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The most famous myth about welfare may be the one begun by Ronald Reagan on the 1976 campaign trail: the story of a woman from Chicago's South Side who was arrested for welfare fraud. "She has 80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards and is collecting veteran's benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She's got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names." Many investigative reporters tried to track down this "Welfare Queen". She didn't exist. David Zucchino, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, spent a year with two welfare mothers in Philadelphia and wrote a book comparing the image to the reality in The Myth of the Welfare Queen. (reprinted in 1999)

There are many more myths about welfare. These are eight of the most damaging -- not just to welfare recipients, but to society:

MYTH: Poverty and homelessness have grown in spite of the trillions of dollars spent since 1965 to help the poor; therefore, these programs have failed.

FACT: These programs have succeeded and are succeeding in getting people out of poverty and homelessness. As Michael Harrington reported in The Other America (originally printed 1962, most recently printed 1997) not everyone was living like Ward and June Cleaver in the 1950's. Poverty hovered around 20 percent. In 1964, Johnson declared "war on poverty" with his "Great Society" program. The increased welfare payments reduced poverty to 12 percent by the end of the 60s.

As Nancy Amidei said in a speech at the Family Reunion conference in Tennessee, 1992: "Joan Growe, the Secretary of State of Minnesota is a former welfare mom. Judge Sedgewick, an appeals court judge, is a former welfare mom. Two members of the Montana legislature, two members of the Wisconsin legislature, a couple members of the Pennsylvania legislature. (Probably members of the Tennessee legislature are all former welfare moms.) Whoopi Goldberg is a former welfare mom. Carol Burnett is a former welfare kid. Bishop Weakland in Milwaukee is a former welfare kid. Six members of Congress (that I have been able to identify) are former welfare kids. I have run into former welfare kids and former welfare moms who are now PhDs and County Executives, nurses, career Army officials, police, Head Start aides. They are all over the place; they are terrific people and they are welfare success stories."

More people, new people, become poor and homeless daily, therefore the numbers grow. The increase in poverty and homelessness is due to grave problems in our economy, like the income of the lower 20 percent of the economy falling during the "economic boom", 6 out of 10 of the "new jobs" being under $10 an hour -- a wage at which no one can afford a market rate apartment -- racism (the median income of a Hispanic family is $3000 a YEAR), sexism, and a widening income gap. It is not due to welfare programs failing.

Online reference: United for a Fair Economy

Print reference: The Color of Welfare: How Racism Undermined the War on Poverty, Jill Quadagno, 1996

MYTH: Supporting welfare is a burden causing financial hardship to working class Americans.

FACT: Together, AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) and Food Stamps are by far the largest items of the welfare budget. Yet in 1992, AFDC formed only 1 percent of the combined state and federal budgets. Food stamps also took up 1 percent. (Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service, "Cash and Noncash Benefits for Persons with Limited Income: Eligibility Rules, Recipient and Expenditure Data, FY 1990-92," Report 93-832 EPW and earlier reports.) If you expand the definition of "welfare" to include all one-way transfers of benefits for which no services or repayment are required in exchange (such as student grants, school lunches and pensions for needy veterans) then welfare takes up only 12 percent of the combined budgets. (Sources: Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service, "Cash and Noncash Benefits for Persons with Limited Income: Eligibility Rules, Recipient and Expenditure Data, FY 1990-92," Report 93-832 EPW, and earlier reports; U.S. Bureau of the Census, Government Finances, series GF, No. 5, 1992.)

What is creating a financial hardship on working- and middle-class Americans? The rising percentage of American wealth gravitating to the top 1% of the population.

A counter-argument says that money given to wealthy citizens and corporations gets spent in ways that benefit the rest of the economy, and all people, including charitable donations. Yet money that is given to the very poor also gets spent: locally, in ways that benefit the grocer and the landlord and other small businesses. Money that goes to the wealthy often ends up being saved or invested overseas, circulated back into stocks that continue to drive up inflation, or spent on expensive houses that got built where affordable housing used to be.

In 1990, the poorest income group -- under $10,000 -- actually gave the highest share to charity: 5.5 percent. (Survey by Gallup Organization and Independent Sector, cited by Boston Globe, "U.S. Charities See Increase in Gifts," December 16, 1990)

From http://www.huppi.com/kangaroo/Inequality&Health.htm
"Two recent studies, published in April in the BRITISH MEDICAL JOURNAL, examine all 50 states within the U.S. Each study defines a measure of income inequality and compares it to various rates of disease and other social problems. It is the gap between rich and poor, and not the average income in each state, that best predicts the death rate in each state. States with greater inequality in the distribution of income also had higher rates of unemployment, higher rates of incarceration, a higher percentage of people receiving income assistance and food stamps, and a greater percentage of people without medical insurance.

"Interestingly, states with greater inequality of income distribution also spent less per person on education, had fewer books per person in the schools, and had poorer educational performance, including worse reading skills, worse math skills, and lower rates of completion of high school."

Online references:
United for a Fair Economy
Steve Kanga's research

Print references:
Economic Apartheid in America
Chuck Collins & Felice Yeskel, 2000

The Ultimate Field Guide to the U.S. Economy
James Heintz (Editor), Nancy Folbre, The Center for Popular Economics, United For a Fair Economy, National Priorities Project: 2000

Falling from Grace: Downward Mobility in the Age of Affluence
Katherine S. Newman, 1999

MYTH: Welfare recipients commit a lot of fraud, at the expense of American working people.

FACT: Besides the fact that a lot of welfare recipients are American working people, a study in Massachusetts showed that vendors committed 93% of welfare fraud. This aspect of the welfare system drastically needs reform: it is harming recipients as well as taxpayers. But all of the political attention is on limiting the amount of money going to recipients.

And although the fraud by welfare vendors is terrible, it is a drop in the bucket compared to the burdens on the American taxpayer of military fraud, government waste, and corporate welfare. The Savings and Loan bailout alone cost $132 billion.

Online reference:
Steve Kanga's research

Printed references:
Take the Rich Off Welfare Mark Zepezauer & Arthur Naiman
Odonian Press, 1996, $9.00
review at Active Books

So You Think I Drive a Cadillac?
Karen Seccombe, 1998

MYTH: Welfare dependency is the result of the moral failings of poor people: addiction, unwillingness to work, lack of family values and sexual control.

FACT: People need assistance when they are in financial hardship, and they are usually in financial hardship for economic reasons.

From the National Coalition on Homelessness
"While the last few years have seen growth in real wages at all levels, these increases have not been enough to counteract a long pattern of stagnant and declining wages. Low-wage workers have been particularly hard hit by wage trends. Despite recent increases in the minimum wage, the real value of the minimum wage in 1997 was 18.1% less than in 1979 (Mishel, Bernstein, and Schmitt, 1999). Factors contributing to wage declines include a steep drop in the number and bargaining power of unionized workers; erosion in the value of the minimum wage; a decline in manufacturing jobs and the corresponding expansion of lower-paying service-sector employment; globalization; and increased nonstandard work, such as temporary and part-time employment (Mishel, Bernstein, and Schmitt, 1999)."

I'll take the individual accusations one at a time.

MYTH: People are poor because they are addicts or alcoholics.

FACT: Alcoholism and addiction are not limited to poor people: they are found at all levels of society, up to the Presidency. While epidemiologists debate whether alcoholism and addiction are most likely to be found in certain social classes or ethnic groups than others, they generally agree that they are more likely to be the result of the stresses of poverty than the primary cause. Something to remember, though, is that addiction often depends on availability. The addictions of poor people are limited by income. Compare this to physicians, for instance, who have the greatest exposure and easiest access to opiates: their addiction rates are higher than those of most if not all other professional groups, but they are not living in poverty.

MYTH: People are poor because they are lazy.

FACT: Single parents on welfare are certainly not lazy: ask any parent how "restful" it is to be at home with a small child! All parents, not only welfare mothers, should have the choice of staying home to care for their own children, and most middle class mothers do not work full time when their children are young. It is still controversial whether children benefit most from full-time parenting or from parents who work outside the home, giving the children some exposure to day-centers and other social settings outside the home. But the Republicans who most strongly push for welfare reform that forces young mothers in poverty to work outside the home are the ones who most strongly insist that all mothers should stay home with their young children and not work!

Moreover, many people who work full-time qualify for food stamps, subsidized housing and other forms of "welfare": there is no city in the United States where a person earning minimum wage can afford a market rate apartment.

The majority of people on welfare have been in and out of the work force, returning to the welfare rolls when they lost their job or disaster (illness, car accident, house fire) struck.

From Steve Kanga's research:
Time on AFDC Overview of Entitlement Programs, Committee on Ways and Means, U.S. House of Representatives (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1994)
Less than 7 months 19.0%
7 to 12 months 15.2
One to two years 19.3
Two to five years 26.9
Over five years 19.6

The largest single group "on welfare" is children -- about one in every four children under the age of 18 receives welfare benefits. America has the greatest level of child poverty anywhere in the industrialized world:

Percent of children below the poverty level (U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports, P60-185)
1970 14.9%
1975 16.8
1980 19.5
1985 20.1
1990 19.9
1992 21.1

The drop in the welfare rolls has corresponded with a rise in child poverty and child hunger. This is enforcing family values how?

Print references:
Making Ends Meet: How Single Mothers Survive Poverty and Low-Wage Work
Kathryn Edin & Laura Lein, 1997

No Shame in My Game: The Working Poor in the Inner City
Katherine S. Newman, 2000

MYTH: Most of the people on welfare are unmarried mothers who have extra children so that they can get more money.

FACT: Although one in four children under 18 receives welfare benefits, that does not mean that a few women on welfare have lots of children. From official government figures, "The average monthly number of TANF families was 3,176,000 in fiscal year (FY) 1998. The estimated total number of TANF recipients was 2,631,000 adults and 6,273,000 children. The average number of persons in TANF families was 2.8 persons. The TANF families averaged 2 recipient children, which remained unchanged. Two in five families had only one child. One in 10 families had more than three children."

Other sources:

MYTH: Welfare rewards people for doing nothing, destroying their dignity and character.

FACT: A study by the Cato Institute claimed to prove that welfare paid better than work (at least, low-wage work) therefore logically no one would choose to work if they could go on welfare! The study, however, was later shown to be flawed.

In March 1987, the General Accounting Office released a report that summarized more than one hundred studies of welfare since 1975. It found that "research does not support the view that welfare encourages two-parent family breakup" or that it significantly reduces the incentive to work. The GOA report was summarized in Frances Piven and Richard Cloward, "The Historical Sources of the Contemporary Relief Debate," The Mean Season: The Attack on the Welfare State, Fred Block, Richard Cloward, Barbara Ehrenriech and France Piven, editors, (New York: Pantheon, 1987), pp. 58-62


The root of most opposition to welfare, among Conservatives and Libertarians, is the argument "The `Welfare State' is a threat to liberty. Welfare threatens to make all citizens dependent on a central government. The Welfare system gives government too much power. People who work for their own income are more independent. People who are not taxed to support others are more independent. Therefore doing away with the welfare system will promote independence and liberty."

This argument is not subject to factual analysis. It is basically a matter of philosophy. Do you believe that human beings are interdependent on each other: that we are not only nobler, but wiser, when we help each other out over rough spots? Or do you believe that the human race is stronger when people who can not make it through rough spots on their own are allowed to die? Do you believe that each of us is the beneficiary of countless good things we did not create and gifts we did not earn: electricity, medical hygiene, computer technology, the printing press, to name a few? Or do you believe that you are entirely a "self-made person"? Do you believe that government is a social compact to keep us off each other's backs, or a social compact to care for each other?

The Breaking of the American Social Compact
Francis Fox Piven & Richard Cloward, 1998

Whatever you believe, be sure that you are aware of your assumptions -- and that you aren't basing any of your arguments on myths.

Toward a greater society—
Anitra L. Freeman

Anitra Freeman Column Directory

The Bird Homeless