The Education of Joe Guzzardi
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Before I began my teaching career at the Lodi Adult School, I didn't know anything about immigration.

I was a banker whose background was finance and economics. If someone had asked, I would have wagered that like most federal programs, immigration was a mess. But I didn't have any first hand knowledge because immigration policy wasn't part of my world.

I got my baptism of fire at the Adult School.

The first class I taught was English as a second language (E.S.L.) to Southeast Asian refugees on welfare. In my previous column, I wrote that students only turn out for E.S.L. classes when a carrot is dangled in front of them. As an example, I cited the period in the mid-1980s. That's when English language instruction was a requirement for a green card. People showed up in droves.

And attendance was high in my class for the Southeast Asians. But not because the desire to learn was keen. If you didn't show up for class, you didn't get your welfare check.

Students could get exemptions from attending class, however. Among the things that got them off the hook were doctor's excuses, sick children, transportation problems, compelling personal necessity, and holidays like Vietnamese, Cambodian or Hmong New Year.

Imagine if you could be legitimately excused from showing up for your job for any of the above reasons.

What a circus that class was. When a student wanted out—and sooner or later most of them did—he would go to his doctor to ask for a note. Typically, a Vietnamese student would go to a Vietnamese doctor, Cambodian students to Cambodian doctors and so on.

The next day, the student appeared with a note saying, "Please excuse Mr. Tran for 90 days. He has headaches."

Okay, the guy has a headache on Monday but how can we possibly know that he will have the same headache for ninety consecutive days? Calls to the doctor's office to learn more about student's condition were not fruitful.

The medical excuse was one of the most irritating experiences I had. The taxpayer got hit with the double whammy. First, the class, the books, the teacher and the instructional assistants were all taxpayer supported.

Then, when the student went to the doctor, the taxpayer got that bill, too. Trips to the doctor for the slightest condition were common. And when a student had half a dozen children, as they all did, the MediCal card got a good work out. Think free play on the pinball machine to get an idea.

I could never quite figure out how people who had never been touched by a doctor's hand until they arrived in the U.S. grew so dependent on medical care. I guess the price was right.

Once I asked a student who was suffering from "a headache" why he didn't go to the drug store to buy aspirin. He replied, "Aspirin cost $5.00. The doctor is free."

The more I learned about the welfare system, the more I shook my head. One day, I took out a pencil and did some calculations on the bottom line deal that my students had.

Hold on to your hat for the next few paragraphs. Many families who arrived in the U.S. in the early 1980s and stayed on welfare until that gig ended in 1996 took in between $500,000 and $1 million in cash and benefits.

The average Southeast Asian student had six children living at home. The husband and wife collected a flat rate for themselves and additional monies and food stamps for each child.

That income ranged around $30,000 annually.

My students had the best medical insurance in the universe. The parents were fully covered. And from the moment the children were born–at a taxpayer expense of $5,000–until they turned 21, every sniffle was paid for.

From my vantage point, that was the most abused benefit. With no co-pay, anything and everything was a trip to the doctor. A common method of getting to medical attention was—believe it or not—taking an ambulance to the Emergency Room. My students didn't have cars. Ambulances were, like everything else, completely covered.

Students also received major medical. With large families (and children covered until they turn 21), medical expenses pile up.

To cash, food stamps, unlimited medical care, add subsidized housing, W.I.C. and other miscellaneous programs too numerous to mention. You're talking about a gold mine so rich that students refused to consider gainful employment.

Coached by the Roman Catholic Church and various special interest groups, the students were fountains of knowledge regarding the welfare system. Pay dirt was S.S.I. with its more generous benefits. With three tries to qualify for S.S.I., students kept trying until they hit pay dirt.

I could never fault the students for the advantages they took. What did they know? They came to America, got a check, food stamps and a MediCal card. And heaven knows that they were in America because of circumstances beyond their control.

As for teaching English, I never made too much progress. I had aides fluent in the Asian languages. But I could never convey to my students that America was their new home and learning English would be their path out of poverty.

The class finally came to an end in the mid-1990s. Welfare reform shifted the emphasis from education to employment. And my students went off into the real world not knowing any more English than the day they enrolled.

From time to time I bump into them in the neighborhood. Their lives are unchanged from the first days they came to America. Most of them are still on some type of federal or state assistance.

Through my adult school experiences, I've come to harsh conclusions about immigration. Everyone is lined up to come to America. But when the time comes to repay American generosity with the most token gesture—learning English—hardly a soul shows up.

Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly newspaper column since 1988. This column is exclusive to VDARE.COM.

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