05/23/2011 01:35 pm ET Updated Jul 23, 2011

Punishment Disproportionate for Welfare Cheats

Regardless of indications that some welfare funds are used to pay for lavish parties, dinners, alcohol, travel and other perks the U.S. Senate voted this week to continue providing certain welfare recipients with "21 billion dollars over the next 10 years." You can read more about the story here in the Huffington Post.

Perhaps that's because some of the dinners and booze paid for with these welfare funds go to the Senators themselves. According to E&E Publishing the self proclaimed "leading source for comprehensive, daily coverage of environmental and energy politics and policy," the oil companies who receive outlandish handouts spent $154 million to lobby Congress in 2009. In 10 years that's a mere 1.5 billion of the subsidies they'll receive but the implication is clear. Congress gives the welfare recipient 21 billion and at least 7 or 8 percent of it is spent on fancy dinners, trips and other perks.

Many folks may think that welfare cheats get TANF (Temporary Aid to Needy Families) or food stamps. And that thought fuels considerable dislike towards the poor folks who tax payers may or may not be committed to helping. But when oil companies claim they need funds to find new resources and then spend a sizable percentage on lobbying that's as big a swindle as a welfare mom who sells some of her food stamps to buy gas for the car. Somehow the latter is illegal while the former is business as usual.

Homeless advocates are often asked about welfare cheats and folks who abuse the system. So here's just one story about what happens when the poor are caught playing fast and loose with the rules.

Very few homeless shelters take people off the street with no questions asked. Where I work there are children so we obviously don't take anyone who is convicted pedophile. In order to assure that we know a person's prior history we require all residents to register with the local police department. That doesn't mean we don't shelter folks with criminal records or outstanding warrants. Actually, we shelter them on a regular basis. It just means that the police know who is living with us and can come get them if they are wanted badly enough.

One day an elderly handicapped woman came to us. Her husband had died a few months earlier and she couldn't maintain her apartment without both their social security incomes.

Late her first night with us, two police officers explained that she was wanted about 180 miles away for not notifying public assistance that her husband had died and subsequently continuing to cash his checks. They arrested her on the spot wearing only her night gown and slippers and extradited her to the county where she had committed the fraud.

We then discarded her belongings and prepared the room for the next resident. The officers didn't allow her to get dressed; instead they told her that when she got to jail she'd get a jump suit and flip flops anyway.

Allowed one phone call from the local precinct before the Sheriff drove her across the state, she called a friend and asked the friend to come to our shelter and rescue her husband's ashes. They had been tossed out, but a quick search of the trash produced the cardboard mortuary box unharmed.

When this partially paralyzed stroke victim appeared in court; the judge ruled that because she had absconded with such a relatively small sum she would be set free and perform community service to repay her debt to society. After all -- the judge pointed out -- incarcerating her would be far more costly to the state than the amount stolen. She was given back her nightgown and slippers and set free on the streets of that far away city. To this day she asserts that God sent her an angel that helped her get back to our shelter and back to her husband's ashes. That angel came in the form of a woman who helped her get to the train station and a business man who pitied a handicapped woman sitting in a train station wearing nothing but a night gown.

On December 15, 1791 the Eighth Amendment to the constitution was ratified. That's the amendment that says punishments have to fit the crime. Spending money intended for one purpose on an alternative purpose is a crime for the poor, but just part of the overall plan for the oil companies.