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Who’s Really Taking Responsibility in America?

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Working families advocate Ellen Bravo takes a look at a proud member of the 47 percent, who has her own advice for Mitt Romney.

Like many 47 percenters, Cayt Lawley is employed. Three years ago, she rang up customers as a cashier at a store in Mississippi. The combination of too few hours and an hourly wage of $8.15 meant she qualified for food stamps and the state’s Medicaid plan.

The store wasn’t a shoestring operation. It happens to be a Walmart – a multi-billion dollar corporation run by executives making more than 10 million dollars each in compensation last year. Six members of the owners’ family – the richest family in the country, according to Forbes magazine – have more wealth than the bottom 42 percent of American families combined.

Mitt Romney doesn’t know Cayt Lawley. When he described the 47 percent who pay no federal income tax, he explained, “My job is not to worry about those people – I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

Lawley considers herself a life-long Republican from a family of Republicans. Until she heard that tape, she was going to vote for Mitt Romney.

“I’m not lazy,” she said in a YouTube video, ticking off the long list of tasks she does every day as a person taking responsibility for her household. “I’m not looking for a handout.”

Cayt Lawley's situation is hardly unique among Walmart workers. Girshreilla Green, a Walmart employee in Crenshaw, California, reported 80 percent of workers at her store are eligible for food stamps. Considering that the average wage of the 1.4 million workers at Walmart is $8.81 an hour, the company is responsible for forcing large numbers of people onto public supports just to put food on the table. 

According to a PBS documentary on Walmart, full-time employees are eligible for health benefits, but the premiums are so expensive, half the workers don't participate. And one third of workers who are hired for fewer than 28 hours a week are not eligible at all.

Not surprisingly, many, like Cayt Lawley, wind up on state health care plans.

The New York Times reported on an internal Walmart memo in 2005 acknowledging that the rates of their workers and children of workers enrolled in state Medicaid programs was higher than nationally: “Twenty-seven percent of Associates' children are on such programs, compared to a national average of 22 percent,” the memo said. “In total, 46 percent of Associates' children are either on Medicaid or are uninsured."

Cayt Lawley is particularly upset about having to use state health care. She feels the plan in Mississippi didn’t provide the same kind of neo-natal benefits that regular insurance would have paid for. When she was six months pregnant and went into early labor, her preemie survived for only 88 minutes.

Let’s face it:  our nation does have a moocher problem.  But it’s not the cashiers and clerks and other low-wage earners who are working hard generating high profits for a few. It’s giant corporations whose low pay and paltry benefits push workers into government programs.

So, let’s call it what it is:  corporate welfare.  Subsidies paid to billionaires from our tax dollars that keep employees from having enough income to cover the basics.

Walmart is by no means alone in this regard. In a study by Ohio researchers, McDonald’s, Yum! Brand and Wendy’s stood right up there with Walmart as the top four companies whose workers used public programs like food stamps and Medicaid in that state.

Some folks have rigged the system – that would be the one percent, not the 47 percent.

There are public policies that could help  – things like fixing the minimum wage, removing barriers to unionization, prohibiting employers from firing workers for being a good parent to a sick child or following doctor's orders when they themselves are ill.

These are the very policies that Mitt Romney and his party platform oppose or omit.

Cayt Lawley still works for Walmart, now at a store in Arkansas, earning a slightly lower hourly rate of $7.95. She’s become a leader in OUR Walmart. “I found this group when I was going through a really rough patch,” she said. “Not only are they going through the same struggles in their day-to-day lives at work, but a lot have the same struggles I’m going through at home. They’ve become more family than friends.”

When asked whether she had any advice for Mitt Romney, Lawley didn’t hesitate. “I’d tell him to tell Rob Walton to pay his employees what they deserve, so they don’t have to worry about day to day what’s going to happen next, if they’re going to have the money or everything’s going to fall apart.”

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