The Dirty Truth About Welfare

As a liberal and democratic socialist, the topic of welfare is a hotbed one that most people will disagree with me on. First of all, I have little tolerance for those that berate the welfare system. Sentiments like the ones expressed below, strike me as both cruel and socially short-sighted:

As Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich writes in his essay “Renewing America,” “The welfare system has sapped the spirit of the poor and made it harder to climb the first rungs of the economic ladder.”

Such a system not only leads welfare recipients to become satisfied with lives of “subsidized idleness,” but it also places an unfair burden on the workers who must pay for the program, Gingrich continues. Why should working taxpayers be forced to take fiscal responsibility for those who do not take responsibility for themselves?

This is the opinion shared by many of those who have anti-welfare sentiments. Basically “I don’t want to spend any of my money on raising the kids of someone who can’t afford to support them themselves.” Personally I don’t see how anyone with 1/2 a heart can read that and not sense any tinge of condescension in such a statement (or those similar to it).

I born to a teenage mother who always worked in low-paying jobs. While I was cared for primarily by my retired grandparents (who were also low-income), it was because of her that I qualified for many government programs. She was never on cash assistance or Section 8; but I lived in a neighborhood where for many people, that was the case. In spite of having a live-in partner for most of her adult life, my mother has always had a hard time financially. I don’t know if you can blame either her or society for her circumstances. Even if I had never been born, I doubt that my mother would have went to college (my existence didn’t prevent that for her — child care for me was free and provided by my Grandparents). My mother is a hard worker, but she’s not a risk taker. Many times people would suggest for her to move elsewhere (which she did once….but then had to return home due to relationship issues) for better job prospects and salaries. But she was always one to stick it out at a job unless she absolutely, positively had to leave it. Hence why she’s been in the same position for the last 15 years, even though it pays less than $12.00/hour.

Growing up, I took another path. I went to college, remained child-free and have not been shy about leaving a job for a better opportunity (real or perceived). The results of my efforts are a mixed bag. Yes, I have a higher income than my mother does; but I also have a lot more debt. I also live paycheck to paycheck and am effectively barred from any type of social service programs whatsoever due to my income. My neighborhood has changed, but is still populated with people who are on Section 8 and who collect welfare. So in a nutshell, I’ve done exactly what the naysayers have said to do. I’ve “taken responsibility for myself and my actions”. But the truth is in the end, that is still hardly enough to put you ahead economically or socially.

Don’t get me wrong, I do not envy people on welfare. And I do feel that welfare in its current state is a disaster. People easily talk about contraception for poor people and are quick to say “don’t have kids unless you can afford them”. Well what exactly is the magical income level that allots for this? New estimates puts raising a child from birth to age 18 at $226,920. That’s $12,207 per year to be spent just on childcare & expenses. With almost 50% of Americans living on a household income of less than $46,000 per year, it makes you wonder if some of these people aren’t throwing stones while living in glass houses.

In my previous post about food stamps, I provided some links to show that social service programs aren’t as draining on the government coffers as you would think. Although the attitude perpetuated by the social services system is that of one where the government is doing you some sort of big favor, and you are practically a criminal for taking advantage of them. However the truth of the matter is that welfare has severe time limits, it largely benefits innocent children born into poverty (single, healthy adults can almost never collect cash welfare benefits), and the amounts given are paltry when compared to the actual costs of maintaining a household.

But the most disastrous effect of welfare is the one effect that is the most difficult to quantify; and that is the overwhelming sense of hopelessness and negativity that surround the welfare system. There is the feeling that if you are not able to find a job making at least $25,000/year (which is 60% above minimum wage), then there is no use in even bothering. And there remains very little help out there if you do decide to look for work anyway. As the subject of this piece put so well:

“They don’t actually help you find a job,” she said. “They don’t get you work.” Eva said the jobs she’s found have all been through connections. “If you don’t know someone, you don’t get a job.”

There is the public perception problem that “welfare” is an issue for minority single-mothers; when in reality, it is an issue that affects many working-class families…including White ones. And there is the societal attitude that certain “mistakes” in life; such as having a child (or children) out of wedlock, or not taking your education seriously, are unforgivable sins that both you and your offspring must pay for indefinitely.

There are no easy answers here, and I would never pretend otherwise. The current economy makes it difficult for even workers with college degrees to find employment. So for under-educated, ill-prepared welfare recipients, the horizon is even more bleak. However changing public perception can do nothing but help. Never is the welfare system touted as a system of support to those who need it; as something that makes our country a great one. Something that gives people hope. That gives them the message that we do in fact care about the health and well-being of you and your children, in spite of your inability to earn a living wage. This change in spirit would be a step in the right direction on a very long road ahead.