For decades there has been this public demonization and judgment of the poor and those on entitlements as lazy freeloaders. This demonization isn’t just by the rich, or just by Republicans, it is by Democrats, the middle class and other poor people alike. People complain that they don’t want their hard earned dollars going to people who feel entitled and don’t work. This generalization of the poor and people on entitlements neglects the small portion of their taxes that actually goes to welfare recipients, that most people using benefits have paid into these programs, and that most are not lazy. More importantly, these views fail to coincide with facts. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out that, “Federal budget and Census data show that, in 2010, 91 percent of the benefit dollars from entitlement and other mandatory programs went to the elderly (people 65 and over), the seriously disabled, and members of working households. People who are neither elderly nor disabled—and do not live in a working household—received only 9 percent of benefits.”
Let’s start with some facts given by The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities on what was spent in 2010 on mandatory federal entitlement programs:
- 53 percent went to Americans 65 or older.
- 20 percent to non-elderly permanently disabled Americans.
- 18 percent to families with at least one wage-earner who qualified for programs such as Medicaid.
- Only 7 percent of households received some sort of direct cash assistance, such as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, also known as the welfare program. (Notice, a small percentage is direct cash.)
- This means that 9/10 of entitlement benefits go to the elderly, disabled or those working.
How much of your money really goes to welfare
In his article for The Examiner, Lou Colagiovanni shows how people’s taxes are broken down into categories. Most of your taxes (48%) go to National Defense and Health Care (Medicare). 19.1% of your tax money goes to Job and Family Security; this is where money for welfare is taken from. The 19.1% of taxes given to Job and Family Security is then broken down into 9 groups, among them are:
- Unemployment Insurance (2.3%)
- Food and Nutrition Assistance (3.7%, this is where money for food stamps comes from)
- Temporary Assistance for Needy Families TANF (welfare) (0.7%). Did you see that? 0.7% of the 19.1% given to Job and Family Security is the percentage of your taxes that goes to welfare.
- There are currently 4.4 million people on TANF
So let’s say you’re making $50,000/year, according to those percentages you’re paying: $22.98/year in Unemployment Insurance, $36.82/year for Food and Nutrition Assistance, and A WHOPPING $6.96/year for TANF. A lot less than you thought right? That $36 that goes to Food and Nutrition Assistance not only goes to food stamps, it also goes to the school lunch program and the special supplemental food program for women, infants and children (WIC). Does it really bother you that your money is going to help these programs? Really? Is allowing them to starve better? Don’t just think of poor people as adults, as millions of them are children.
True story: You can work (hard) and still be poor
Maybe you don’t care how little of your money is going to help the poor because you believe they are lazy, probably illegal immigrants and entitled welfare queens and you shouldn’t be held responsible. The problem with this kind of thinking is that it fails to take into account the working poor, social inequity and personal circumstance. Here are some facts from The Working Poor Families Project:
- There are 10.2 million low-income WORKING FAMILIES in the US.
- More than 46 million people, including 23 million children live in these low-income working families.
- Almost 1 in 3 working US families struggle to meet basic needs.
- 72% of low-income families work and the average annual low-income working families work 2,552 hours. That is roughly one and one-quarter full-time jobs.
- 52% of low-income working families are headed by married couples.
People work and still don’t make enough to cover their expenses, not to mention that a large amount of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. While the wages for CEOs have gone up, median family income has declined. Many poor people cannot find full-time jobs, or can only get entry-level jobs, which pay about $25,000/year. These jobs provide inadequate benefits and fail to provide economic security or opportunity for advancement. From airplane pilots to Wal-Mart workers it is nothing new to hear that people do not make enough money to support their families and supplement their earnings with government benefits. The statistics show that most people are poor not from lack of discipline, or laziness, but because they are not making enough money to support themselves. Partly this has to do with the fact that big corporations lobby so that they do not have to provide their workers benefits or adequate income, and also lobby to keep the minimum wage low. Why can’t billion dollar corporations pay people a wage they can live on? America has the highest percentage of low-wage workers, those who earn less than two-thirds of the median wage of any developed nation.
This argument that people are poor because they are lazy, and that if they only worked hard and were disciplined they wouldn’t need help is heard everywhere, but it is such B.S. My whole life I have seen Mexican men and women break their backs picking fruit, mowing lawns, working their asses off day-in and day-out and are still poor. To believe that hard work automatically makes you rich, or self-sufficient is not completely accurate. Maybe you come from a poor family that never needed or resorted to welfare, or food stamps, but not all families are like yours. This is a failure to realize and even grasp the depth of some people’s poverty—a failure to realize that poor people start from a lower level. This neglects the fact that not all people have the same resources, education; it neglects entrenched social inequalities (the high number of black and Hispanic men in jail compared to white men), that some are mentally ill or disabled and that some don’t have family or friends to help them. This belief that anyone can make it if they work hard isn’t necessarily true and currently social mobility in America is moving in reverse. Jason DeParle of the NY Times writes that since the 1970s fewer people have been able to move up the economic ladder and many European countries and Canada have surpassed us in social mobility. Your family background is starting to play a huge role in whether you will succeed. People who espouse this belief that the poor are lazy and deserve to be out in the street fail to take these things into consideration.
The other thing that doesn’t get mentioned is how many people who need assistance are not proud of having to do so – that it is extremely dispiriting. That they are embarrassed, that they DON’T WANT TO HAVE TO use government aid. All it takes is for your child to get cancer, for you to lose your job, to be involved in a serious accident to end up needing help. So before you judge the poor, think. Have some empathy. Imagine the desperation, the fear of not being able to feed your kids – provide them the basic necessities, the distress of not being able to keep the lights on or turn the water on. There are so many who feel embarrassment and humiliation at not being able to be fully independent or fully provide for their families despite their hard work.
I don’t deny that there are many people taking advantage of the system, that we need different and better incentives, that some people refuse to help themselves and that being on welfare can make many people complacent, but the facts show that most people on entitlements are not lazy or committing fraud. Neither do I think that we should just throw money at the poor to get them out of poverty, we need programs that advance the skills of adult workers and invest in job training and education. So I’m all for entitlement reform that stops waste, and yes, let’s find those who abuse the system, but to just blame poor people for fraud is deceitful. A lot of the fraud that occurs within Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid has to do with medical providers, suppliers and federal employees who receive funds improperly and over charge the government (and yet keep their respectability). It is hypocritical to discuss fraud and not mention the health care companies and employees that partake.
Some politicians and news correspondents with their rhetoric would like you to believe that the country’s problems have to do with helping the poor, when it actually has more to do with bailing out greedy banks, spending millions on defense, and an expensive and inefficient health care system (read the Times article “Bitter Pill”). People speak of the poor with so much disdain and anger, when greedy-ass banks that cheated people out of their homes and pensions—for money—don’t receive the same backlash. Instead of being pissed your money goes to helping the poor, be more pissed at the subsidies we give to billion dollar corporations like Exxon or GE and the millions that go to banks. What we have is socialism for the rich. Banks privatize profits, while making public all of its losses. The way I see it, if we can allow tax cuts for the richest, and burn millions on killing people overseas then we can help the poor and feed hungry children so they are better prepared to learn and excel. This rhetoric that most people using benefits are moochers does not line up with the facts. As The Center for American Progress points out, there needs to be an honest debate about who receives benefits and for what purposes.“Federal programs that help reduce poverty and grow the middle class help our national economy and our nation remain strong and competitive.” A lot of politicians say that this is a Christian nation, so as my favorite Catholic Stephen Colbert says, “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”
If you would like to do something about poverty – you can. According to Working Poor Families we need to develop new policies that affect low-income working families. We need to focus the nation’s attention on poverty. We can start by improving education and giving all children an equal opportunity for success. President Obama has not mentioned poverty at all and neither has Congress. Write to your member of Congress – or write to President Obama: http://www.whitehouse.gov/contact.
To find out who your representative is: http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/
TANF Facts http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/ofa/resource/2011-recipient-tan
Info on Immigrant Welfare Use http://www.cis.org/immigrant-welfare-use-2011
SNAP Facts (food stamps) http://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/outreach/Translations/English/10facts.htm