Bustin' Some Welfare Myths

In my classrooms, and sometimes on Facebook, a topic comes up so predictably and with such frequency I can almost mouth the words as they begin to emerge from students’ earnest mouths: Gotta watch those those welfare recipients to ensure they don't Abuse the System©. The thing is, I don't know if they know they're the very recipients we should be watching.

Yeah, you heard right: welfare. I’m not going to pretty it up by saying “recipients of social assistance” or “family assistance.” I’m going old school and using the most emotional language I can: Welfare. Recipients.

Full disclosure, as bloggers are wont to do: I grew up on welfare. When I was four, my mother grabbed my two sisters and me and fled a violent situation. We slept in our car, bounced among various relatives, rented tiny trailers. Finally, we landed ourselves Section 8 housing, which meant a constant roof and our own beds. I’m not going to lie: The highlight of our month included waiting by the mailbox for the postal carrier to bring us our food stamps so we could once again fill our bellies. Our family ate ramen a lot, and not in the I’m-a-college-student-eating-ramen-and-finding-it-a-fun-adventure-because-I-know-it-will-soon-end kind of way. Our holiday dinners often arrived in a box from a local church or food pantry. Other kids laughed at my sisters and me because our clothing was old and out-of-style -- we didn’t have hipsters back then.

So here I am now, proud owner of a Ph.D. and a teacher who focuses on social inequalities. As my partner would say, go fig. Oh, and did I mention Pell Grants paid for about half of my tuition? I guess that means my welfare use didn’t end once I left home at age eighteen.

Given all this, you can imagine my rather dim view of people who wring their hands over the crafty laziness of welfare recipients. Those leeches on the system, these people wail, nibbling away at our hard-earned tax dollars. Sure, not everyone is so hard-nosed. Some folks don’t begrudge poor people their crumbs of financial and nutritional assistance, from SNAP (nee food stamps) to WIC to TANF (what we commonly refer to as “welfare,” meaning actual monies from the state government). That’s kinda okay, they say nervously, as long as, well, you know, they don’t Abuse the System© or use our tax dollars to fund their bad habits (read: Cheetos and crack cocaine). Oh, and as long as they don’t reproduce to keep those welfare bucks a-rollin’.

To all those folks who persist in thinking of welfare recipient as shifty-eyed, bon-bon-popping mothers with ten kids (all by different deadbeat dads) who will bilk the system for as much as they can until/unless we place cultural and institutional barriers on their endless gluttony, greed, and laziness, I cordially invite you to pull up a chair, make yourselves comfy, and educate yourselves.

Below I address a few myths about welfare recipients and benefits. I could write a book about this, but I’ll stick to the most persistent and, yes, ill-informed beliefs that haunt welfare recipients.

Myth 1: Those lazy welfare recipients live high on the hog and have multiple kids to keep raking in those lavish welfare benefits.

Truth 1: Below are some statistics I compiled for my Social Policy course. The information is from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Economic Policy Institute.

SNAP (per the USDA):
* Average gross, monthly, non-SNAP income per food stamp household is $731; average net income is $336.
* As of September 2012, 47.7 million Americans were receiving on average $134.29 per month in food assistance.

TANF (per Economic Policy Institute, Health and Human Services, and USDA):
* Average family receives ~$400/month.
* 34% of TANF recipients experience critical hardship (homelessness, skipping meals, foregoing necessary medical care).
* 78% experience serious hardship related to food, housing, health care, or child care.
* The average family receiving TANF benefits has fewer kids per household (1.8) than the national average (1.9).

As for livin’ la vida loca on TANF, after the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, recipients now have a five-year maximum; after that, aid dries up (although eligible kids in the household may still receive benefits). And “lazy” welfare recipients must also spend 30 hours per week working or looking for work. Ah, I remember the good ol' days when my disabled mother filled out logs of all the places she applied for work as well as how much time she spent applying. According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, “For a state to meet the federal work rates, half of the families receiving TANF assistance must be engaged in a work activity for at least 30 hours a week (20 hours a week for single parents with young children).  States also must have 90 percent of two-parent families engaged in work, generally for 35 hours per week.”

Additionally, recipients must get a job within two years. (I have tremendous sympathy for this, especially in today’s economy and particularly after spending three-and-a-half years myself looking for a full-time job – and this was after earning my Ph.D.)

Myth 2: Most welfare recipients cheat the system.

Truth 2: Nope. Not true. Not even a little true. I tell my students this over and over, and yet this is the single most frequent complaint they issue. Hear this, my friends, and pay attention:

Studies consistently show less than one percent (1%) of welfare recipients cheat the system. This doesn’t mean waste doesn’t occur, but when it does, it’s usually the result of bureaucratic mistakes (Barusch, 2012, Foundations of Social Policy).

Yes, I know you, personally, know of someone who Abused the System©. But if you can use your anecdotal observations as evidence, then so can I. I grew up in gov’ment housing, ate gov’ment cheese, and used gov’ment funds to grope my way via 16 years of college to the middle class. My family of origin was poor. My neighbors were poor. My friends were poor. I knew no one, not one, who lied, cheated, or stole from the government.

And by the way, did you see the statistics above? People on TANF and food stamps are starving, people. If they’re cheating the system, they’re doing a pretty crappy job of it.

Myth 3: It’s only the super poor who receive benefits.

Truth 3: Alas, this is also untrue. In fact, here is a lovely list of governmental programs from which most of us have at one time benefited. Have you ever been on Unemployment? Received a Pell Grant or subsidized loan to attend college? Benefited from a Home Mortgage Interest Deduction? Put money into a government-subsidized retirement system?

The chances are very, very high that in some way, you’ve directly benefited from government programs. However, unless it’s TANF, most people don’t consider these programs welfare.

Lucky for you, I do. And maybe, after reading this, so will you.

Since you benefit from my hard-earned tax dollars, I have some questions for you, welfare recipient: Did you earn these benefits? Since my tax dollars pay for your activities, maybe I should be the judge of that, eh?

Myth 4: To prevent Abusing the System©, we should: 1. Drug test recipients, 2. Make them attend nutrition classes, 3. Place restrictions on their SNAP cards so they can only buy “healthy” foods, 4. Intensely monitor them to ensure they properly spend our money, etc.

Truth 4: I’ll give you this. All of it. You want to have welfare recipients pee in a cup (even though Florida tried it and found: 1. Almost none of the recipients used drugs, and 2. The expense far outweighed the benefit.)? Only eat organic veggies and sip fair-trade tea? You want them to keep a detailed diary of every cent of state and federal funds they spend? Bring it. My only condition is that you make all welfare recipients, not just the poor ones, participate.

I have an even better idea! Why don't we eliminate this act that 
intrudes on our non-public lives? I'm unsure when my body became 
the property of my employers or my state.
Do you receive tax subsidies because of donations, a mortgage, or because you’ve successfully reproduced? Did you go to school using federal subsidized loans or even federal grants? Did you or your children attend Head Start? Eat free lunches at school? Use Medicaid or Medicare? Get governmental grants to buy a new home or install solar panels? Congratulations! You’re a welfare recipient.

But, see, I worry that you might have used some of your governmental funds for things that, well, I really don’t agree with. For example, I don’t do drugs. Neither do I drink. So I hope you don’t mind, but I intend to go through your cupboards and drawers and make sure you don’t have any booze or wacky weed. And, sweetie, get ready to unzip your drawers and grab a cup, cuz we’re drug testing you.

Also, what if you spent some of that Pell Grant on “unhealthy” things like Pringles or gas for a motorcycle, which has a much higher mortality rate than regular automobiles? I suggest we monitor your potato chip habit and confiscate your motorcycle. Oh, and also, I hate companies that test on animals, so please purge your house of any non-cruelty-free items. I also don't love the color blue, so maybe you could, you know, limit your blue intake? That would be great. I’ll let you know if I, a taxpaying American, have any more problems with the decisions you’ve made about spending MY tax dollars.

This means you. And me. And corporations. Pretty much everyone.
If you're not familiar with the term "welfare queen,"
THANK GOD! But if so, here's some info on how this myth began.
And by the by, all those businesses that use tax havens to avoid paying American federal taxes but benefit from American infrastructure and workers? Welfare leeches. I plan to make all of them, every CEO, pee in a cup and account for every penny she or he has spent of our money. And those corporations we bailed out five years ago? We should own their every move. I suggest forcing each CEO to devote at least 30 hours per week to somehow engaging in gainful activity that directly benefits American employees—giving back to the community, as it were. Such actions may include any of the following: actually hiring instead of sitting on their largesse, providing health care to their employees, offering more full-time positions with benefits.

You want to spend time and stress worrying about the personal and spending habits of impoverished welfare recipients? I’m on board. Let’s just make sure the microscope remains equally as focused on all welfare beneficiaries, regardless of income. 


  1. You have to write a book, Les. You HAVE to. Every college would use it.

  2. Thanks, LJ. Maybe a chapter, but not a book on this. I would end up murdering peeps. Nothing gets my goat like peeps trotting out the "abusing the system" BS. :)

    I can actually imagine me writing a satirical article in which I expound upon my last few points: you want to test welfare recipients for drugs and monitor their every actions? Fine. Let's just make sure we leave room at the urinal/bathroom stall for corporations and average citizens to also pee in a cup.

  3. Thank you. I pull together bits of information here and there to spit out to my "friends" and relatives who firmly believe that all welfare recipients are all drug-addicted welfare queens with a half-dozen baby daddies. Having so much in one spot is very helpful!

    You might want to add a link to the story about how Reagan made up the whole welfare queen story, too. Very enlightening and gets to the origins of the modern attack on America's poor.

    1. Many thanks for the kind words and the very smart suggestion. I'll go do that right away. <3

  4. I hope you don't mind, I shared this on my Facebook page after reading for class, because I think it is wonderful!


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