Some myths never die, they just get recycled with every passing generation.
Back in the 1970s, the first time Ronald Reagan ran for president, he spun a tale about “strapping young bucks” buying T-bone steaks with food stamps. Not because it had happened, let alone because he had witnessed it, but rather, because he knew it would play well with a public predisposed to think the worst of persons receiving so-called “welfare” benefits. Especially if the persons they were asked to imagine were black (as was surely the case here, given the longstanding racialized term Reagan had used).
Since then, I’ve heard one or another version of the T-bone story, always updated to sound even more profligate and thus to enrage a public raised on anti-welfare rhetoric for at least a half-century. First, the T-bone morphed into the more prestigious filet mignon, then shrimp, and most recently “king crab legs,” when described by U.S. Congressman Louis Gohmert on the floor of the House a few years ago.
To hear these stories, one would believe — and they are told so that you will believe — that poor people are regularly living it up at taxpayer expense and gorging themselves on cuisine that most Americans can’t afford. And it is this indignity — that people on food stamps are eating better than you — that is most calculated to inflame the passions.
Thus, the other part of these stories always involves the witness to food stamp gluttony seething as they sheepishly or perhaps angrily take the pedestrian ground chuck from their own basket, now rendered the equivalent of a culinary cuckold to the dishonest and shameless grifter paying for Lobster with an EBT card.
But as with most urban legends, these too are mostly mythical: not because there are no attempts to game the system — of course there are. But because the way nutrition assistance works, it is doubtful that such spendthriftiness would become a norm for anyone receiving it.
After all, when the average amount of benefits under the SNAP program (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or what used to be called food stamps) is only $125 per person per month (or $1.38 per meal), it’s pretty hard to imagine recipients enjoying many prime cuts of meat, seafood or cedar-planked salmon with a red pepper coulis. It’s not as if an EBT card refills upon depletion like a coffee cup at the Waffle House. When the monthly benefits are gone, they’re gone. Such profligacy, in other words, would leave a family pretty bereft of nutrition for the rest of the month, suggesting it’s not a mistake one would likely make twice, even were one inclined to splurge the first time.
Sadly, stereotypes about those who avail themselves of various public assistance programs are common. Our assumptions about poor people, after all, are distorted by a national mythology that says “anyone can make it in America if they try.” Thus, when some don’t, our default position is to blame them, to search for some personal or even cultural pathology to which we can ascribe their misfortune.
And although government aid to the poor was not always stigmatized as it is today — in the wake of the Depression when blacks were largely barred from such programs (and whites didn’t mind when it was only people like us reaping the benefits) — today the racialization of welfare has assured a far less tolerant stance towards those in need.
And this it has done, despite all the evidence to suggest that virtually everything the right-wing says about welfare recipients is false. So while reactionary rock stars like Ben Shapiro enjoy pithily telling leftists “facts don’t care about your feelings,” it appears that the bigger problem is…
Conservatives don’t much care about facts.
Talking About Welfare as if Facts Matter: Cash and “Food Stamps”
So let’s look at the two principal “welfare” programs about which most complaints are levied. Although there are many strands to the nation’s safety net, including dozens of small programs aimed at people with particular needs (foster care assistance, meal delivery programs for elderly shut-ins, disability payments, etc.), when we hear of welfare “fraud,” or complaints about recipients who are looking for handouts, it is typically two programs about which critics are complaining. Namely, cash assistance (now called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF), and SNAP.
Additional criticism is aimed at housing assistance and Medicaid, which I’ll explore below as well, but the first two of these are the programs that usually draw the most fire, so I’ll begin there.
First is TANF, or what used to be called AFDC (Aid to Families With Dependent Children). This is the primary cash program operated by the federal government, in conjunction with the states, and it is the program that was the primary target of welfare “reformers” in the mid 1990s, who imposed limitations on the amount of money available for such efforts as well as time constraints as to how long recipients could receive benefits.
To hear most folks tell it, one would think the cash program had never been cut back at all. Indeed, critics speak of the program as if it were a significant budgetary item, reaching large numbers of people, and merely offering them checks to sit around and do nothing while the rest of us work hard every day.
But in truth, the number of Americans receiving cash assistance has plummeted. Only 1.2 million families in the entire country have a family member who receives TANF, and for over half of these, only a child or children are receiving benefits, with no additional allotment for the parent or parents in the home. In all, only 2.7 million persons are receiving TANF benefits (about 0.8 percent of the population), over three-quarters of whom are kids. Only around 637,000 adults in the entire United States receive cash welfare benefits.
Racially, 31 percent of adult TANF recipients are black, meaning that fewer than 200,000 black adults in the entire nation receive cash welfare. In a society with approximately 30 million African American adults in all, this means that fewer than 0.7 percent of black adults in the country are cash welfare recipients.
To visualize this statistic, imagine 10,000 randomly selected black adults brought together in a large arena. Now ask yourself, how many of them do you figure are receiving cash welfare — monthly checks, so to speak — from the government? Imagine asking your friends that question, or your parents, or your FOX-news loving uncle. While many if not most would likely guess half of them, or a third (between, say, 3000 and 5000), the correct answer is fewer than 70. If people’s lives depended on answering that question with an accuracy level that was even within a factor of twenty, let it suffice to say there wouldn’t be enough folks left to bury the ones who didn’t make it.
As for how “generous” welfare benefits are, as of 2016 the average monthly allotment for recipient families was $371(usually for a family of three), and in 49 of 50 states typical benefit levels fail to bring a family to even half the poverty line, let alone above it. In Mississippi, average benefits only bring families to one-tenth of the poverty line, and benefits fall below one-quarter of the poverty line in more than a dozen others.
As for SNAP, although about 14 percent of the population received benefits as of 2016, this number has dropped consistently since 2013 as the economy rebounded from the recession, and fell by about 3.5 million people during the final years of the Obama presidency. And as mentioned previously, the amount received by beneficiaries is a barely adequate $125 monthly — hardly evidence of an amazingly generous welfare state apparatus.
Importantly, the notion that welfare recipients get benefits from multiple programs — so that even if benefits from one program are minimal, once they are combined with others, they amount to a substantial basket of goodies — is false. Although most cash recipients receive SNAP, the vast majority of SNAP beneficiaries do not also get cash. Indeed, only 0.9 percent of the population was receiving both TANF and SNAP as of 2015, and only 2 percent of black and Latinx folks in the country were, meaning, importantly that 98 out of 100 were not.
Receipt or Dependence? Why the First Doesn’t Equate to the Second
Of course, even these numbers only reflect persons who receive cash or SNAP benefits at some point in the course of a year. They say nothing about how many of these are genuinely dependent on them, in the way most critics suggest. Indeed, many (perhaps most, as we’ll see) rely on them as transitional stop-gap measures after an economic downturn, a layoff, an illness or some other temporary circumstance that makes it difficult to work full-time.
Others do work, and yet earn too little to bring their household income above the poverty (or near-poverty) levels that allow them to remain eligible for benefits.
So when the right rails against welfare “dependence,” we should insist on clarifying that such a group is far from the norm, either as a percentage of the national population or even as a share of all who occasionally will turn to such programs out of necessity.
Because when it comes to being truly “dependent” on welfare, the facts again torpedo right-wing mythology. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, which uses a bipartisan definition of dependence adopted as part of a 1994 law requiring an annual report on the subject, as of the most recent comprehensive data (from 2015), no more than 4.6% of the population truly depends on cash and nutrition assistance. That was down from 5.3 percent in 2010 and represented a drop in welfare dependence of about 1.5 million people during the last years of the Obama Administration.
Racially, 90 percent of blacks, 94 percent of Latinx folks and 97 percent of whites in the U.S. are not dependent on welfare benefits, and even when looking only at those in these racial groups who receive benefits, the vast majority will not be rendered dependent on them. Four-fifths of whites, three-fourths of blacks and 83 percent of Latinx recipients receive most of their income from work or other non-welfare sources like child support or retirement and thus are not classified as dependent, according to the official definition of that term.
The notion of dependence as a common condition for welfare recipients is further belied by the data on how long people typically receive aid. Contrary to popular belief, most recipients do not remain on cash assistance for long periods of time. Most TANF “spells” last fewer than five months and 80 percent are completed within a year. Fewer than 1 in 10 spells of cash assistance last longer than 21 months. Although SNAP spells typically last longer, most are still completed within a year, and two-thirds of all families entering the SNAP system will be off the program within 21 months.
Not to mention, the claim of welfare “dependence” relies upon the notion that beneficiaries (at least the adult ones) are lazy and would rather sit around doing nothing than work for a living. But once again, facts get in the way of conservative feelings. Among TANF recipients, one in four lives in a family with a full-time worker, and over half reside in families with at least one adult in the labor force, working or actively seeking employment.
For SNAP recipients, the mythology is even less accurate. Forty percent of recipients live in families with a full-time worker, whose earnings are still inadequate to bring the family above the level for eligibility. And nearly two-thirds of SNAP recipients live in families with at least one adult in the labor force. Racially, Latinx recipients are especially likely to be in homes with a working adult, with over half living in families with a full-time worker.
But What About Free Housing and Health Care? (Asked Some Idiot)
It is at this point that right-wingers, beholden to their cultish belief in the awfulness of the welfare state, will typically bring up the two other principal assistance programs: subsidized housing and Medicaid. After all, even if most poor people aren’t dependent on cash aid (and don’t even receive any), and even if most who get SNAP benefits are working or actively seeking employment, once you throw in free housing and medicine, they really are taking advantage of the rest of us!
But again, no.
As for housing, although HUD operates a number of programs, the two primary ones are what we know as public housing (actual apartment complexes, or what some call “projects”), and the Housing Choice Voucher program (Section 8), which pays landlords in the private housing market to house low-income folks.
Looking first at oft-stigmatized public housing, only 2 million people in the entire nation live in such units. That’s less than six-tenths of one percent of all Americans, and only about 4.5 percent of the poor. And when you delve into the facts about those two million, you quickly discover the shattered ruins of conservative mythology.
For instance, families in public housing do not live for free; indeed, the average amount paid by such families is $327.00 per month. Although this is not the full market value of the units in which they live, it typically comes to about 40 percent of the cost, with HUD picking up the rest because the family’s incomes typically come to only about one-fourth of the local median, and it is simply impossible for them to afford the cost of housing in the areas where they live.
Importantly, the income such families receive is not mostly “welfare” income. Thirty percent of households in public housing rely on earned wages as their primary source of income, while only 4 percent rely on cash assistance. The rest rely on some combination of retirement or disability income. After all, nearly a third of non-elderly adults and half of the elderly adults in public housing have a bona fide disability that prevents them from working or drastically limits how much they can work.
Racially, 43 percent of persons in public housing are black, which means that only 860,000 black folks in the country live in such communities: about two percent of the black population in America. So again, if you were to gather 10,000 random black folks (adults and kids mixed this time) and ask how many live in “the projects,” the answer would only be about 200, rather than the much larger number most would likely guess.
As for the primary housing voucher program, 5.3 million people benefit from this effort, with payments made to landlords, amounting to about $1100 per month per household on average, one-third of which (or about $370) is paid by the residents themselves. Again, the housing is not free.
As with public housing, more than 3 in 10 voucher recipient households rely on wages for income, only 1 in 25 rely on cash welfare, and a large share of adults (between 36 and 68 percent) are disabled. Oh, and only 1 in 9 persons receiving cash welfare also gets a housing subsidy of any kind, suggesting once again that the notion of poor folks receiving benefits from multiple programs at once is almost entirely false.
Racially, 48 percent of housing voucher beneficiaries are black, meaning that about 2.5 million African Americans receive this form of housing subsidy. But even when combined with government-owned public housing, only about 8 percent of black folks receive housing assistance from the government, meaning that contrary to popular (and racist) imaginings, 92 percent do not.
Bashing Medicaid for presumably lavishing free health care upon the poor is even less logical and less supported by the evidence than attacks upon the previously discussed programs.
For starters, it’s not as if covering the health care costs of the poor actually puts extra money in their pockets. Benefits are paid to providers, so if anyone gets a handout from the program, it’s wealthy physicians and hospitals, not the poor themselves. Second, were the poor not covered by such a plan, they would simply go without care because they wouldn’t be able to afford it, and the resulting sickness they would experience would be not only their problem but a burden on the entire society in terms of higher costs, lost productivity and the spread of disease. The practical and moral costs of allowing the poor to suffer in untreated illness should be sufficient for all but the most hard-hearted to recognize.
As for the specifics of the program, Medicaid and CHIP (a program for children in families with income too high for Medicaid, but inadequate to pay for health care where they live) covered about 76 million people in 2016. Of these, 43 percent were kids, and another quarter were elderly and/or disabled. Among all adult recipients of Medicaid who are not elderly or disabled, 6 out of 10 work (mostly full-time), and 8 in 10 live in a household where an adult (themselves or someone else) works to provide for the family.
Of the 9.8 million non-elderly adults on Medicaid who do not work, the vast majority are ill, disabled, attending school (to better their work prospects) or taking care of their families while another adult works for wages.
In short, people benefitting from the nation’s primary health care program for the poor are not lazy, not looking for handouts, and not taking advantage of anyone. They are almost all either kids, old folks, the disabled, people who work at low wages, or persons who are taking care of children while a partner or spouse provides for the family. The image of poor folks sitting around living off of a cornucopia of benefits — cash, food, medicine, and free housing — is a mythical fever dream of racist and classist reactionaries, who ignore facts and evidence in the service of their hostile and bigoted fantasies.
Though we are sadly and frighteningly living in a post-truth era, where facts have been rendered mere trivialities on the road to Trumpist fanaticism, perhaps there are still enough among the nation to insist that reality matters. And perhaps these may even now stand and push back against the scapegoating, the fear-mongering and the inherent dishonesty that animates the conservative American worldview on matters of poverty, need and government assistance.