Monthly Archives: January 2018

Does Welfare Hurt the Poor?


“I ask you, what am I? I’m one of the undeserving poor: that’s what I am. Think of what that means to a man. It means that he’s up agen middle class morality all the time. . . . I don’t need less than a deserving man: I need more. I don’t eat less hearty than him; and I drink a lot more.” —Alfred P. Doolittle, My Fair Lady

I received many positive responses to my last blog post. But one was negative. A dear old friend tried to set me straight. She stated categorically: “Welfare done by the government promotes dependency. A hand up not hand out.”

I replied with a single sentence: “How do you give a hand up to one who has no arms?”

The Bible-laden response I got was as heartless as it was racist. (My friend is white.) Welfare is destroying the black community. Blacks were poorer but better off before welfare. Blah, blah, blah. Even though she threw the word “love” into her email for good measure, I wasn’t feeling it. Sometimes tough love isn’t love. It’s just tough. My friend’s anti-government-welfare rant repeated the myth that social welfare promotes dependency, popularized by the racist stereotype of the Welfare Queen.

Welfare Queen Cartoon.jpg

The myth that social welfare causes dependency has been repeatedly debunked, as it was in this excellent Washington Post article (please read it before you respond):

The Myth of Welfare’s Corrupting Influence on the Poor

According to the former U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin, cutting social welfare is not only bad for the poor; it’s bad for the economy:

Why Hurting the Poor Will Hurt the Economy

It’s easy to criticize the poor if you have a roof over your head, food on the table, and money in the bank. But what if the shoe were on other foot? Or what if you had no shoes at all?



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My Brother’s Keeper?

mother with food stamp groceries

CNN Photo. A mother unloads groceries purchased with food stamps in 2013.

I got angry at a colleague last Saturday. I got angry simply because he expressed his opinions—opinions shared by many Americans. He said the poor would be better off if we did away with all social welfare programs. No Medicaid. No Section 8 housing. No food stamps. No welfare of any kind. The position is more extreme than Mitt Romney’s 47 percent comment or Marie Antoinette’s “Let them eat cake.” It was so extreme, in fact, I should have laughed it off. I couldn’t, because a lack of empathy for the poor is no laughing matter.

My colleague went on to explain that anyone could get out of poverty simply by making right choices. He cited a 2013 Brookings Institution report that claims the surest way out of poverty and into the middle class is by doing three things: (1) finish high school, (2) get a full-time job, (3) wait until age 21 to get married and have children.  According to the report, “Of American adults who followed these three simple rules, only about 2 percent are in poverty and nearly 75 percent have joined the middle class (defined as earning $55,000 or more per year).” I agree with the report, which does not advocate getting rid of all social welfare. It says clearly, “In addition to the thousands of local and national programs that aim to help young people avoid these life-altering problems, we should figure out more ways to convince young people that their decisions will greatly influence whether they avoid poverty and enter the middle class.” Thus, the report is more nuanced than what I heard my colleague say. It’s not a matter of either-or. It’s both-and. We can empower the victims of poverty without blaming them or taking away their benefits.

My colleague seemed unaware of the difficulty of making good lifestyle choices when one is growing up in neighborhoods with high crime rates, rampant drug use, corrupt leaders, and failing schools. Family dysfunction adds to the physical and psychological effects of poverty that make it harder for adolescents to decide to stay in school, secure full-time employment, and avoid teenage pregnancy, as the Brookings report rightly recommends.

What would happen to children growing up in poverty, especially those who aren’t at the point of making lifestyle choices recommended in the report, if we were to take away their housing, health care, food, and other basic needs? They would sink deeper into poverty, making it even harder for them to make good choices that could help them out of poverty.

Turn the Brookings report on its head. If you make bad lifestyle choices by the time you are an adult, you will likely stay in poverty and not make it into the middle class. What is our moral obligation as a society to these people? Do we blame them for their lifestyle choices and walk away? Many who drop out of school, can’t get a job, and get pregnant out of wedlock at a young age, were victims of abuse and neglect.

Consider the all-too-real case of the fictitious character Claireece Precious Jones in the 1996 novel Push (later made into the movie Precious). The main character is an obese and illiterate 16-year-old girl living in Harlem with an abusive mother. She is pregnant with her second child. Both children are the result of her being raped by her father. Clearly the likelihood of a girl like this getting out of poverty is very low, but her circumstances aren’t simply a factor of her bad choices. She is the victim of her poverty, not its cause. Doesn’t society have a moral obligation to help people like this rather than simply writing them off or blaming them for their poverty?

What would happen if we took away all social welfare programs as my colleague suggests? Poor people would not all immediately pull themselves up by their bootstraps and become successful. The widening gap between the rich and poor would become a chasm of Grand Canyon proportions. The US currently ranks 40 out of 150 on the CIA’s list of countries by income inequality, meaning we have high income inequality: the top third. (Lower numbers have higher income inequality; higher numbers have less.) We don’t have to speculate what our country would become without social welfare programs. Counties that spend the least on social welfare tend to be the poorest in the world. Countries with the highest spending on social welfare also tend to be the most prosperous in the world (the US ranks 21 on this list, after Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic). Without social welfare the United States would go backward, not forward.

If we took away all social welfare programs, the elderly poor would perhaps suffer the most. According to AARP, “about 65 percent of nursing home residents are supported primarily by Medicaid.” That’s almost a million of our American grandmas and grandpas who depend on Medicaid for lifesaving care. (Not to be confused with Medicare for seniors and the disabled, Medicaid provides healthcare for the poor.) In 1965, the year Medicare and Medicaid were established, life expectancy in the US was a biblical “three score and ten” or 70 years. Now it is 79 years primarily because of advancements in the quality and availability of health care.  Without government-funded healthcare, life expectancy would decline along with overall public health.

In his 1971 book A Theory of Justice, the late philosopher John Rawls suggested that a robust social welfare system was the only way to make unequal societies fair. He used a thought experiment called the “veil of ignorance” to make his point. Imagine you didn’t know whether you would be born black or white, rich or poor, healthy or handicapped, what kind of a society would you want to be born into? What would you deem most fair? Rawls suggested that most people would want to insure against the risk of being born disadvantaged; therefore, they would want to be born in a country with a healthy social safety net. It’s only the people who don’t need it and can’t empathize with those who do that rail against it.

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