Twenty-three years ago today, as a baby newspaper reporter in Dallas, I was filling in for the guy who usually covered courts, and happened onto the criminal trial of a mom on welfare who had been charged with ripping off taxpayers – yes, you and me – by failing to report some of the money she earned from her temp job as a nurse’s aide. As a result, Alfredia Dickerson and her three children – ages 7, 11, and 13 – had received $115 more in food stamps than they were supposed to.
The prosecutor, Cynthia Hayter – her real name – argued that 44-year-old Dickerson was a “run-of-the-mill criminal” guilty of “old-fashioned stealing.” The jury not only agreed, but sentenced her to 25 years and a day — to send the message that the 25-year minimum sentence for a repeat cheat like Dickerson was in no way sufficient. And this was a compromise for the jurors, some of whom wanted to send her away for life.
I’ve thought of Dickerson from time to time over the years – and wondered, among other things, how her kids made out in foster care. Yesterday, I thought of her again as I was listening to all the conservative complaining that President Obama was “waging class warfare” by cruelly attempting to limit the earnings of CEO recipients of corporate welfare to $500,000 a year. You want class warfare, I thought, you should look up Alfredia Dickerson.
So, that’s what I did – and reached her by phone at her apartment in West Dallas. Where, yes, she was well aware of the day’s events – and unsure as to why executives on the dole shouldn’t have their earnings limited, too.
She’s Alfredia Dickerson Strhan now, and at 67 still works part-time, for the AARP. After serving 2 ½ years in state prison, at a cost to taxpayers of roughly $50,000 – just south of 500 times the amount of the food stamps, not counting the court costs — she was paroled in 1988, and still sees her parole officer every month.
Her elderly mother, who worked as a maid in upscale Highland Park, managed to keep the kids out of foster care, she said, and her brother, may he rest in peace, was good about bringing them to see her in Gatesville, where she served her time. Her mom lived to see her get her life together and graduate from All State Business College, too, and her kids are long since grown and living in Illinois with families of their own.
With hard work and the right attitude, maybe some of these CEO beneficiaries can clean up their act like that: “The only thing I was trying to do was feed my children,” Dickerson Strhan said, “and these CEOs, everybody in their family is fine and they don’t want for anything,” so why again do they need a handout? If it’s to save jobs, fine, but “you have people out here in need, and you want to take their money and pay for these AIG executives to go on these lavish trips? AIG got all this money from the government — oh, I’ve been watching — and then they turned around and went on these big trips, then went straight back to the cow for more milk!”
“They should have caps on how much these CEOs should make,” she went on. In her view, that would be simple fairness — society’s rules consistently applied. “I can never get food stamps again; they barred me for life. But when these CEOs mess up? Straight back to the cow.”
According to my original article on her, which appeared in the Dallas Morning News on February 6, 1986, another of her prosecutors, Kevin Chapman, told the jury that though her children would probably be put in foster care, they were quite beside the point: “We’re supposed to cut her some slack because she has children? Two were conceived while she was on welfare. She knew she couldn’t afford them, or maybe she wanted more welfare.”
Sorta like how execs for Wells Fargo, who just cashed a $25 billion federal check, knew they couldn’t afford a bunch of Vegas junkets — but planned them anyway, until they got caught? Or like how the top guys at Bank of America, with $45 billion of our money in hand, spent some of it on a five-day Super Bowl fest, knowing there was more where that came from?
Or perhaps how Morgan Stanley used some of our $10 billion to buy their “top performers” tickets to Palm Beach, Monte Carlo and the Bahamas. Or in much the same way the Citigroup dude flew his family to Cabo on our dime — on his corporate jet — right after laying off 53,000 employees. Apparently, he needed the vacation. In Dickerson Strhan’s own backyard, there’s another such example; though A.H. Belo, which owns the Dallas Morning News, hasn’t been bailed out, its execs showed the same morally clueless arrogance in announcing yet another round of layoffs — 500 company-wide — only weeks after voting CEO Robert Decherd a 140 percent raise, presumably for handling that baby so well as it rolled off the cliff.
At her trial, Dickerson Strhan’s own court-appointed defense attorney was not much less insulting than the prosecutors were, though it might be argued that he was playing to the jury as best he could: “Do you think,” he asked in his closing argument, “there was some big attempt to defraud the pecuniary interests of the great state of Texas by this mastermind over here?”
Of course, what happened to her then could never happen today; Aid for Dependent Children no longer exists. And with all that we’ve saved through welfare reform, we’re funding spa getaways for masterminds who’ve done us far more harm.
Melinda Henneberger is a columnist and editor of AOL’s forthcoming political Web site, PoliticsDaily.com. Melinda Henneberger, AOL LLC