Disrobing the Welfare Queen

"When young people think about welfare, they usually picture an urban-dwelling (frequently black) single mother of six sitting in front of the television. The last person most people would picture is my mother: a divorced, visually-impaired white mother of two, working and attending school to become a lawyer."
Most middle class kids don't think much about the issue of welfare. When young people do think about the issue, they often picture the stereotype fed to the public by right-wing politicians for over a decade: an urban-dwelling (usually black) single mother of six sitting in front of the television while collecting fat tax-funded checks. They imagine the mythical "Welfare Queen," an image Ronald Reagan first conjured up during a speech in the 1980s. And why shouldn't Americans be appalled at the thought of these irresponsible, lazy people taking the American taxpayers for a ride, burdening everyone else by not working?

In fact, when imagining welfare recipients, the last person most people would picture is my mother: a divorced, visually-impaired white mother of two, working and attending school -- who eventually became a successful lawyer.

Although my mother collected welfare in the seventies, a lot of sources indicate the picture is pretty similar today. Working-class advocate Michael Moore says of the welfare stereotype: "Aside from the fact that it's racist, it's just not true. According to the U.S. government, the majority of welfare recipients are white, live in the suburbs, have two kids, want to work, and stay on welfare an average of only two years."

The picture painted by welfare critics doesn't stand up to facts:

* A Kentucky Youth Advocates report shows that 78% percent of Kentucky recipients are white.

* While critics associate welfare with teen pregnancy, only 7% of non-dependent welfare recipients are teen parents. In his book, The Scapegoat Generation, Mike A. Males showed that states with higher welfare benefits had lower rates of teen pregnancy.

* The whole idea of the "lazy young mothers on welfare who keep having babies" is wrong. "I had a male worker come to my house in 1973," my mom said, "and ask me what form of birth control I was using, which I really thought was none of his business... I suppose that some people would say, well if we the taxpayers are paying for you we're certainly entitled to know that you're not out making more babies to get bigger checks... [That] is a fallacious argument because you can't have enough babies to get a big enough check to pay for all those babies. The amount of extra money you get is not enough to pay the additional expenses for that child."

* The most ridiculous idea is that welfare recipients simply refuse to work for a living: they are lazy bums taking us all for a ride. Mike Males says: "Of course [welfare] recipients don't 'work.' Two-thirds of its beneficiaries are children... Two-thirds of the parents... are disabled. Thus at most, one-fifth of AFDC beneficiaries are 'able-bodied' non-workers."

* Of course, most of these "lazy" welfare mothers are indeed working: they're single-handedly caring for their family, which partially explains their trouble in finding decent work. "The anachronism that women, single or otherwise, who maintain households and raise children do not 'work' was buried until the AFDC debate resurrected it," says Males.

Why People Need Welfare

Despite the talk of a "booming economy," people are falling on hard times as much as ever, for a number of reasons.

The current trend in corporate downsizing is one factor. In the past 15 years or so, we've seen profitable corporations laying off tens of thousands of workers in the U.S. and taking their production to countries with looser labor laws, thereby lowering production costs. This trend has devastated local economies, as was dramatized sharply in the documentary Roger & Me. The victims of downsizing, hardworking people who have sometimes worked for a company for decades, often have no choice but to go on welfare -- and the loss of jobs means fewer alternatives for those already unemployed.

People who deride the poor for laziness are out of touch with the difficulty of finding decent jobs. It's hard enough to get any job if you're poor, and have little or no higher education or training (like many welfare recipients).

For most people in this position, a minimum wage job is all they can get. A 1997 report by Kentucky Youth Advocates says that "The minimum wage falls $14,188 short of the basic [annual] cost of living for a family of three in Louisville," including clothes, health care, child care, utilities, and public transportation. "According to the Legislative Research Commission, 21% of Kentuckians are in jobs paying the minimum wage... Families transitioning from welfare to work will not be able to meet necessary, barebones expenses if they secure only minimum wage jobs." (Second Harvest, a national food distribution service, reported that forty percent of families using charity to get by have someone working, but find that it is just not enough.)

Kentucky Youth Adovocates also estimates that an hourly wage of $12.45 would be necessary to cover the full cost of living for a family of three. How many jobs that pay $12.45 an hour are available to poor people with no degree, little or no training, bad credit, and who can't even get a nice suit for a job interview?

And while millions of Americans have long faced insufficient wages, the problem seems to be worsening for many. In real terms (that is, accounting for inflation), workers have seen their wages decline in recent years, even as corporate profits climb.

As mentioned before, it's hard enough for single mothers to raise their children. How can they be expected to work, too? Child care opportunities just aren't available for everyone. You can't just "go out and get a job" if it means leaving your kids home alone.

Ironically, the conservative politicians who advocate government subsidization for middle-class women to stay home with their children are the same ones who want poor mothers to work, no matter what.

"Burdened Taxpayers?"

While conservatives talk about welfare recipients being a burden on the public, many don't realize how little we spend on public assistance. The attack on social spending is based on myth. In 1996, all spending on "welfare" programs, including food stamps, free school lunches, unemployment checks, housing assistance, legal defense and the rest came to somewhere around $130 billion. Only counting direct assistance programs like AFDC, however, it was about $50 billion -- approximately 4% of the $1.23 trillion budget.

When compared to the whole federal budget, the money spent on welfare is trifling, especially when you look at other, truly wasteful federal budget items. Waste and fraud in military spending cost an estimated of $172 billion, while a host of business subsidies -- no-strings federal gifts to profitable corporations -- cost another estimated $170 billion in taxes. Then there are capital gains and other tax loopholes benefiting the wealthy that cost over $130 billion a year.

It looks like the "burdened taxpayers" have bigger things to worry about besides welfare.

Dismantling the Safety Net

The above budget figures were effective before the 1995 - 1996 legislative frenzy that ripped AFDC and other public assistance to shreds. The individual states are now taking over, kicking people off welfare by the hundreds of thousands. Georgia Representative John Lewis (a prominent figure in the civil rights movement), characterized this "reform" as "heartless, mean-spirited, low-down and dangerous." Under the new standards, my mother may well have been kicked off long before they could get by on their own. In the new system, my mom said, "I'd be in a world of hurt, because they don't have the financial aid for college that they had before, they don't have special programs to assist single mothers that they had before, the funding has dried up. And I don't know what happens when you tell someone that in two years you're off welfare no matter what -- not allowing for family circumstances, or whether you have a support system."

New York City is using "workfare" programs, where recipients are forced to work in city-run programs. Common sense says that it should be illegal for the government to make poor people work for less than the legal minimum wage, but these programs are being widely lauded in the mainstream media. Workfare participants are deprived of even the most basic labor rights, and must concede to whatever is demanded of them, lest they risk losing their below-subsistence income. And if all goes as planned, hundreds of thousands of people across the country will be put into these programs. This is labor exploitation, plain and simple.

The incredible and ironic thing about this war on the working class is that it is being carried out by politicians who purport to defend "family values." While they talk about family values, they not only push economic interests that result in wage decline and downsizing, but they also tear away what social support systems there are. These policies have the predictable effects of propelling malnutrition, parental neglect, crime, alcoholism and family breakdown amongst working class people. Their "family values" are pretty strange, if you ask me.

It's easy to criticize people on welfare when you haven't been in their shoes. Imagine if your parents were out of work and had to take care of you; how would you feel if someone called your mother a "lazy bum" and wanted to take your grocery money away? Everyone needs a chance to have a future -- not just those who can afford it.

This article originally appeared at Brat Online. Nathan Tobin can be reached at [email protected]
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