We’re Gonna Scapegoat Like It’s 1995: Welfare and the Never-Ending Lies of the American Right

In the pantheon of right-wing dog whistles, none is as tried, true, and generally effective as “welfare” bashing. Ever since the days of Ronald Reagan, who fabricated tales of a “welfare queen” collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash benefits by using multiple identities and Social Security numbers, conservatives have known that articulating an inchoate rage against welfare spending and recipients, who are cast as irresponsible leeches, living off the rest of us, pays real political dividends. Even though welfare reform in the mid-1990s largely eliminated no-strings-attached cash assistance from the nation’s social safety net, millions of Americans act as if nothing ever changed, as if welfare reform never happened. They are just as upset about it today as they were twenty years ago, which is why Mitt Romney and his surrogates at FOX News, along with commentators like Rush Limbaugh, continue to hammer the theme of undeserving poor people, getting handouts while they sit on the couch, don’t work, and (according to Romney’s latest campaign commercial), are poised to be let out of whatever presumably minimal work requirements have existed for the past 16 years, thanks to the liberalism of Barack Obama.

For a moment, let’s put aside the fact that the state waivers advocated by the Obama Administration were actually sought by conservative Republican Governors, and that they would, at least in theory, allow states the flexibility to design better ways of actually helping recipients find jobs. So too, let’s ignore the fact that even welfare reform’s chief advocate, Newt Gingrich, and former GOP operative and architect of the reform, Ron Haskins, have acknowledged that the Romney campaign’s take on the waivers is dishonest. For now, let us simply examine the far larger problem: namely, that the characterization of welfare as some huge program, dispensing massive benefits to the poor, and the characterization of recipients as lazy slackers who sit around collecting checks at taxpayer expense is rooted entirely in fantasy. For conservatives to continue beating this tired drum is to deliberately seek to make an issue where there is none, to scapegoat the poorest and most vulnerable Americans for problems they did not create, and to engage in a kind of class warfare for which the right frankly lives. To criticize the rich is, to hear them tell it, untoward and unbecoming; but to bash the poor is a venerable pastime. To the extent such invective manages to stir up racial resentments (given how racialized the image of welfare recipients has been for the past forty-plus years), all the better, especially when your guy is running against the nation’s first black president. Anything to suggest that Barack Obama is bending over backwards for black folks plays well with the angry white men who increasingly make up the core constituency of the Republican Party.

Think that’s too harsh? OK. Well then, perhaps you’d like to explain the meaning of the not-so-thinly-veiled racial resentment embedded in recent comments made by Rush Limbaugh on his radio show, in a long diatribe about welfare, President Obama, the state waivers, and the upcoming election. While discussing the president’s response to the Romney campaign’s claims — the ones called dishonest by virtually every media outlet of record — Limbaugh insisted that the primary reason Obama is upset about the attack is because it has the potential to reinvigorate white male working class voters: a group whose vote Limbaugh claims Obama had been trying to suppress. To wit, here’s Limbaugh on August 10th:

Okay, let’s stick with the Romney welfare, gutting-welfare ad that…the regime is so upset about. No question Obama is trying to suppress the white vote. The white, working, middle class vote. Obama’s trying to suppress that…A lot of Obama’s ads and the PAC ads on television have been designed to suppress that vote by portraying Romney as anathema to them…he knows they’re not going to vote for him. But if he can get them to not vote period, then it doesn’t matter that he’s written them off. If they’re not going to vote for him, the next task is to make sure they don’t show up for Romney. How do you do that? Well, you portray Romney as some rich moneybags guy who isn’t going to help them. And, not only that, doesn’t even like them!…And so where (Obama’s) in the middle of trying to suppress the votes of the white, working class, here comes Romney with a truthful ad that’s going to whip them back up into a frenzy…Whatever success Obama has had in angering white working class voters towards Romney where they might just sit out and not vote, now he’s whipped them up into a frenzy…This is why the Romney welfare ad has got them so discombobulated, because they’ve done it to themselves. Obama has undercut his own strategy. Which again is to so depress or anger the white, working class that they don’t vote.

And why does the waiver request — again, one that was initiated by conservatives — whip the white working class into a frenzy? Returning to Limbaugh:

Because the one thing the white, working class voters don’t like is slothful welfare recipients. They don’t like slackers. They don’t like takers. They don’t like people sitting on the couch, getting a welfare check, watching television, when they know they’re paying for it.

Of course, there would be no reason to discuss this as a racial issue — as an issue for the white working and middle class — unless it was fully understood by the person discussing it in that manner that the image of welfare recipients (the “takers” in Limbaugh’s formulation) was something other than white. By discussing this matter in racial terms, it is quite apparent that Limbaugh knows what he’s doing, and what the popular imagery of welfare recipients is: it’s black and brown folks, eating bonbons and having babies out of wedlock, while salt-of-the-Earth white men break their backs and pay the taxes that help support them in their idleness. It is blatant. It is transparent. And of course, it is thoroughly dishonest on multiple levels.

To begin, there is the simple fact that contrary to popular belief, the numbers of people “receiving checks” from the government (the common imagery and that which is being played upon by Limbaugh) are at an all-time low. So although FOX very cleverly ran a segment recently during which they claimed (and with a graphic no less!) that over 100 million Americans were now receiving “welfare,” that number does not refer to the common understanding of welfare — and the understanding that Limbaugh is deliberately trying to cultivate with his image of people receiving checks — but instead, includes anyone receiving benefits from any government program, targeted to low and moderate income persons, households or communities: what are called “means tested” programs. But a quick look at a recent Congressional Research Service report, included as part of the House Ways and Means Committee’s annual Green Book, which catalogs these programs in detail, indicates how different the reality of government programs and program beneficiaries is, from the common and stereotypical beliefs about both.

So, for instance, the only way you can get anywhere near “100 million” Americans receiving welfare from the federal government, is to include huge swaths of beneficiaries whom few would consider to be welfare recipients, in any traditional sense. You would have to include the millions of elderly and disabled persons who receive two-thirds of all Medicaid benefits. You’d have to include the 10 million low-income seniors who receive a prescription drug subsidy under Part D of Medicare. You’d have to include the 27 million working adults who receive the refundable portion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, because their incomes are too low to owe federal taxes, as well as 18 million working parents who receive the refundable child tax credit because their incomes are too low to qualify for the standard, non-refundable credit available to middle income families. You’d also have to include the 2 million low income elderly Americans who receive benefits under the Nutrition Program for the Elderly, which guarantees adequate meals in congregate settings or home-delivered meals to older poor folks; as well as the 2.5 million people who benefit from adult education and literacy services, funded by the federal government and operated by states and various educational agencies; and the 8 million or so low-to-moderate income students who receive Pell Grants to make college affordable; and the 1 million or so children who reap the benefits of pre-school readiness programs like Head Start, which has been proven to reduce dependence on other forms of assistance.

So, as far as the folks who “get checks” are concerned, unless Limbaugh means to bash the folks who get refund checks under the Child Tax Credit, or the EITC — which most sane people don’t consider welfare, since one has to work in order to qualify for them, and which even Ronald Reagan praised as among the most effective anti-poverty programs ever created (and which he supported because it reduced dependence on other forms of assistance) — the numbers of such Americans is not 100 million. It is not 50 million. It is not 20 million. As evidenced by the House Ways and Means Committee’s Green Book, it is approximately 12 million, of which 7.7 million are elderly, blind or disabled persons receiving checks from the SSI program, and who are not likely the folks Limbaugh and his ilk are condemning as slothful. That leaves about 4.3 million who receive benefits from TANF (what used to be Aid to Families With Dependent Children, or AFDC), roughly three-quarters of whom are children. Which means that only about 1 million adults receive cash from this most vilified of programs: less than one-half of one percent of the adult population.

And what’s more, of those who do “receive checks” so to speak, it is simply false that they are dependent on those benefits, or receive them for long periods of time, rather than work. As indicated by the Department of Health and Human Services, in any given month, about half of all TANF recipients live in a family unit with at least one person who is employed, but whose earnings are so low as to make them still eligible for a small cash welfare subsidy. Nearly 30 percent of TANF recipients live in a family with at least one person who works at a full-time job, and yet, whose income remains at or below poverty level.

That dependence is an uncommon state for welfare recipients should really come as no surprise, given how minimal are the grants offered to poor persons and families. TANF benefits, for instance, have fallen in value by 20 percent since the mid-1990s in 34 states, adjusted for inflation; and this is after the real value of benefits had already plummeted by more than 40 percent from 1970 until 1996 in 2/3 of all states. As of 2011, benefits came to less than half the poverty line in all 50 states, and left recipients below 30 percent of the poverty line in most. Indeed, in 14 states, benefits left recipient households below one-fifth of the poverty line, receiving, on average, less than $300 a month for a family of three, while in states like Alabama and Mississippi, TANF benefits have reached an almost incomprehensibly absurd low: $215 and $170 per month for a family of three; hardly sufficient to sustain a welfare dependent lifestyle. By 2010, average monthly TANF benefits stood at less than $180 per person and only $428 per household.

And since most persons who inveigh against welfare dependence do so because of a belief that beneficiaries remain on various government program rolls for long periods, it also might help to note how inaccurate are the regular claims of long-term welfare reliance. Fact is, half of all persons who enter the TANF rolls and begin to receive cash benefits from the program will exit the rolls within 4 months, three of every four TANF entrants will exit within a year, and only about 1 in 6 will receive benefits for 20 months or longer. Long-term welfare use has fallen by half since the 1990s, and even by the ‘90s had fallen considerably, relative to prior decades. So when it comes to able-bodied people who get cash assistance (or checks) from the government, both the numbers of such persons, the amount of money received by such persons, and the length of time they receive benefits are considerably different than common mythology, and the right-wing lies spread by professional prevaricators like Limbaugh.

And even when some beneficiaries do remain on cash assistance for long periods of time, research has demonstrated conclusively that their long-term dependence is due less to characterological flaws like laziness or cultural pathology, and more to serious personal and structural impediments to finding steady employment. Among these: extremely low educational attainment, serious developmental disability, low cognitive function, limited language skills, serious clinical depression, and significant and persistent physical health limitations.

But, just to be generous, let’s assume that the Limbaughs of the world, and the folks at FOX, don’t mean to limit their critique to cash welfare. Sure, they talk about people “getting checks,” but maybe that’s just a metaphor for the larger panoply of benefits that millions of people receive from government. Surely, when you add in those other programs, like food stamps, and housing subsidies then we’re talking big money, massive dependence, and an out-of-control welfare state!

Well, no, not really. First, let’s examine food stamps, or what are now known as SNAP benefits (which stands for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). On the one hand, it is certainly true that due to the economic crisis of the last several years, the SNAP rolls have gone up dramatically. And it is also true that most persons who receive cash benefits under TANF do in fact receive SNAP (although, it should be noted, only about 8 percent of SNAP recipients also receive cash). However, the image of these benefits as being sufficient to engender laziness and dependency is nonsensical. Even when households receive both cash and food stamp benefits, recipient households are left below the poverty line in every state, below 75 percent of the poverty line in 45 states, and below half the poverty line in several southern states. In 2011, SNAP beneficiaries received an average of only $134 per month, and according to 2009-2010 data, the average household benefit came to only $290 per month. So even the combined monthly average of food stamps and TANF — at around $315 per person, and $720 per household — is hardly sufficient to allow the poor to become dependent on these benefits for long periods. Even the maximum monthly SNAP benefit for a family of four (an amount received by very few recipient households), is only $668, which comes out to less than $2 per person, per meal.

And contrary to the beliefs of many, most SNAP beneficiaries are not able-bodied persons who refuse to work and have no attachment to the labor market. First, 61 percent of all recipients are not expected or able to work due to age or disability: 47 percent are children, 8 percent are elderly and an additional 6 percent are non-elderly adults with a disability. When these are combined with non-elderly, able-bodied adults who are currently working, participating in some form of work preparedness program under TANF, or living in a household where another adult works and serves as the household breadwinner, these groups represent 81 percent of all SNAP beneficiaries. In other words, even in a hostile labor market, fewer than 1 in 5 SNAP beneficiaries are able-bodied adults with no personal or household connection to the labor market.

Of those poor people who do receive means-tested cash and food assistance, only 15 percent receive both TANF and SNAP, and about three-quarters of those receiving any such benefits (TANF, SSI or SNAP) received them from only one program. And although it is often assumed that the poor receive not only cash but also free or reduced priced housing from the government, less than 14 percent of TANF recipients (or about 1 in 7) are currently benefitting from some form of public housing subsidy. Only 9 percent of TANF recipients receive child care assistance, and only 12 percent benefit from the refundable Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). In other words, it is simply not true that so-called welfare recipients receive multiple benefits from multiple programs, sufficient to provide for an extravagant or even remotely decent lifestyle.

And as with TANF, most SNAP beneficiaries do not remain on the program for long periods of time. Half of all new SNAP participants will leave the benefit rolls within 10 months, and three in four recipients will leave within two years. Although critics of the program often point out that a large share of recipients on the rolls at any given time will indeed remain on for a long time — an average of seven years for about half of all persons receiving SNAP at any given moment — there is an explanation for this seeming long-term dependence that is far less damning than SNAP critics would like us to believe, and which explains how it can nonetheless be true that most SNAP recipients will receive benefits only for a short period.

The difference between the percentage of SNAP recipients who are short-term versus long-term beneficiaries, on the one hand, and the percentage of SNAP recipients on the rolls right now who will be long-term beneficiaries, on the other, should be obvious. By definition, if one is on the rolls right now, then one cannot be off the rolls right now at the same time, thereby eliminating automatically all persons who may have come onto the rolls at some point in the previous year but who had cycled off before now. What one will be left with is, by definition, a disproportionate number of recipients who will remain on the rolls for a longer period. But this should not be taken to mean that long-term dependence is the norm, nor should it be accepted as a critique of the program.

As an analogy, consider the population of the nation’s jails and prisons. If we look at the number of people who are incarcerated at any point in a given year, we know that the vast majority of them will be incarcerated for relatively minor offenses, and will be released in a relatively short period of time. But if you looked at the population of incarcerated persons, say, right now, or at any given moment, as a snapshot in time, a disproportionate number of them would likely be persons with long prison terms. Not because most criminals are hard-core violent offenders who receive long terms, but because anyone who is a hard-core violent offender is likely to be captured in the data at whatever time you sample it, while minor offenders will have cycled out of jail or prison and not be evident in the same way.

Likewise, imagine if we were to examine hospitals and hospital beds. If one were to look at those who are currently occupying beds at your local hospital, at this very moment, it is likely that a disproportionate number of them would be hospitalized with serious, chronic conditions, from which they may well not recover, and certainly not quickly. On the other hand, if one were to look at the entry log of all persons admitted to that same hospital over the course of the year, what would you find? Obviously it would be something very different: the overwhelming majority of persons admitted to the hospital would prove to be persons who didn’t have serious chronic conditions, and whom the hospital was able to get well and back on their feet pretty quickly. So if you were trying to assess the efficacy of the doctors at the hospital, based solely on the share of chronically and seriously unhealthy patients remaining at any given moment in a hospital bed, your assessment wouldn’t be very good. On the other hand, if you were assessing their effectiveness by looking at all patients admitted — a far more statistically and intellectually honest method — you would give them much better marks.

The same is true with SNAP and other welfare benefits. The important point is that most people who come onto the program will not stay long, and it is for this reason that we can say, definitively, that such efforts do not create a culture of dependency among those who receive benefits. If the programs did engender dependence, we would expect that large numbers, perhaps most, of all persons coming onto the program rolls would find themselves trapped on them, unable or unwilling to leave; and that is simply not the case.

In fact, the government, thanks to a bi-partisan advisory committee established in 1994, actually has a definition of welfare dependence that it uses to calculate just this issue. What is that definition? Here it is, as discussed in the most recent available report on welfare dependence, submitted by the Department of Health and Human Services:

A family is dependent on welfare if more than 50 percent of its total income in a one-year period comes from AFDC/TANF, food stamps, and/or SSI, and this welfare income is not associated with work activities.

Now if anything, even this definition may be too broad, in that it includes those who depend on SSI benefits, even though SSI is for people with bona fide disabilities or the elderly or blind, and it includes people who may only receive benefits for a short period of time, and who would not, therefore be considered dependent by most. But even using this definition, fewer than 4 percent of Americans meet the bi-partisan and accepted definition of welfare dependence. Of those receiving any means-tested cash or food stamp benefits, 58 percent rely on those for less than 25 percent of their income, and only 1 in 4 were truly dependent on the benefits for half or more of their income. In racial terms, only 1 in 10 blacks nationwide and about 1 in 17 Latinos (5.7%) meet the criteria for welfare dependence, contrary, again, to common belief.

If we use a more rational definition however, one that excludes from the dependence classification those persons whose cash income comes from SSI due to a disability that prevents them from working, or because of their age, and examine only TANF and the food stamp or SNAP program, only 2.1 percent of the population would meet the criteria for welfare dependence, with 1.1 percent of whites, 3.5 percent of Latinos, and 5.7 percent of blacks meeting the dependence criteria. In other words, and contrary to racial stereotypes, fully 94 out of 100 African Americans and between 96 and 97 out of every 100 Latinos are not dependent on government welfare programs.

But to the denizens of the right, facts don’t matter. What matters is that by playing upon the class and race prejudices of their base (and sadly, many independent minded voters as well), they hope to, using Limbaugh’s own words, “whip white working class voters into a frenzy,” and push them to vote against Barack Obama, the black president who wants to give handouts to black people. It is a racist, classist campaign rooted in blatant lies. It is unbecoming of decent people, but perfectly predictable for the indecent, which is to say, for the American right. Lies are their currency. Cultivating bigotry and resentments are literally all they have left. It is up to the rest of us to destroy them, politically, once and for all.

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