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The Truth about Welfare

Posted by on Nov. 12, 2012 at 11:09 PM
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2 moms liked this

After absorbing months of attacks on him as an economic royalist, Mitt Romney is hitting back with an ad as dishonest as any you'll ever see, accusing Barack Obama of coddling welfare recipients ("You wouldn't have to work … they just send you your welfare check"). Literally every word after the 8 second mark on this ad is a lie, with the exception of "I'm Mitt Romney and I approve this message." But the welfare attack is an old Republican standby; if the middle class suspects you're not one of them, remind them that their resentment should be pointed down, not up. The real enemy is poor people, and those who would indulge them. A GOP presidential campaign that doesn't eventually bust out this attack would be like a wedding band that doesn't know how to play "Y.M.C.A."

But since there hasn't been much debate about welfare in some time, it's a good opportunity to remind ourselves of what the program is and isn't, and what role it plays in America today. Needless to say, you won't get this information from a campaign ad.

What we call "welfare" today has its origins in the 1935 Social Security Act, which provided aid for states to give assistance to a number of classes of Americans, including the elderly, the blind, and the unemployed. The Act provided money for monthly payments to poor children where at least one parent was absent or unable to work. In practice, this meant that the vast majority of aid went to widows and single mothers. The program gradually expanded to all 50 states and in the early 1960s became known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).

Then in 1996, the Republican Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, which fundamentally altered the nature of welfare. The name of the program was changed to Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), with the accent on "temporary." The new program would have a five year lifetime limit on cash benefits and require that recipients be working or in a job-training program. Critically, it ended welfare as an "entitlement," meaning that states were no longer required to accept any applicant who met the program's qualifications. Instead, the money goes to states as a "block grant," with the state deciding how many people it will serve and how many it will turn away. The number of people on the rolls immediately began to decline. In 1996, according to the census, there were 4.4 million families receiving welfare; in 2008, it was only 1.6 million.

And when the Great Recession hit in 2008, the states began turning awaypeople in droves; even as millions of Americans fell into poverty, the welfare rolls didn't increase, meaning that a smaller and smaller portion of America's poor families are getting cash assistance from the government.

For Republicans, this is a feature, not a bug; they hope to convert food stamps and Medicaid to block grants as well.

Because TANF is a federal/state program and each state sets its own eligibility standards, benefits vary widely. As you might expect, benefits in Southern states run by Republicans are far more meager than those in Northern and Western states where Democrats govern. In 2011, benefits ranged from a low of $170 a month for a single-parent family of three in Mississippi to a high of $753 for the same family living in New York. TANF spending was set at $16.5 billion per year in the 1996 bill, where it has remained—without any adjustment for inflation—ever since.

So who gets welfare? This is where the race issue enters. Contrary to popular perception, the recipients of TANF are about equally divided between whites, blacks and Hispanics. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, in 2009 the TANF rolls were 31.2 percent white, 33.3 percent black, and 28.8 percent Hispanic. Yet the primary image of a "welfare recipient" in most people's mind is a black woman. This has been demonstrated in study after study by political scientists, psychologists, and communication scholars. Most Americans not only drastically overestimate the proportion of welfare recipients who are black, they also tend to believe that welfare makes up a huge proportion of the federal budget, when in fact it accounts for less than 1 percent of federal spending. As Donald Kinder and Cindy Ham wrote in Us Against Them: Ethnocentric Foundations of American Opinion, "means-tested programs like AFDC and food stamps are understood by whites to largely benefit shiftless black people." The racialization in perceptions of welfare is reinforced by the news media, which usually use images of black people to illustrate stories about welfare and poverty (Martin Gillens' Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy is the most complete examination of this topic).

So when you say the word "welfare," the image that immediately pops into most people's heads is a black one. Opinions about welfare and opinions about race are inextricably tied together, and there is no one who works in politics, Republican or Democrat, who doesn't understand that. Which leads us to our final question.

Does Mitt Romney's new welfare attack constitute race-baiting? The fairest answer is, yes and no. Its goal is without question to encourage middle-class people to resent poor people who are allegedly taking their money to lay about and do whatever it is poor people do with their cushy lives, and to adopt the false belief that Barack Obama is changing policy to make that happen more often. Note the difference between Romney's ad and the following ad from Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign. The policy goals expressed are the same in both—work requirements, time limits—but Clinton's ad doesn't frame welfare as undeserving poor people taking money from virtuous middle class people.

When an ad like Romney's arrives, it travels a well-worn path that Republican politicians have been carving for decades. The division between hard-working middle class people and parasitic poor people was the message of this 1972 ad from Democrats for Nixon, in which a hard-hatted construction worker contemplates the droves of new welfare recipients he'll have to pay for (and apparently also contemplates hurling himself to his death over it, if the vertiginous shots are any indication).

Like the Romney ad, this one doesn't mention race, but the Nixon campaign knew exactly what it was doing. So did Ronald Reagan, who famously complained of a mythical "welfare queen" in Chicago who supposedly drove in her Cadillac to get her checks. Here's an excerpt from a February 5, 1976 article in The New York Times, which pointed out that while "the former Governor of California has not made any direct appeals for antiblack votes," his indirect appeals weren't all that subtle:

Last night, for example, at an overflow rally in Fort Lauderdale, he said working people were outraged when they waited in lines at grocery store check-out counters while a "strapping young buck" ahead of them purchased T-bone steaks with food stamps.

The ex-Governor has used the grocery-line illustration before, but in states like New Hampshire where there is scant black population, he has never used the expression "young buck," which, to whites in the South, generally denotes a large black man.

In the years since, prominent Republican politicians have become only marginally more circumspect in the way they talk about the social safety net; you still hear occasional comments like the one Newt Gingrich made earlier this year when he was asked if he would speak before the NAACP, and he replied that if he was invited, "I'll go to their convention and talk about why the African American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps." The point is that when Republicans talk welfare, race is usually a subtext (at least).

by on Nov. 12, 2012 at 11:09 PM
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by Bronze Member on Nov. 13, 2012 at 12:50 AM
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by Member on Nov. 13, 2012 at 8:36 AM
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This well-written and informative article deserved more replies, but people don't like to talk about welfare, do they? It's one of those subjects that makes people uncomfortable, regardless of ones' perspective.

I'll tell you this: It's possible to exist on welfare, I suppose, but you won't do much beyond that. I live in AR. When the unemployment ran out I looked into welfare (TANF,) and the "payments" are so low that supporting oneself while living in a cardboard box would be a stretch. Living on welfare is practically a full-time job, because one cannot live on welfare alone. SNAP is necessary for food, and one must live in some type of government housing while receiving utility assistance, etc. Honest people who turn to welfare as a last resort can't afford to maintain cell phones and they don't have transportation, nor do they have professional outfits for interviews and PC/printer combos for resume' creation. One can get "off" welfare, but it's a downward spiral. Stepping into the welfare system is akin to stumbling into quicksand.

The problem with Romney and many of the Republicans is that they honestly believe people choose to live this way. Romney believes what he said about people never choosing to take responsibility for their own lives, as if thousands of options are available to people on welfare. President Obama is an intelligent man who doesn't want Americans living on welfare, but the circles he's moved in have brought him closer to the dark reality of impoverished minds and purses. 

I don't envy anyone who relies upon welfare. These people don't think they're owed anything, but they'll grasp at every lifeline thrown their way and they'll hang on for dear life until someone leads them to solid ground. The way to stop welfare is not to STOP it, but to help people transition to self-reliance that's real and lasting.

Thanks for this thoughtful article.

by Silver Member on Nov. 13, 2012 at 9:01 AM
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Ok....I have to get real with you ladies on this one.

Like I have said in previous posts.I myself am not on welfare but I am the guardian of my 22 year old disabled cousin who relies on medicaid.I still pay alot of her bills...but with my family of 4 cant keep up with her high medical expenses on a monthly basis.

Her receiving medicaid  has shown me how the system works and could not care for her totally without it.PA is not this stereotypical handout program most make it out to be.You do not get wads of cash like a ATM.You get the bare minimum and state access ALL expenses.I have to do a redetermination for her every 6 months,keeping tally of all bills and expenses turned over for the state to examine.

I also have two friends who are trying to get assistance.One friend is a single woman who is independent a healthcare worker has her own home and has worked her tush off since a teen.She just got diagnosed with RA and is unable to barely walk and use her hands.

My other friend has thrombosis and has to move around in a wheelchair...also worked all of her life.My point is that not everyone on welfare is a scam artist.You have to qualify for hardship,disability(proof by 2 doctors,access medical records),and have to have enough earned point credits for unemployment.My friends despite there dissabilities got denied and now need lawyers.

I know no-one likes tax dollars taken out of their checks.Yet taxes will need to be paid regardless.How does cutting these funds help.I think most agree the middle class needs a tax break.What are we willing to put on the table to work this out is all??

Cutting taxes on the middle class is a win for everyone.

As far as Romney much for passing the olive branch....short

by Member on Nov. 13, 2012 at 9:06 AM
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I am blessed that I haven't had to use Welfare, but I'm glad it's there! I noticed it didn't matter how much education one has. A person's race, religion or zip code didn't matter either. Jobs have been leaving this country for the past 15 years and sooner or later, it was going to catch up.  I know that in areas like NYC, food is SO expensive, what a family receives covers little, if any more than what a family somewhere else might receive.

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