The Truth about Welfare

After absorbing months of attacks on him as an economic royalist, Mitt Romney is hitting back with an ad as dishonest as any you'll ever see, accusing Barack Obama of coddling welfare recipients ("You wouldn't have to work … they just send you your welfare check"). Literally every word after the 8 second mark on this ad is a lie, with the exception of "I'm Mitt Romney and I approve this message." But the welfare attack is an old Republican standby; if the middle class suspects you're not one of them, remind them that their resentment should be pointed down, not up. The real enemy is poor people, and those who would indulge them. A GOP presidential campaign that doesn't eventually bust out this attack would be like a wedding band that doesn't know how to play "Y.M.C.A."

But since there hasn't been much debate about welfare in some time, it's a good opportunity to remind ourselves of what the program is and isn't, and what role it plays in America today. Needless to say, you won't get this information from a campaign ad.


What we call "welfare" today has its origins in the 1935 Social Security Act, which provided aid for states to give assistance to a number of classes of Americans, including the elderly, the blind, and the unemployed. The Act provided money for monthly payments to poor children where at least one parent was absent or unable to work. In practice, this meant that the vast majority of aid went to widows and single mothers. The program gradually expanded to all 50 states and in the early 1960s became known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).

Then in 1996, the Republican Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, which fundamentally altered the nature of welfare. The name of the program was changed to Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), with the accent on "temporary." The new program would have a five year lifetime limit on cash benefits and require that recipients be working or in a job-training program. Critically, it ended welfare as an "entitlement," meaning that states were no longer required to accept any applicant who met the program's qualifications. Instead, the money goes to states as a "block grant," with the state deciding how many people it will serve and how many it will turn away. The number of people on the rolls immediately began to decline. In 1996, according to the census, there were 4.4 million families receiving welfare; in 2008, it was only 1.6 million.

And when the Great Recession hit in 2008, the states began turning away people in droves; even as millions of Americans fell into poverty, the welfare rolls didn't increase, meaning that a smaller and smaller portion of America's poor families are getting cash assistance from the government.

For Republicans, this is a feature, not a bug; they hope to convert food stamps and Medicaid to block grants as well.

Because TANF is a federal/state program and each state sets its own eligibility standards, benefits vary widely. As you might expect, benefits in Southern states run by Republicans are far more meager than those in Northern and Western states where Democrats govern. In 2011, benefits ranged from a low of $170 a month for a single-parent family of three in Mississippi to a high of $753 for the same family living in New York. TANF spending was set at $16.5 billion per year in the 1996 bill, where it has remained—without any adjustment for inflation—ever since.


So who gets welfare? This is where the race issue enters. Contrary to popular perception, the recipients of TANF are about equally divided between whites, blacks and Hispanics. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, in 2009 the TANF rolls were 31.2 percent white, 33.3 percent black, and 28.8 percent Hispanic. Yet the primary image of a "welfare recipient" in most people's mind is a black woman. This has been demonstrated in study after study by political scientists, psychologists, and communication scholars. Most Americans not only drastically overestimate the proportion of welfare recipients who are black, they also tend to believe that welfare makes up a huge proportion of the federal budget, when in fact it accounts for less than 1 percent of federal spending. As Donald Kinder and Cindy Ham wrote in Us Against Them: Ethnocentric Foundations of American Opinion, "means-tested programs like AFDC and food stamps are understood by whites to largely benefit shiftless black people." The racialization in perceptions of welfare is reinforced by the news media, which usually use images of black people to illustrate stories about welfare and poverty (Martin Gillens' Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy is the most complete examination of this topic).

So when you say the word "welfare," the image that immediately pops into most people's heads is a black one. Opinions about welfare and opinions about race are inextricably tied together, and there is no one who works in politics, Republican or Democrat, who doesn't understand that. Which leads us to our final question.


Does Mitt Romney's new welfare attack constitute race-baiting? The fairest answer is, yes and no. Its goal is without question to encourage middle-class people to resent poor people who are allegedly taking their money to lay about and do whatever it is poor people do with their cushy lives, and to adopt the false belief that Barack Obama is changing policy to make that happen more often. Note the difference between Romney's ad and the following ad from Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign. The policy goals expressed are the same in both—work requirements, time limits—but Clinton's ad doesn't frame welfare as undeserving poor people taking money from virtuous middle class people.

When an ad like Romney's arrives, it travels a well-worn path that Republican politicians have been carving for decades. The division between hard-working middle class people and parasitic poor people was the message of this 1972 ad from Democrats for Nixon, in which a hard-hatted construction worker contemplates the droves of new welfare recipients he'll have to pay for (and apparently also contemplates hurling himself to his death over it, if the vertiginous shots are any indication).

Like the Romney ad, this one doesn't mention race, but the Nixon campaign knew exactly what it was doing. So did Ronald Reagan, who famously complained of a mythical "welfare queen" in Chicago who supposedly drove in her Cadillac to get her checks. Here's an excerpt from a February 5, 1976 article in The New York Times, which pointed out that while "the former Governor of California has not made any direct appeals for antiblack votes," his indirect appeals weren't all that subtle:

Last night, for example, at an overflow rally in Fort Lauderdale, he said working people were outraged when they waited in lines at grocery store check-out counters while a "strapping young buck" ahead of them purchased T-bone steaks with food stamps.

The ex-Governor has used the grocery-line illustration before, but in states like New Hampshire where there is scant black population, he has never used the expression "young buck," which, to whites in the South, generally denotes a large black man.

In the years since, prominent Republican politicians have become only marginally more circumspect in the way they talk about the social safety net; you still hear occasional comments like the one Newt Gingrich made earlier this year when he was asked if he would speak before the NAACP, and he replied that if he was invited, "I'll go to their convention and talk about why the African American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps." The point is that when Republicans talk welfare, race is usually a subtext (at least).

Nevertheless, the racially charged nature of the welfare issue shouldn't mean that we can't debate it, and Republicans should be able to criticize the welfare policies of a Democratic administration without being charged with racism. But what's happening now isn't a "debate" by any stretch of the imagination, and the substance of Romney's attack is so spectacularly insincere that it simply can't be taken at face value. Up until a couple of days ago he hadn't said a word about welfare; on the policy, this is a battle Republicans emphatically won 16 years ago. Every last criticism of Obama in the Romney ad is simply made up out of whole cloth. Ordinarily, when a candidate makes a dishonest attack on his opponent there's at least a thin tether to the truth, even if it's distorted or taken out of context, but in this case what the administration has done is pretty much the opposite of what Romney says. That leads strongly to the conclusion that Romney has chosen to go in this direction for little reason other than the hope that something, anything, will generate a visceral reaction against the president. Don't think for a moment that Romney doesn't know that if his attack generates the reaction he wants, racial resentment will be part of the reason.


This certainly isn't the first time that the poor were selected as a popular scapegoat, but this IS the first time that even America's left, who tend to have a clearer perspective of how we're all linked so that the conditions of the poor directly impact the middle class, has turned its back on all who "choose the poverty life style." As a result of policies that we don't bother discussing, the infant mortality rate among America's poor now surpasses that of some Third World countries, while the life expectancy of the poor has actually fallen below that of some Third World countries. There was no welfare discussion or debate, and America never heard the other side of the story -- including how welfare was essential for maintaining a middle class (which has been shrinking since Clinton axed welfare). After over 30 yrs of anti-poor propaganda, rarely disputed by progressives (other than such notables as Noam Chomsky, Molly Ivins and, surprisingly, Stephen Colbert), ignorance about poverty is the norm. That's unfortunate because it covers a full range of issues that, if we would connect the dots, show a very cohesive picture of where we're going (hint: Wear a parachute when you get near the cliff's edge). The poor have been blocked out of the media, censored out of the public discussion. After the US has shipped out a massive number of jobs, then tore out the social safety net, we don't mention the consequences. "What, me worry?" One sure thing about poverty -- the longer we ignore it, the deeper and wider it grows.

I don't understand why people who have more income than those on welfare begrudge the pittance they receive. Clinton should have left welfare alone. Bad as it was it was still better than what he signed into law. A mother with small children has a job on her hands without requiring her to work. I'm all for training and job programs for those who prefer to do so however that would allow the welfare recipient to acquire a living wage job after training.
The way society is set up now, with jobs sent oversea, workers let go, cries by people who should know better to downsize government which effectively translates to job loss for public sector employees it makes little sense to demand that single mothers get a job.
As a former Postal Employee I think that the push to privatize the Post Office as a disguise to save it with HR2309 is also rather strange as the Members of Congress that point to the Postal Workers as overpaid are paid $174,000.00 a year for 120 days of being present in Congress. On the other hand the tea-baggers are urging passage of HR2309 with 100,000 letters for the stated reason to save taxpayers money, even though the Post Office ,despite some questionable decisions remained solvent until 2006 when Congress passed a HR6407 mandating that the Post Office fund 75 years of retiree health benefits in 10 at 5.5 Billion a year.
The similarity between Clinton's welfare reform and what is being touted as the Post Office going broke because of overgenerous pay and benefits and a decrease in mail is the misinformation accepted as fact .HR2309 and S1789 attack on Postal Emploees
I understand that HR2309 will be on the House Floor sometime this August
.Just because Issa made considerable profits as a business owner doesn’t qualify him to dictate how the Post Office should be run particularly when his solutions promoted as saving the Post Office, if enacted, would do the exact opposite.
If Issa wants to save the USPS he should look at what expenses can be deleted without disrupting the service.
#1. The Postal Accountable and Enhancement Act needs to be rescinded. In 2006 the PAEA ,signed by Bush, mandated that the USPS fund 75 years of retiree health benefits in 10. As the USPS was solvent before the PAEA (HR6407) was passed it stands to reason that the USPS would once again become solvent if this law was rescinded.
#2. Overpayments the USPS has made to the Civil Service Retirement Service should be returned.
#3. Overpayments the USPS made to FERS need to be retrieved.
#4. Charge more for delivering UPS parcels that UPS has the Post Office deliver to places they don’t.
#5. Adjust the ratio of managers to workers .
But Issa, in HR2309 hasn’t proposed that any of these things .
Issa’s solution is to cut the workforce by at least 100,000. Issa’s solution is to weaken the unions, so that Postal Workers’ wages and benefits would depend on a separate board when a contract wasn’t agreed upon by the USPS and a union.
This is a case where Issa’s cure would cause the death of the USPS as a public service and have it revived as a business with lower paid workers, higher rates and less service.

I worked for the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare for 17 years as a Caseworker. Most of what is said about any welfare program is not true. People think most of the money goes for cash benefits. Cash assistance is the smallest part of the program. The greatest amount goes for Medicaid, especially for seniors in nursing homes. Food stamps is next with cash programs bringing up the rear.

All the talk about putting resource limits on Food Stamp recipients is bull unless the resource limit was dropped after I retired in 2004. We always had a $2000 resource limit when I worked there.

The data provided is not a good way to identify race issues when it comes to recipients of welfare as you are only looking at the numerator, and not the denominator.

Let's say there are 100 recipients of welfare. 33 White, 33 Hispanic, 33 Black, with 1 Other. This roughly follows existing distribution. Although as an aggregate it is split evenly, it does not account for how much of the population are of each demographic.

In 2010, roughly 72% of the US population was white, 15% Hispanic, and 13% Black, with a total population of 308,745,538.

Although the welfare recipient dollars are spread evenly across ethnicities, they are not spread equally when you consider the population size of each ethnicity.

If whites comprised about 222M persons, Hispanics 46M, and Blacks 40M, then you can see why the referenced "even split" does not accurately depicts equality in distribution between ethnicities.

Based on these numbers, there is nearly 5 times as many whites in the country, than Hispanics or blacks, so if welfare recipients were even, whites should have 5x more recipients than other ethnicities. This is not the case.

I'm not saying it is right to portray any single ethnicity as the face of poverty, but that would seem to me why many feel this way.

If you are concerned about equality in distribution between ethnicities by pointing out things on a per-ca-pita basis, I am not sure why you would want to point that out when they are isolating the program itself and talking about who and how much is given in these programs, not a per-ca-pita basis, the actual face of the numbers within this program are not the face of a group, but is also white itself...again the picture of this program itself. I can understand your comment that is why it seems why many feel that it is the face of the black person, but these are simple numbers and statistics, the society in which is made predominately up of whites have a statistic of their own in which they will hire a white with a criminal history over a minority with no criminal history, or the trillions in bailouts that go predominantly to whites...that sounds like a great white welfare program to be a part of, they take our tax money and get paid millions...but it is the white view of minorities that counts. Whites can paint the picture and point out the denominator, but they won't own up to the trillions they have received in corporate welfare and bailouts than any minority group. Maybe whites should jump onto this and own up to the fact that the bailouts and corporate welfare programs are a form of "assistance" to nicely put it...I wouldn't expect many whites to admit that they receive much much more money from the federal government than any minority for any type of "welfare" in general. Whites discriminate against blacks and and whites even prove it with their research, whites pay themselves more, hire themselves more often than not with or without a criminal history, whites hire whites even if their black counterpart has a higher credit rating and educational background. Try doing some research on white privilege (google it and read a whole article not just a part) in our country and own up to it, we whites have it very well.

We've spent nearly $2,000,000,000,000 on the "poor" since LBJ declared war on poverty. Poverty has hovered around 11-14% or so ever since. A nation cannot spend its way to prosperity for itself or anyone else. California just elected a "super majority" meaning total one party rule with no opposition. This is going to be fun to watch and hopefully a lesson for 'progressives, liberals, Democrats, left wingers' or whatever else they're called. The problem in America is.... absolutely... spending.

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