Demonizing the Poor: America’s *Real* Welfare Fraud
People have pretty strong opinions about welfare. Just about every day, I’ll see someone post a meme or a status complaining about how they, a hard-working tax-paying American, have to struggle to get by while lazy welfare queens sit back and live lavishly on fat checks from the government. Lawmakers in Missouri and Kansas have recently become the latest in a long line of politicians to address this supposed issue, introducing legislation that would ban the use of welfare benefits on steak and lobster, and in tattoo parlors, strip clubs, and cruise ships (cruise ships!). Others have supported mandatory drug testing as a condition of receiving government assistance.
These measures typically receive a great deal of public support because, ya know, who would say they were in favor of using food stamps at the strip club? But this type of legislation is actually pretty problematic because it creates the illusion that these behaviors are commonplace. It implies that it is a serious enough problem to warrant a change in the law of the land and reinforces a false narrative that poor people are draining the public coffers by gaming the system. However, the only evidence they provide to justify these laws is anecdotal, like Missouri representative Rick Brattin, who claimed to have seen people buy filet mignon and lobster with food stamps in the grocery store. But in reality, there is no evidence that poor people actually spend their money this way. Indeed, it would basically be impossible; even the maximum benefits allowed under TANF (checks from the government) and SNAP (food stamps) combined fall well below the federal poverty line in every state. That’s hardly enough to ball out on a luxury cruise. It’s just not in the budget! Perhaps Rick Brattin only saw people he assumed were on food stamps because of the color of their skin.
The same goes for drugs. Poor people are no more likely to use drugs than anyone else. In fact, many states that have implemented drug testing actually found that people seeking public assistance were significantly less likely to use drugs than the general population. Again, this makes sense from a budgetary standpoint; drug use can be an expensive habit when you’re struggling just to put food on the table. Given this data, not only would laws requiring drug testing for welfare recipients be morally abhorrent, they would also be extraordinarily financially wasteful. States would end up spending far more public money trying to enforce these laws than they would save in denied benefits to those who failed. And those who would be denied under such laws are arguably those most in need of help. Addiction is a very serious issue, and society should not cast aside and turn its back on those who suffer from it.
Plus, as Emily Badger points out in the Washington Post, we don’t ask or expect non-poor recipients of government aid to jump through hoops to prove their worthiness as a condition to receive their benefits:
“We don’t drug-test farmers who receive agriculture subsidies (lest they think about plowing while high!). We don’t require Pell Grant recipients to prove that they’re pursuing a degree that will get them a real job one day (sorry, no poetry!). We don’t require wealthy families who cash in on the home mortgage interest deduction to prove that they don’t use their homes as brothels (because surely someone out there does this). The strings that we attach to government aid are attached uniquely for the poor.”
Many people don’t realize this, but the government actually spends a lot more on benefits to non-poor folks than it does on things like food stamps. They are just less visible because they often come in the form of tax breaks and cost reduction, rather than direct cash transfers. According research by Suzanne Mettler, 94% of people who say they have never benefitted from any government programs turned out to be wrong. Hell, if you’ve ever driven on a fucking highway, you’ve used something paid for with government funds!
And yet, we continue to direct our ire towards the poorest members of our society, and the laws proposed in Kansas and Missouri only add fuel to the fire. They serve more to demonize poor people than anything else. And they waste the time of legislators (and hence, taxpayer money) that could be better spent finding actual solutions to combat poverty. But unfortunately, many of us aren’t really as interested in finding real solutions as we are in punishing the poor for their plight. We believe the role of the law is to punish people for failing to conform to our moral standards, rather than to provide the most practical methods to solve society’s problems. Thus, you have many people supporting policies that cost more money and don’t address the problem (or in some cases even exacerbate it) — such as abstinence-only education, the criminalization of marijuana, and the death penalty, to name a few — while more effective measures are less politically viable.
Politicians recognize this tendency, and exploit it to push their own agenda. Laws like the ones in Kansas and Missouri are part of an intentional attempt to create resentment of the poor in order to eliminate social programs and, ultimately, keep money in the hands of the wealthiest Americans. Part of this strategy involves intentionally conjuring racial imagery to stoke white America’s racial anxiety. As early as Ronald Reagan, people have used thinly-veiled coded racial references to imply just who all these undeserved benefits were going to: black single mothers. This is, of course, despite the fact that white people actually constitute the majority of people on food stamps. And while it may remain true that black people are forced to resort to government assistance at a higher rate than whites, it is important to recognize how the rhetoric surrounding this conversation has skewed our perception. If you asked random people on the street to describe the “average” welfare recipient, I can almost guarantee that most people would describe a black person. And this is important because it can have a real impact on policy. People are probably voting against help for the poor precisely because they associate it with black people, whom they don’t deem worthy of help, even if in reality that’s not the majority of people they would be denying. If we associated poverty with white people, would we would spend as much energy as we do demonizing them, or would we, as a society, be more inclined to be a little more empathetic?
But how can we address poverty in this country? Studies have shown that simply giving money to the poor works remarkably well. So perhaps we should actually be lifting the limitations on what poor people can spend assistance money on. There is, of course, another potential solution, and that is to raise the minimum wage. This issue has been gaining national attention as of late thanks to the #FightForFifteen protests led by fast food workers calling for the minimum wage to be raised to $15 per hour. And raising the minimum wage is not likely to lead to an increase in unemployment, as it has not done so when it was raised in the past.
Contrary to popular belief, the majority of public benefits actually go to working families, not the unemployed. Also contrary to popular belief, low wage workers aren’t just teenagers looking for a little spending money; most are in their mid-to-late twenties and have families to feed. The average low wage worker is older, more educated, and earns a higher percentage of their family’s income than than in the past, despite the fact that they are actually paid less in real value thanks to the fact that the minimum wage has not been adjusted to keep up with inflation. And while full-time employment at the current minimum wage is enough to keep one person above the poverty line, it is not enough for families of two or more. Many make even less than this because, as anyone who has ever worked a low-wage job can tell you, low-wage employers don’t always offer full-time hours, forcing workers to take on a second job if they want to make up the difference.
In one of the richest nations in the world, everyone deserves to be able to work full time and stay out of poverty. But the working poor often require assistance because their jobs don’t pay them enough to get by. If we don’t make the companies they work for provide that to them, then the difference has to be made up on the taxpayers’ dime by way of increased government assistance (or by desperate people themselves by way of criminal activity). And that’s not welfare for the poor, that’s corporate welfare to companies that employ low-wage workers!
Image via usnews.com. Illustration for USNWR by Adriana Scott, Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images for P&O Cruises.