In a perfect world, this wouldn't be a political subject -- but this is not a perfect world, judging by the trending hashtags we're seeing. So when everyone hates taxes and budget deficits, people getting "welfare" (the generic term for government assistance, food stamps, etc for the poor) become political footballs. And that is a polite way of saying that they get treated like shit to serve somebody else's agenda.
But in a world full of stories about freeloaders buying lobster with food stamps, the implications seem to be that the poor are actually living better than the hard-working folks in line with them at the grocery store. Well, we're going to confess a bias here: we're fairly certain that being poor actually does suck quite a bit (and being homeless sucks even more). This honestly doesn't seem like a radical position to take.
Still, to try to get some perspective from within the system, we tracked down three welfare office employees -- Kyle, Melinda, and Rhys -- to try to get to the bottom of this whole thing. They said ...
The "Welfare Queen" Myth Goes Back to a Single Person
The idea of the "welfare queen" is the most enduring argument against welfare that gets pulled out by the nation's collective uncles at Thanksgiving: anecdotal stories of a woman, usually black, who has mastered the art of having babies and filling out government forms to such an incredible degree that she gets to live like royalty on the taxpayer's dime, usually while smoking crack and having unprotected sex. "Sure, I'm all for helping people down on their luck, but why should my hard-earned paycheck go to support that?"
"We fought a war to free ourselves from the Queen, dammit!"
That stereotype actually comes from one famous case: Linda Taylor, the originator of the "welfare queen" myth. She was a dedicated con artist who stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from the US government by being a dedicated con artist. Fun fact: she also kidnapped children and probably murdered people. But she was only ever charged for the welfare fraud, because the prosecutors were worried that a murder case would distract from the far weightier issue of stealing from the taxpayers. That's right: people are so enraged by the idea of welfare fraud that they literally treat it like it's more offensive than murder.
When in actuality, the most offensive thing about this case is clearly that hat.
"Look, welfare fraud is going to happen," says Kyle, who worked in a government benefits office. "It's one of the reasons that caseworkers have a job. Do we come across cases of fraud? Sure. Are they perpetuated by criminal masterminds? Nah. Criminal masterminds import drugs and manipulate real estate. Welfare fraud is more like 'not mentioning some income for a couple months.'" Or people keeping quiet about some under-the-table work they've been doing, collecting a few hundred extra bucks, and then, usually, getting caught.
As it turns out, the majority of welfare fraud is committed not by the poor people who receive the benefits, but by managers and government officials misappropriating welfare funds. Even so, welfare fraud only accounts for an estimated two percent of the budget -- significantly less than virtually any private sector business. And it's a hell of a lot harder to scam the government out of free money than it is to scam, say, a private charity or a food bank (who don't have the resources or authority to vet the people they're helping).
Think scamming the government's easy? Head over to the DMV and try nabbing some "extra" licenses.
As for the anecdotes about welfare/food stamp recipients getting caught buying steak and lobster at the supermarket, proving that they actually live better than us working folk? Well, people on government assistance spend less than half as much money as people who aren't on it, which is so obvious we shouldn't have needed statistics to convince anyone. Meanwhile, 83 percent of food stamps are going to households with children and/or disabled or elderly people. That's not exactly the image of shiftless poverty barons that has been so popularly associated with welfare over the past few decades. If the scammers are out there, they're not the ones draining the budget. Likewise ...
No, Undocumented Immigrants Aren't Taking All the Benefits
"I can't put what my job is on Facebook," Melinda told us, "I did that once, and everybody was like, 'You're helping wetbacks steal benefits from the government.' They all think I work with Mexicans, even though I'm in the northeast!" To clarify, Mexicans are thin on the ground in New England.
"Do Taco Bell workers count as Mexicans? We give them welfare."
Not only are undocumented immigrants not allowed to get government benefits, but even legal immigrants (known as "qualified aliens") can't collect food stamps until they've been in the country at least five years.
Some states allow immigrant pregnant women and children to collect benefits, but it's not an ideal situation: "You get cases where children are receiving food stamps, but at a lower rate because their parents are still subject to the five-year bar and therefore can't add to the household size when computing their benefit," said Kyle, another unemployment office employee. "At the same time, we do count the parents' income, if any (there usually is some; people don't usually move to America to not work). So for the immigrant, that's the worst of both worlds." Immigrants aren't hogging all the benefits; they're getting less than anyone else.
They're not taking your food. They're giving you your food.
In fact, a disproportionate amount of government aid goes not to poor immigrants or minorities, but to middle class white people. Despite making up only 42 percent of the qualified population, middle class white folk end up with 69 percent of the benefits. That's partly because such a large percentage of the budget is spent on taking care of the elderly, regardless of income (programs like Medicare and Social Security utterly dwarf benefits to the young and unemployed), and let's be honest, those people are far more likely to vote.
The Idea Behind Welfare Was to Save the Taxpayers Money
"We want people in our program," says Melinda, who works with WIC (Women, Infants and Children). "Because if their babies are healthier, they end up costing society less in the long run." The idea is that it's cheaper to just give food and vitamin supplements to poor kids than it would be to wait until they have serious health problems and then treat those. It's the same principle behind changing the oil in your car, instead of waiting for the engine to seize up and slapping a new one in there. And it isn't terribly different from the rationale behind free public education -- educated people are way less likely to be a drain on society later. It's a bargain in the long run.
And paying welfare till they get a job is cheaper than buying robot butlers.
And it's not like we have to guess here -- according to studies, every dollar spent on WIC saves three dollars in future hospital costs. Every Junior Cheeseburger you pay in tax money earns you three Junior Cheeseburgers later on. Meanwhile, poor children get to continue to live, and you don't have to suffer the embarrassment of explaining to foreign visitors why the richest country in the world has so many filthy children with rickets.
The biggest waste of taxpayer dollars on welfare is, ironically, the money we spend on trying to prevent people from getting welfare: for example, every time the government tries to save money by preventing drug users from collecting benefits, enforcing that law ends up costing more than it saves. Studies repeatedly show that welfare recipients use drugs at a lower rate than the rest of the population, because it turns out that drugs are super expensive. This makes the vast majority of the mandatory drug tests given to welfare recipients pointless. It's sort of like hiring Jason Statham to follow around every kid who walks into your store -- sure, you're going cut down on shoplifting, but you have to pay Jason Statham way more money than you're saving, just for him to stand around looking mean most of the time.
Both are costly excuses to watch people pee themselves.
Furthermore, giving benefits to the unemployed stimulates the economy, particularly when the economy is already in the shitter. It's pretty straightforward: if you give money to people who are on the verge of total destitution, they're going to end up spending it immediately, because they're probably way behind on rent, bills, and the food necessary to chase off the relentless specter of fatal starvation. That money goes right back into the private sector. Sometimes within minutes.
Not that the government makes it easy. As it turns out ...
Being On Welfare Is Like a Part-Time Job
"But welfare makes people lazy!" those of you who have never been on welfare may protest, in which case you'll be delighted to hear that no, that's not true either. It is true that people take advantage of government assistance, but not in the way you think: "There were like nine ladies that were collecting cash assistance by volunteering at a daycare center," says Rhys. "They were getting food stamps and cash assistance, and they were spending time with their kids while they did their hours. That's how they 'gamed the system.'" So yeah, no more lazy than those of us who got jobs at the same place our friends worked, just so we could hang out with them while we earned our paychecks.
The women weren't disciplined. Daycare was punishment enough.
This is the part that no one gets unless they've actually been through the system. In reality, collecting welfare demands so much work that some people don't even bother. "I had this guy certifying for food stamps who was single and had no kids," says Rhys, another of the welfare office employees we spoke to. "I recommend he go to a resume writing class ... and he snaps. Not in a bad way, but he just goes into this diatribe about how for 150 bucks a month he's volunteering 60 hours, spending his mornings handing out resumes, and then he has to take a bus to our office ... finally, he's like 'well, I don't want the damn food stamps anymore.'"
Meanwhile, a lot of states don't simply "hand out" the handouts -- you have to earn them. Most require something like 20-30 hours a week of work-related activity, which means hunting for a job or doing community service. Basically, you receive compensation in exchange for performing a task or service? Which, um, kind of sounds like a job.
But not a real one, like checking out Facebook, or Wikipedia, or Reddit, or ...
"What job?" some of you may be saying. "We're just paying for these guys to look for work and pick up trash?" Well sure, these people are getting money "just" because they can't survive otherwise, which might seem like an unfair reason if you've never been in that situation.
And, on top of all of the bureaucratic hoops, there's the general fact that ...
People on Welfare Are Treated Like Shit
By now, we've made it clear that the vast majority of people on welfare probably aren't living in a responsibility-free paradise, driving around in Escalades and basking in the adulation of their food stamp groupies. Unfortunately, the years of dehumanizing rhetoric against poverty-stricken families on government assistance has had a dramatic effect: lots of Americans fucking hate people on food stamps, and they aren't afraid to let everyone know exactly how they feel.
"People in line will say 'oh, you shouldn't have kids if you can't afford them,'" Melinda told us. "Some people say that they go to Walmart at 12 o'clock at night because it's less embarrassing, and they can avoid rude comments.
Yup, you heard that right. Walmart customers throwing shade at other customers.
"I was on WIC, before I worked there, and I remember the cashiers at Kroger being so rude that I switched grocers. It was worth it. Most of my clients get the same reactions: rude cashiers who tell them that checking them out is extra work, rude people behind them in line telling them to get a job (because they think all poor people are welfare queens), and rude family/friends telling them to work more, because responsible parents support their own kids." Because if there's one thing that is universally helpful, it is telling a person who cannot afford to feed themselves or their family that they are lazy pieces of shit.
But of course, to such critics, these aren't human beings -- they're fodder for a Culture War, a symbol of everything that is wrong with the world today. If the idea is that the problem is that the poor simply have it too easy, then clearly it's everyone else's job to crank up the difficulty level. And they'll seize any easily-observed details to justify it -- as Melinda says, "Many of my clients have cash-only jobs, like waiting tables, cleaning houses, or doing yard work. In grocery lines, other customers remark about how they sift through several bills to get to their SNAP card or WIC checks. They don't realize that the wad of cash is earmarked for paying the water bill."
"Saving the singles for Chippendales, eh, Gertrude?"
And god forbid you're seen with a cell phone, lest you want to be asked why you don't sell the phone and buy food with it. Uh, maybe because you can't get a call back on a job application if you don't have a phone? Hell, if you leave the phone number blank, your application is going into the trash anyway -- they don't want to hire someone they can't reach.
But in the end, all of this is going to be lost on the vast majority of people who read this article and disagree with it -- each and every one can whip out their favorite anecdote about the guy they saw buying champagne with food stamps, or the neighbor on SSI who has a big-screen 4K television. Endless stories they keep at the ready to convince themselves and everyone in earshot that the poor aren't really poor, that this is a fake problem that can be safely ignored. Even if those same people wound up on the other end -- say, their huge hospital bills paid by Medicare, or their flooded home replaced by a government disaster relief program -- they'd rationalize it away easily. See, because they know in their heart that unlike those freeloaders, they actually needed the help, and are simply in a bad place, and are in fact doing the best they can.
But giving that same benefit of the doubt to everyone? What kind of monster would do that?
For more insider perspectives, check out 4 Aspects of Hostage Situations Movies Didn't Prepare Me For. And then check out How the Rich Secretly Amuse Themselves.
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