The Center On Budget And Policy Priorities appears to be a wee bit exasperated by a popular conservative talking point that claims that the United States is transmogrifying into an “entitlement society” — a talking point Mitt Romney is particularly keen to repeat — populated by Welfare Queens, moochers, and malingerers who would rather live on the public dole rather than work for a living. Republicans like to claim that helping our neighbors who have fallen on hard times somehow destroys the Puritan work ethic Americans pride themselves on while pickpocketing the greedy to coddle the needy.
Arloc Sherman, Robert Greenstein, and Kathy Ruffing explain that the CBPP examined budget and census data and found that 91% of all benefit dollars assist our old folks, our disabled citizens, dependent children and members of the working poor who are paid such low salaries that they require a little help to thrive (i.e., to not starve). Furthermore, these statistics have not changed much in years. Even though times are tougher, there has not been a huge shift away from providing assistance primarily to the Olds, the disabled, kids or struggling working folks.
CBPP quotes Mitt Romney — while he was promoting drastic cuts to social safety net programs — saying, “we will have created a society that contains a sizable contingent of long-term jobless, dependent on government benefits for survival, [and] government dependency can only foster passivity and sloth.”
Another Republican, former Senator Rick Santorum, sang that same tune when he claimed that the “reach of the government” was expanding and that government assistance programs are “systematically destroying the work ethic.” The message is that benefits promote laziness and discourage finding work.
Only 9% go to people who are neither elderly or disabled and who are living in a non-working household, and even here we have to caution against assuming that everyone falling within that 9% is somehow getting away with government-sanctioned and -supported fraud. About 7% (out of this 9%) funds medical care, unemployment benefits (which you can’t receive unless you have worked long enough to pay into the funds that unemployment benefits are paid out of, and you must be fired or laid off, not quit, to receive them), survivor benefits for spouses and children of deceased individuals (who paid into Social Security), and retiree benefits (also for people who paid into Social Security). “Roughly 2 percent of Social Security and SSI benefit dollars go to people living in institutions.”
Of the remaining 2%, there are some non-entitlement (discretionary) funds which provide various benefits, but typically the need and demand for these assistance programs far outstrips our ability to provide that assistance. For instance, low-income rental assistance programs have more eligible applicants than they have funds available, so many eligible people do not receive benefits they qualify to receive. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) “also have capped funding and may turn away some eligible applicants due to funding limitations.”
Tweaking the numbers– by, say, re-defining what a “working household” is by raising the total required number of hours worked per year from 1,000 to 1,500, or including disabled people who are receiving benefits from sources other than Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Medicare into the calculations — do not dramatically change the stats: we still pay 90-91% of all government assistance to old people, folks who are disabled and unable to work, dependent children, and people who are working but still need a helping hand. As for education-related government assistance, the CBPP says, “If we did include Pell Grants using the available data, the 90 percent figure would not change.”
As the CBPP puts it:
[If] we look only at entitlement programs that are targeted to people with low incomes, the percentage of benefit dollars going to people who are elderly or disabled or members of working households remains high. Five of every six benefit dollars in these programs — 83 percent — go to such people.
If anything, these figures understate the percentage of the benefits that generally go to people who are elderly, disabled, or members of working households. As noted, these data are for fiscal year 2010, a year when the unemployment rate averaged 9.6 percent and an unusually large number of Americans were in economic distress. In fiscal year 2007, the share of entitlement benefits going to people who are elderly or disabled or members of working households was a bit higher.
In short, both the current reality and the trends of recent decades contrast sharply with the critics’ assumption that social programs increasingly are supporting people who can work but choose not to do so.
Many people still buy into the Reagan-era “Welfare Queen” myth which was promoted primarily to make it more palatable to the average citizen when the government cut way back on offering assistance to our neediest citizens. The “Welfare Queen” provided a convenient “Them” to blame, and to resent for taking “Our” money away from “Us.” That the “Welfare Queen” archetype happened to be an African-American woman was also likely to have been no mistake, playing into deeply internalized racist assumptions that even some of the more enlightened among us may be guilty of, and which we are unlikely to examine (and even more unlikely to label as racist if we did examine them). Reagan pointed to a single black welfare abuser in Chicago, exaggerated her misbehavior (for which she was severely punished, by the way) and painted a picture of an ethnic minority drawing most of her income via fraud. This fantasy has proven to be hard for some people to resist buying into: there is still a pall of resentment and an assumption that “our tax dollars” are allowing grifters to live well on unearned funds.
The biggest change in how we dole out welfare to the jobless poor occurred in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1996, legislation was passed that turned welfare into a welfare-to-work program. Those who wish to receive assistance must accept job training and / or apply for work, or they fail to qualify for assistance. Further, programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) are only available to people with dependent children under the age of 18, and TANF is limited to five years. You can’t extend these benefits by having more kids (and additional children do increase benefits slightly, but the costs associated with those children mean that families outstrip the small increase in funds received). It says “temporary” and it means it.
The government also allocated more funds to work-based assistance programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which helps low-income working households. In short, the social safety net in the U.S. has become strongly “work-based.”
Another factor that is rarely considered is that our population is aging. This means that an even larger slice of the assistance pie is going towards seniors and disabled people.
Politicians like to play into the misconception that helping the poor somehow robs the middle class. The middle class — as stats bear out — receives its fair share of benefits: “in 2010, the middle 60 percent of the population received 58 percent of the entitlement benefits. (The top 20 percent of the population received 10 percent of the benefits; the bottom 20 percent received 32 percent of the benefits.)”
Compare this to the tax benefits the government allows (these are also called “tax expenditures”): the top fifth of Americans use tax deductions, tax shelters, tax credits and other write-offs that are incorporated in our federal tax code, and they receive 66% of these tax-based benefits. (The top 1% gets a disproportionately large chunk of these benefits: almost 24%.) To compare, the majority of us — the 60% who fall into the middle range — only get about 31% of tax-based benefits, and the poorest 20% of Americans get less than 3%.
When the rich benefit from a government credit or benefit, however, it isn’t seen as a form of welfare to be begrudged. It is only when the poor — who can not afford to purchase representatives to campaign vociferously on their behalf — appear to be getting a bit of a break from the government that we all — even those of us who also benefit from assistance in some form — seem to take it personally and feel resentment. We direct our ire at the people who are least capable of defending themselves or rallying any support. What’s wrong with this picture? Why do we resent help being offered to those who are in obvious need, but we don’t have a problem with those who are financially comfortable and not in need of any tax breaks getting them?
The CBPP also agrees with the controversial notion that white folks are getting (slightly) more government assistance than non-whites:
Contrary to what a substantial share of Americans may assume, non-Hispanic whites receive slightly more than their proportionate share of entitlement benefits. Non-Hispanic whites accounted for 64 percent of the population in 2010 and received 69 percent of the entitlement benefits. In contrast, Hispanics made up 16 percent of the population but received 12 percent of the benefits, less than their proportionate share — likely because they are a younger population and also because immigrants, including many legal immigrants, are ineligible for various benefits. Non-Hispanic African Americans account for 12 percent of the population and received 14 percent of the benefits.
This analysis uses federal budget data on the benefit costs of various programs and census data showing the percentage of the benefits in each program that go to different groups by age, employment, race, and other such factors. It covers all major entitlement programs except veterans’ programs and military and civil service retirement, which critics presumably do not have in mind when they warn of the dangers of the “entitlement society” in fomenting dependency and sloth. But if we include veterans’ and federal retirement programs, the share of benefits going to the elderly, the disabled, and working households remains unchanged at 91 percent.
The entitlement and mandatory programs covered in the analysis are Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, SNAP (formerly known as the Food Stamp Program), SSI, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the school lunch program, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), the Earned Income Tax Credit, and the refundable component of the Child Tax Credit. This is the full list of entitlement or mandatory programs (other than the veterans’ and federal retirement programs) for which the Census Bureau collects data on which beneficiaries receive them.
Academic research into government assistance bears the CBPP’s statistics and findings out:
In a major report on U.S. social programs last year (Yonatan Ben-Shalom, Robert Moffitt, and John Karl Scholz, “An Assessment of the Effectiveness of Anti-Poverty Programs in the United States,” National Bureau of Economic Research, May 2011, pp. 36-37), leading researchers concluded:
“First, the U.S. system favors groups with special needs, such as the disabled and the elderly. Groups like these which are perceived as especially deserving receive disproportionate transfers and those transfers have been increasing over time. Second, the system favors workers over non-workers and has increasingly done so over time. The rise of the EITC and the decline of [...] TANF is most illustrative of this trend.”
The study also found that “the demographic group which is most under-served by the system are non-elderly non-disabled families with no continuously-employed members.”
In other words, the group least likely to be getting any assistance is the only group that could possibly fit into the Republican narrative of these hypothetical able-bodied but “lazy” unemployed people who supposedly hate work. People who might fit into that category are definitely not making out like bandits with “our” tax dollars, especially if you pause to consider that, for example, someone receiving food stamps (SNAP) is going to have to make do with about $29 a week (on average) which is offered via a debit-like card (contrary to resentful fantasies of poor folks passing around paper-based food stamp bucks for non-food luxuries) and which is strictly limited to only food items (not diapers, not tampons, not pet food or aspirin or toilet paper or shampoo, or soap, razors, toothpaste, vitamins and so on). Yes, you can technically buy your neighbor some groceries in exchange for him or her buying you some toothpaste, and then swap; if you have no income whatsoever, then you might have no choice but to do that (or have furry, disgusting teeth).
We also need to stop being resentful of the type of help the poor receive. One common theme I see is resentment towards poor people with “iPhones.” Forgetting for a minute that it is possible to buy material goods — or receive them as a gift, or borrow them from better-off friends or family members — before falling on hard times and applying for government assistance, the truth is that the government has been in the business of helping the very poor get access to phones since the early 1980s. Today the government provides the very poor with pre-paid phones that look a bit like iPhones at a glance but aren’t. You need a phone to apply for work, and most current welfare programs — especially since the mid-1990s — are now welfare-to-work programs.
To those having a shit fit because you think you saw a poor person with a phone you covet: If you would not trade places with a poor person on assistance just so you, too, could get a “free” loaner “Obamaphone” from the government, perhaps you should chill out with the nasty resentful comments. Count your blessings.
The reality is that only a small fraction of that already small 2% of all government assistance recipients even remotely resemble the Hypothetical Moocher that politicians like Romney like to stir up disdain for, and those people are likely to be unable to stay on assistance in perpetuity even if they wanted to (which they probably don’t, because living on assistance is not a picnic). Our system doesn’t work like that any more! If you want a welfare check, then you must work or get job training, no exceptions.
It is more likely that there will be more eligible people needing help from a particular assistance program who will not be served regardless of their need because the budget can’t cover them. It is more likely that food stamps help someone starve slightly more slowly than they would otherwise without that help, not that they are using food stamps to buy steak and lobster. It is more likely that the assistance someone is receiving is something that they paid their fair share into, through FICA payroll deductions, or taxes, or by serving their country in the military. It is more likely that the recipient of assistance is a senior, or a baby or little child getting medical or food assistance, or someone who is suffering from a disability who can’t work even if they would really love to, or someone who actually is working but who is still struggling desperately to get by, because 91% of assistance recipients fit those descriptions.
We need to stop denying statistics and facts, even when they don’t align with what we want desperately to believe. As long as we can delude ourselves into classifying all people receiving some form of government assistance as “Others” who don’t “deserve” help, we can pretend that we will never experience a set-back in life. We make smart choices! We are responsible! We have a good work ethic and aren’t lazy! We aren’t like Them. We will never be like Them, because we know better than They do. Their unemployment must be due to some personality defect or lack of skills or lack of effort on their part. They shouldn’t have had that many kids if they can’t afford them. They shouldn’t buy food I disapprove of if they are going to use food stamps. I’m no doctor or anything, but that person doesn’t look disabled or handicapped to me. Those people have never paid taxes into the system like I have, so they are getting “my” money…
Hey, guess what? Stuff happens…even to good people, responsible people, hard-working people. That person getting treated like garbage could be you one day. If you lost your job, would you be OK? If your spouse or parent died or became disabled, would you turn your nose up at assistance if turning it down meant you or your kids would be hungry or sick? If you were in a serious car accident and disabled, or diagnosed with cancer, or you or your partner, child, or parent became seriously physically or mentally ill, could you get by without any help from anyone?
I ask you: can we PLEASE try not to be such raging assholes toward the needy? I mean, seriously. Isn’t it bad enough that we have some of our politicians sneering at them without gleefully buying into it and joining in? A lack of compassion and empathy will not serve as bullet-proof protection from misfortune.
Meanwhile, the wealthy enjoy “government assistance” in the form of tax breaks and subsidies and credits and refunds, but that’s different. They are “job creators,” amirite? Our system is heavily weighted in favor of the financially comfortable as it is, and certain people within this system are increasingly eager to promote and encourage a “let them die” attitude toward the poor, all while letting the majority of us bask in the comforting fiction that we are immune to misfortune as long as we do our best and that we will never be on the wrong end of a bad situation or someone else’s callous attitude ourselves. Being cruel to the weakest and most defenseless members of society is borderline sociopathic and wrong. We are better than that.