A Central Texas man whose pointed prose about government assistance programs made him an Internet folk hero says he is surprised but delighted his words continue to reverberate in cyberspace.
Alfred W. Evans of Gatesville said he expected his “put me in charge” letter to the editor printed in the Tribune-Herald on Nov. 18, 2010, to resonate with others fed up with welfare abuse. But he never expected it to be emailed across the country, much less become such a phenomenon people would add in their own passages, make up a new identity for the author and even satirize it.
Perhaps the most unexpected development, Evans said, was when be began receiving money in the mail from people wanting him to run for office.
“I don’t want attention,” said Evans, who declined to be photographed for this article. “I just want people to stop and think.”
It’s not the first time the 56-year-old had a letter to the editor appear in the Tribune-Herald.
But this one stood out for its form and engaging language. Evans started sections with the phrase, “Put me in charge,” then went on to list conditions he thinks people receiving government help should have to follow.
“Put me in charge of food stamps,” Evans began. “I’d get rid of Lone Star cards; no cash for Ding Dongs or Ho Ho’s, just money for 50-pound bags of rice and beans, blocks of cheese and all the powdered milk you can haul away. If you want steak and frozen pizza, then get a job.”
The letter went on to say people shouldn’t be allowed to get pregnant, smoke, drink alcohol or get body piercings or tattoos while on assistance. Government housing should be akin to military barracks, complete with inspections and an inventory of possessions. And welfare recipients should be required to work somewhere, even if it’s at a government-created job, he wrote.
Evans, who spent 20 years in the U.S. Army and now works as a computer specialist for the Texas Department of Transportation, said he decided to write the letter after an experience he had at a grocery store in Gatesville.
A woman accompanied by numerous children “about emptied out the meat counter” and then proceeded to pay for those purchases and some other food items with a Lone Star card, which acts like a debit card for food stamps.
But the woman also had a second cart full of other items, including junk food that the Lone Star card can’t be used for, Evans said. She paid for them by pulling out a few bills from a large wad of cash, he said.
After Evans bought his items and walked into the parking lot, he became even more angry, he said. The vehicle the woman was loading her groceries into was a nice Chevrolet Suburban with specialty wheel rims, he said.
“I got into my 10-year-old (Ford) F150 truck and thought, ‘I just paid for everything she just put in her truck,’ ” Evans said.
Soon after the Tribune-Herald published the letter, the newspaper began getting inquiries about it from people in other states. Most wanted to know whether the letter was real.
The requests continue more than a year later. Evans’ letter also continues to make the rounds via email and social networking sites such as Facebook.
Evans said he doesn’t know how the letter spread. The first time he realized it had reached beyond Central Texas was a few weeks after its publication, when a cousin who works at Fort Hood was approached by a co-worker who had the letter emailed to him by family in Michigan.
That prompted Evans to do an Internet search for his letter. When he saw it had been posted on message boards by people from all across the country, and even as far away as Australia, he was flabbergasted.
Before long, letters from strangers began showing up in Evans’ mailbox.
Some only had his name and Gatesville, since that was the only information that appeared with his letter. Luckily, he said, Gatesville is a small enough town the postal carrier knew where to deliver them.
In all, Evans said he got at least two dozen letters. Some sent money, including an older lady from Minnesota who enclosed a $1 bill.
“She said she wanted to be the first to contribute to my political campaign,” he said.
Internet discussions of the letter are replete with pleas for the author to run for president or other elected office.
But in some cases, the online posters are under the impression they would be voting for a 21-year-old woman. For whatever reason, some versions of the letter claim that is who wrote it.
“This was written by a 21 yr. old female who gets it,” begins an introduction often added to the letter. “It’s her future she’s worried about and this is how she feels about the social welfare big government state that she’s being forced to live in! These solutions are just common sense in her opinion.”
Another common change to the letter is the addition of a paragraph at the end. It reads:
“And while you are on gov’t subsistence, you no longer can VOTE! Yes that is correct. For you to vote would be a conflict of interest. You will voluntarily remove yourself from voting while you are receiving a gov’t welfare check. If you want to vote, then get a job.”
Many online postings of the letter don’t list an author. But in a few cases, revamped versions have been published under other people’s names in other newspapers.
Evans said it doesn’t bother him when the letter appears without his name. He doesn’t even really care about people attributing it to a 21-year-old woman.
But Evans is irked by versions that include the voting paragraph. He takes a strict constructionist view of the U.S. Constitution, to the point where he thinks many functions of the federal government are unconstitutional because they are not spelled out in the document. But people have the right to vote even if they’re on government assistance, he said.
“We shouldn’t do more than it says,” Evans said of the Constitution. “But for sure we shouldn’t do less than it says.”
Several marketing and online media experts theorize the reason someone changed the alleged identity of the author was to give the letter more punch.
People might be less dismissive if they thought the ideas came from a young woman, rather than an older man — the stereotype of a conservative, they said.
“It maybe doesn’t seem so biased,” said Jonah Berger, an assistant marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania whose research focuses on why certain ideas and online content “go viral.”
Lee Raine, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project in Washington, D.C., agreed, saying details of popular content often are changed through time.
Sometimes people are having fun with the material or wanting to add their own twist. But often, changes are aimed at making content more believable, he said.
“Details add credibility, or at least the patina of credibility,” Raine said.
Kim Knight, assistant professor of emerging media and communication at the University of Texas at Dallas, said changes to the letter should be viewed through the lens of digital culture.
Online, people often are praised when they take the work of others, make changes and then release it as a new creation. Musical remixes that use others’ songs are an example, she said.
That same flexibility hasn’t been extended to the written word — at least not yet, Knight said. Most people still view the taking of others’ words as plagiarism. Those claiming Evans’ words as their own may have just assumed no one would notice, she said.
But perhaps some were applying “the ethos of remix culture,” she said.
“I suspect that details are changed to make it more relevant or to customize the viewpoint,” Knight said. “Our ideas about influence and originality are called into question when we encounter trends such as these.”
Striking a chord
The experts also agree the main reason Evans’ letter is so popular is because it evokes strong emotion.
“People don’t pass along something they don’t care about,” Raine said. “People pass along things that strike a chord. There’s a huge dimension of social networking to it.”
Evans’ descriptive language also likely plays into the letter’s popularity, said Mia Moody-Ramirez, an assistant professor of journalism, public relations and new media at Baylor University.
“Many people agree . . . and wish maybe they’d said it that way,” Moody-Ramirez said. “The way he words it is almost poetic. Ding Dongs, Ho Ho’s — you can envision that in your head.”
Perhaps the best indication of the letter’s popularity is that it has spawned satire. One version starts, “Put me in charge of character. I’d get rid of . . . those who have a complete lack of empathy and anybody who discriminates against people with a (expletive) tattoo because they are so sure their choices are the only choices possible.”
Another mockingly asserts that “humiliating and punishing poor American children because their parents can’t or won’t find work that pays a living wage will encourage them to choose better parents in the future.”
Evans said some of that criticism is misplaced.
For example, he doesn’t have a problem with people having tattoos. His wife has several. What he has a problem with, he said, is people who take government money and then use their own cash to get tattoos.
Evans also made it clear he does not oppose all government assistance. Short-term help to people truly in a bind is appropriate, such as when a person loses a job or a family suddenly experiences the death of a wage earner, he said.
Evans’ beef is with people who abuse the system. That includes those who use government money to buy necessities, then spend other cash on frivolous things. It also includes those who receive assistance for a long period of time, he said.
“I don’t have much sympathy for a person who is 45 years old with three kids and is working an entry-level job,” Evans said. “That just means they’ve never really applied themselves. We have made it too comfortable to be poor. We think we’re helping them but we’re not.”
Evans, who was interviewed wearing a T-shirt showing pictures of nearly two dozen different handguns above the phrase “Celebrate Diversity,” doesn’t regret writing the letter and he doesn’t care what people think about him because of it.
His only confession, he quipped, is that he doesn’t actually want to be put in charge of anything more than getting himself to work on time. He just wishes government officials would fix what he views as a broken system.
As for the idea he might one day become one of the people in charge of the government, Evans said he has no interest in running for office. He’s trusting that those who mailed him donations will understand.
“I tell the truth,” Evans said. “I tell what I think. I’d last about a day.”