Commentary

Editor’s column: The real ‘welfare queens’ are our GOP legislators

May 21, 2021 5:03 am
Tennessee Republican House Majority Leader Jeremy Faison has been a frequent critic of unemployed Tennesseans and supported cuts to unemployment insurance, while accepting $79,000 in federal paycheck protection handouts. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Tennessee Republican House Majority Leader Jeremy Faison. (Photo: John Partipilo)

I’m old enough to remember when President Ronald Reagan created the myth of the “welfare queen.” 

In the 1970s and 80s, Reagan and other conservative politicians cited one woman, Linda Taylor. Originally from Tennessee, Taylor was used as an example of how poor and predominantly Black Americans were too lazy to work. “Welfare queens” would rather game the system to get undeserved benefits and live in style rather than work. 

Of course, there’s more to the story, and Taylor’s life has been analyzed by a number of reputable news outlets, including NPR. Taylor did commit welfare fraud, but that’s almost beside the point: there are always those individuals who are the exception to the rule, but anyone who thinks most people enjoy applying for welfare, food stamps or unemployment are insensitive and immune to facts.

All this sets the stage for Tennessee in 2021. Apparently, unemployed Tennesseans are the new welfare queens, according to our duly elected Republican officials, including Gov. Bill Lee and members of the legislature. 

When announcing he was joining other GOP governors in withdrawing Tennessee from a federal COVID-19 era supplementary unemployment fund,  Lee tweeted:Work is good for the soul, good for families and good for Tennessee. We shouldn’t be incentivizing people not to do it.”

I’m going to point out that Lee has likely never hunted for a good paying job or been unemployed, as after his college graduation he joined the company his father founded.

Sampling of Tennessee legislators’ businesses receiving federal PPP funds:

  • Rep. Rebecca Alexander, R-Jonesborough, Dillow-Taylor Funeral Home and Cremation Service, Inc., $111,000
  • Rep. Tandy Darby, R-Greenfield, Greenfield Laser, $23,600
  • Rep. Andrew Farmer, R-Sevierville, Andrew Farmer Law, $58,675
  • Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, Rocky Top Pest Control, $23,875
  • Rep. Bud Hulsey, R-Kingsport, Burlington Logistics, $138,000
  • Sen. Ed Jackson, R-Jackson, Snappy Tomato Pizza, $45,000
  • Rep. Kelly Keisling, R-Byrdstown, Keisling Insurance Agency, Inc, $51,035
  • Sen. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, The Corporate Image, $272,000
  • Rep. Eddie Mannis, R-Knoxville, Prestige Cleaning, $1.48 million
  • Rep. Brandon Ogles, R-Brentwood, Branch Builders, $368,000
  • Sen. Bill Powers, R-Clarksville, Wyatt-Johnson Automotive Group (managing partner), $3.9 million
  • Sen. Katrina Robinson, D-Memphis, The Healthcare Institute, $51,107
  • Sen. Paul Rose, R-Collierville, Rose Construction, $1.75 million
  • Sen. Shane Reeves, R-Murfreesboro, Reeves Drug Store, $212,530
  • Rep. Jerry Sexton, R-Bean Station, Sexton Furniture Manufacturing, $1.6 million and for Bushline, Inc, $539,000
  • Rep. Chris Todd, R-Jackson, Envirogreen, Inc., $68,000
  • Rep. Kevin Vaughan, R-Collierville, Township Development Services, $67,500
  • Rep. Todd Warner, R-Chapel Hill, PCS of TN, LLC, $138,000
  • Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, Americomm, $309,381

(Sources: ProPublica, FederalPay.org)

*List may not include legislators whose spouses’ companies got PPP loans.

But Lee isn’t alone in his callous treatment of Tennesseans. House Majority Leader Jeremy Faison has for weeks been posting tweets like the one from April 18, in which he quoted the Bible: “2 Thessalonians 3:10 ‘If a man doesn’t work, he shouldn’t eat.’” On April 25, he tweeted with the implication that unskilled laborers, such as those people working in fast food restaurants, don’t deserve to make a living wage. 

There is no evidence to support the claims by Lee, Faison and other GOP representatives that Tennesseans are lazy and just don’t want to work the abundance of jobs they cite—many at low-paying fast food restaurants. 

The Washington Post has published both an analysis of changing job market trends and a story detailing studies that have debunked claims that federal stimulus money or unemployment keeps people out of the job market. 

And here’s where things get interesting: Faison is one of at least more than a dozen Tennessee GOP legislators who got Paycheck Protection Program loans during the 2020 pandemic year. His business, Rocky Top Pest Control, got $23,875. Rep. Jason Zachary of Knoxville, who tweeted that people were “choosing to stay home” rather than work, got $309,000 for his business. Rep. Kevin Vaughan, who tweeted that “unnecessary gov help is hurting small business” found it necessary to accept more than $67,000 in PPP benefits in 2020.

I have no problem with these legislators taking advantage of a government program designed to help small businesses during the pandemic. 

What I do have a problem with is these same legislators voting to cut the time period on which Tennesseans can draw unemployment by more than 50%, from 26 weeks to 12 weeks. I have a problem—and every Tennessean should—with elected officials who are partaking of government assistance themselves and taunting working men and women for doing the same thing. 

The very same Republican lawmakers who are on the public dole are criticizing their own constituents for doing the exact same thing they are. 

Hypocrisy is an overused word and indecency isn’t strong enough. 

Maybe it’s better to say we know who the real welfare queens are, and unfortunately, we’ve elected them.

 

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Holly McCall
Holly McCall

Holly McCall has been a fixture in Tennessee media and politics for decades. She covered city hall for papers in Columbus, Ohio and Joplin, Missouri before returning to Tennessee with the Nashville Business Journal. She has served as political analyst for WZTV Fox 17 and provided communications consulting for political campaigns at all levels, from city council to presidential. Holly brings a deep wealth of knowledge about Tennessee’s political processes and players and likes nothing better than getting into the weeds of how political deals are made.

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