later

Price: The access problem was due to your bad connection? Hey, my no-hitter is intact! And, for those who can’t stand unanswered trivia questions, the answer is that famous twerkee, Robin Thicke.

•••

Reader: My name is Steve E. Swenson. You may recall that I worked as a reporter for The Californian for 33 years before retiring three years ago. I was the one who flirted a lot with your wife (among others). I covered mostly breaking news.

There is nothing I like more than a good breaking news story like the gunman on March 14 who stole an ugly car, crashed it in a police chase on McDonald Way and then barricaded himself in a garage for four hours as police and SWAT officers tried negotiating and lots of tear gas to get him to come out. He tried to shoot his way out, which didn't work all that well for him.

This is exactly the kind of story I live for. So when I was on Facebook, I saw a Californian posting about the incident. I eagerly opened up the file only to find out that after two paragraphs, I had to log in to read the rest of the news.

I was peeved so I went to KERO and KGET postings to find out what was going on. I posted a complaint online asking The Californian if that's what it really wanted to do, obstruct people so they go to other news organizations to find the news. I even went to my TBC mobile app, which didn't post anything on this breaking news story for hours.

Back in the good old days when I worked there, we used to have news alerts and online postings about developments in breaking news stories. They were free and easily findable. If the newspaper wants to charge money for people to read its website, so be it. But don't make us go elsewhere to find breaking news. That doesn't give me a warm and fuzzy feeling for the newspaper.

— Steve E. Swenson

Price: Hi, Steve. Since your journalism career began in the age of cave drawings, I’ll speak slowly.

First, I know you know every newspaper in America is trying to monetize their digital products. It's that or go bust; nothing new there. I have talked to colleagues about ways we might simplify the login process, but digital subscriptions in one form or another are simply a reality, industry-wide.

The mobile app is really the way to go here. It’s easy and free, and ours (TBC Mobile) will only get better as we enhance and expand. This particular update was indeed on our app; stories automatically post there at the same time they go to the website. We usually cross-post stories in multiple categories, i.e., local news and breaking news. This particular story was initially posted to only one category — apparently not the one where you went looking. That’s a small but significant detail we’ll have to double-check moving forward.

I forgive you for looking elsewhere on that particular day because I know you realize, deep down, that The Californian typically has the most detailed coverage and analysis in town.

We miss you around here, Steve — your reporting but also your awful jokes and generally snarky behavior. I have tried to fill that latter role as best I can, but one doesn’t just step right into the shoes of a legend.

•••

Reader: I love reading the paper and I look foward to reading the Sound Off column every week but I must say, sir, when I was reading your responses to some of the readers today (March 15) it sounded as though you had a very bad week and I'm sorry for that because we all have that, but I felt as if you were somewhat caustic in your remarks to the people and I don't think you should be like that.

I'm sorry, I know you normally use a lot of respect, and if you don't you usually apologize ... but this week I found your responses a little bit offensive ... I'm sorry to have to do this to you, I normally enjoy your writing and your technique in writing. Thank you, Mr. Price, and I hope you have a much better week next week.

— Barbara Soliz

Price: That’s possibly the sweetest chewing out I have ever received. OK, I’ll try.

Executive Editor Robert Price and The Californian welcome your comments and suggestions. To offer your input by phone, please call 395-7649 and leave your comments in a voice-mail message or send an email to soundoff@bakersfield.com. Please include your name and phone number. Phone numbers and addresses won’t be published.

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