The one thing I am learning, both first-hand (as a person receiving SNAP benefits) and second-hand (as someone interested in the subject who is researching it), is that welfare is a complicated topic. It is so complicated that two different people can both be right while apparently supporting diametrically-opposed statements, but still be talking at cross-purposes and misunderstanding each other. They are probably using different statistics (or no statistics at all, just personal anecdotes or assumptions or “friend of a friend” stories). They may have different ideas about what is and is not “welfare.” (Do you think Social Security is welfare? Was the controversial Troubled Asset Relief Program (the “bank bailouts”, or TARP; which, while we’re mentioning it, was passed under the Bush administration) welfare? Are Pell Grants welfare?) The people fighting about “welfare” topics may or may not understand how certain programs are funded (not all “welfare” is paid for with income taxes). And so on.
Just to stave off the inevitable flood of “but I have totally for realz seen people abusing welfare with my own eyes!” anecdotes that welfare-related articles tend to encourage, here is where I urge anyone who has actually seen abuse of welfare programs to report that abuse. There are a few reasons I can think of why you would choose not to report hypothetical abuse:
- You have not actually witnessed any “welfare fraud” or assistance program abuse first-hand. You may have seen a stranger out and about in public and made some assumptions about that person, but you have no actual information about his or her finances, what (if any) government assistance he or she is receiving, or how he or she is using it.
- You are parroting an anecdote based on hard-to-kill cultural stereotypes about welfare recipients, including the infamous Welfare Queen persona (which has some problematic racist undertones), and assuming that the stereotype is true and that “everyone knows” the stereotype is true.
- Since most people who are on some form of welfare are ashamed of it and do not discuss it (much like most of us do not talk openly about our finances in general), you would probably be shocked to know how many of your friends, family members and neighbors are currently receiving some form of assistance. They may not fit your preconceived notion of what a “welfare recipient” is supposed to look like.
- Yes, you have witnessed some actual abuse or fraud. You chose not to report it, but — oddly enough — you still complain about abuse and fraud anyway. I have to wonder how complaining about the problem benefits you more than doing something proactive about a problem, since it is clearly an issue about which you have strong feelings and opinions.
So, please, report any actual fraud you see. I have helpfully provided you a link to help you out with that: report that abuse! If you fail to report that abuse, and instead choose to just talk smack about Those People, then you are part of the problem, and other people are pretty sick of hearing your noise.
But I digress, as we’re talking about Welfare and not People Who Are Nasty About People Relying Upon Welfare, and Welfare is a topic that gets nearly everyone upset. It is also (unfortunately) more and more relevant as more and more of our neighbors (and maybe even our own friends and families!) experience financial or un(der)employment-related struggles, fall through the cracks, or experience hard times. It becomes more relevant as the “face” of welfare (in this case, I mean “food assistance” and Medicaid when I say “welfare”) changes and starts to include predominately Caucasian middle-class graduate students and people who have earned Ph.Ds and who are actually working full-time.
Just because your neighbor isn’t talking about it–and most people who experience financial distress are ashamed and do not trumpet that information around–it does not mean that he or she is (or isn’t) relying on a government assistance program (or two) to make ends meet.
What do you mean when you say “welfare”?
What I learned is that I have to be very, very careful to clearly define my terms, and I did not do that as well as I should have. For that lapse, I apologize. To clarify, when I have talked about welfare in the past, I have mostly been referring to SNAP, WIC, TANF and SSI:
- Food benefits like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which is “financial assistance for food purchasing for low- and no-income people…also known as the Food Stamp Program…[t]o be eligible for food stamps, the recipients must have incomes below 130 percent of the poverty line, and also own few assets” and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), which is “a child nutrition program for healthcare and nutrition of low-income pregnant women, breastfeeding women, and infants and children under the age of five; [t]he eligibility requirement is a family income below 185% of the U.S. Poverty Income Guidelines“.
- General welfare programs like the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program which “provides stipends to low-income people who are either aged (65 or older), blind, or disabled” and “Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which “provides cash assistance to indigent American families with dependent children”.
There are some problems with defining the poverty line, as the methodology “was created in 1963 by food and nutrition economist Mollie Orshansky and hasn’t been updated since“, but that is the standard used to determine if a family or individual is “poor enough” to qualify for government assistance. As Salon puts it:
“[Orshansky’s] method [for determining the poverty line], though arguably appropriate at the time, is incredibly crude by modern standards. Her idea was to calculate the cost of a nutritionally adequate diet for a given-size family. Then she used the early-‘60s rule of thumb that food was about one-third the typical family’s budget. So calculate the income needed to prevent malnutrition, triple it, and there’s your poverty line. Needless to say, this has only a hazy relationship with modern living standards. Worse, because at the time there were few government programs designed to help the poor, it refers to income before taxes and cash transfer payments. The formula also neglects to include the value of in-kind public services such as food stamps and Medicaid, and smaller programs like housing vouchers.”
Unfortunately, I have also said “welfare” on occasion when I intended to refer to all goverment-distributed social assistance programs, which do include the aforementioned programs but also can refer to:
- Social insurance (Social Security)
- Healthcare (Medicare, Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), TRICARE, Veterans Health Administration (VHA), Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health Services Block Grant (ADMS Block Grant), Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPaACA or “Obamacare” and more)
- Public education (which includes training, employment, and social services function: elementary, secondary, and vocational education; higher education; and research and general educational aids; see also programs like Head Start, PELL grants, school lunches, government subsidies for private charitable and social outreach programs like the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and more)
- Housing assistance (specifically Section 8)
- Food assistance for groups not covered by SNAP or WIC, such as elderly or mentally- or physically-impaired adults in non-residential day-care settings who benefit from the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP)
- Benefits for federal retirees and veterans
- Scientific and medical research (NASA falls under this category, which includes general science, space, technology, and health research, and more)
- Miscellaneous expenditures, which include corporate subsidies and handouts, bailouts like TARP, government grants for education and the arts, infrastructure expenditures we all benefit from, and so on. This category is the most problematic, as some people bundle bailouts under the “welfare” umbrella, and others include education, public properties like parks and museums, infrastructure and/or national security expenses (which doesn’t just include the military, but also law enforcement officers, firefighters, 911 services, and so on…for our purposes, we are going to assume those expenses are not welfare).
As Wikipedia puts it: “Social programs in the United States are welfare subsidies designed to aid the needs of the U.S. population. Proposals for federal programs began with Theodore Roosevelt’s New Nationalism and expanded with Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier, and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. The programs vary in eligibility requirements and are provided by various organizations on a federal, state, local and private level. They help to provide food, shelter, education, healthcare and money to U.S. citizens through primary and secondary education, subsidies of college education, unemployment disability insurance, subsidies for eligible low-wage workers, subsidies for housing, food stamps, pensions for eligible persons and health insurance programs that cover public employees.”
What I may have thought was self-evident (“I am talking about helping hungry, needy people”) turns out to be a lot more confusing, and part of the onus for that misunderstanding is on me for being foolish enough to assume I had a pretty good handle on the topic just because I am living what it is like, daily, as a SNAP beneficiary (but I am not a statistician nor an economist, so what was I thinking?!), and part of that is due to the incredibly confusing way that different statistics are presented, how both partisan and non-partisan groups which focused on taxes and welfare programs and social issues often (deliberately?) cloud the most pertinent and relevant issues, and when even the government itself vomits reams and reams of enormous and dense .PDF and .XLS files full of endless columns of numbers at you, which all makes it very difficult to figure out where all the money is actually going and how much, on average, we are each paying in taxes.
What do I, personally, pay for with my taxes?
According to John W. Schoen, a Senior Producer at MSNBC, there are no simple answers to that question. In a 2008 article, Schoen explained why it is difficult for the average taxpayer to comprehend where his or her dollars end up.
- Citizens pay taxes every calendar year on April 15th, while the government spends based on a fiscal year, which begins October 1st. The two calendars don’t match up. This makes understanding what dollars do where a little trickier, because the calendars do not synch up.
- According to Gerald Prante, a senior economist at the Tax Foundation, the “average tax bite” on individuals has remained flat–that means it has not changed dramatically–since 1970. That indicates that money is being allocated and de-allocated and shifted around, because the budget bite for different agencies and programs has not been static. That means that looking at last year’s data may demonstrate a very different picture from looking at the year before’s data, especially when you’re trying to determine if a particular program is using funds responsibly, and if people are actually being helped.
- According to the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis, about two-thirds of your taxes go to the Feds (roughly speaking, anyway), while the remaining third went to your state, county or local government. This also clouds the picture, because different areas have different needs, and the breakdown shifts accordingly. If you live in a so-called “red state,” your fellow citizens consume more funds for tax-supported social service and social safety net programs than they pay for, and so-called “blue states” pay more of their taxes for the same public benefit programs than their citizens consume. In those same states, however, there may be local governments (say, a large city’s) where more services are consumed than paid for, or vice versa. Paul Krugman calls this paradox (where conservative states rely most on government assistance while also supporting conservative politicians who seek to gut social safety nets) “Moochers Against Welfare.”
It is confusing, and when you say “where did my money go?” you probably mean “how much of my money is going to someone other than me?” and this is a question that is only best answered once we figure out where you live (Red States are Welfare Queens), what “invisible” services and programs you yourself might be benefiting from that you don’t believe are “welfare” (or government-funded, citizen-supported) programs or which are government-provided benefits you don’t think about too often (such as small business loans, tax breaks for your marital status or number of kids or your charitable giving, a well-maintained infrastructure, arts funding, Pell grants for students, police officers and fire fighters and the 911 emergency assistance service, free public television and radio broadcasts, weather forecasts and disaster preparedness and relief, clean and safe air and water and medicine, well-maintained national parks and museums, technological and scientific research and space exploration, and so on), and how much you personally paid in taxes (and how many, if any, of your assets were socked away in tax shelters or otherwise hidden or protected with other tax-avoiding maneuvers).
John Schoen breaks down how your taxes are spent (or to be precise, how they were spent in 2007), but, oddly, he bundles certain things together (such as Social Security (which is funded through our paychecks), Medicare (which is collected through specific contributions and not income tax), and “income security” programs (which are mostly but not entirely funded by tax dollars, and which do include government assistance for the disadvantaged) that are usually separated when “how the government spends our money” is discussed. When one combines Social Security, Medicare / Health and Income Security, these bundled expenses appear to cost more than all the expenses that fall under the general category of National Defense, which is actually the largest governmental expense.
Even more confusingly, when the same guy did another analysis, he broke things down into different categories. He’s not wrong, mind you, but it is difficult to walk away from either article feeling as if you have a truly good handle on the “where’s my money go?” question, and that is not Mr. Schoen’s fault. He does a masterful job putting it into understandable “average person budget” and plain English terms, but the simplicity he achieves still requires that some lines get blurred between several government program categories. (For instance, would school lunches be counted by the average taxpayer as food benefits, which are typically included in “income security” programs, or would the lunches be counted as one of many branches of the bundled “education”-related social programs?)
My Esoteric at HubPages (a cost-benefit analyst) believes that the answer to “How much per tax dollar I spend goes towards welfare programs?” is about six cents (or nine cents, if you don’t consider a refund for the TARP bailouts to be repaid welfare expenditures):
“I took a look at the 2012 Federal Budget actuals for 2010 to calculate what percentage of your taxes go toward what part of the budgets. The table below presents my findings [that] show how many cents [per] tax dollar go [towards which] expenditure area.”
REVENUE SOURCE OREXPENDITURE AREA NUMBER OF CENTS FROMYOUR TAX DOLLARUSED FOR THIS PURPOSE Income Tax -$1.00 Interest on the Debt $ .06 Security Programs $ .24 non-Welfare Related Social Secuity $ .20 non-Welfare Related Medicare $ .13 TARP (returned funds) -$ .03 non-Security Programs $ .24 Mandatory Welfare Related Programs $ .09You Should Be Able To See The Obvious… but I have some remarks anyway.
- If you consider TARP being considered a form of welfare…then only 6 cents out of every tax dollars goes toward providing welfare services to those who can’t provide for themselves. If you don’t, the figure increases all the way up to 9 cents.
- The other $ .91 or 91% of your taxes go support the operations of the government or defense. (You ultimately get the Social Security and Medicare back.)
- Individual income taxes only provided 26 cents of the revenue dollar needed to fund the 2010 expenditures. 37 cents came for other revenue sources and the last 37 cents was borrowed.
You remember the old phrase, “Hey, mister, can you spare a dime?” Well, after 100 years of inflation the best that can be mustered today is, “Hey mister, can you spare six cents?” Says something about American society, doesn’t it?”
Who, exactly, is receiving the most welfare?
When I noted that “more whites” are on welfare in a previous article, I promptly received confirmation of that statement when many readers commented and hastened to point out that, statistically, there are more white folks overall in the United States. Yes, exactly. The fact that there are more white people on welfare because there are more white people overall makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it? My point was that it seems odd that we define the “face” of welfare by imagining a person of color (usually as a “Welfare Queen”) when the higher percentage of people receiving a form of welfare are white. It is also problematic when certain (usually Republican) politicians knowingly perpetuate racial welfare-related stereotypes to score points with a traditionally discriminatory and under-informed block of the electorate.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson from Huffington Post says, citing census data, “The figures are well known. More whites are on welfare, use food stamps, and public health services numerically than blacks and Latinos. More whites rely on social security, Medicare, and farm supports statistically and proportionally than blacks or Latinos. In Mississippi and Alabama the poverty and unemployment rate among whites is among the highest in the nation.”
- 29 million people are on welfare
- White: 11,661,000 (39%) ← This number is larger.
- Black: 11,362,000 (38%)
- [Total] US population — 313,544,041
- White: 227,005,885 (72.4%) ← This number is also larger.
- Black: 39,506,549 (12.6%)
Blacks: 11,362,000 / 39,506,549 * 100 = 28.75% ← Now this number is larger.
It is time for the “Welfare Queen” myth to die.
Do you know what’s true (and what’s not) when it comes to welfare topics?
- More whites than blacks or Hispanics receive aid (again, we’ve discussed this; see above if you’re still confused by the word “more” and feel the need to nerd out over stats that wind up helpfully proving the actual point being made).
- Two out of three welfare recipients are children, not adults.
- Three out of four women on aid get off welfare within two years.
- TANF benefits are limited to five years (60 months) total. TANF benefits are not renewed or extended if you have additional children. “You can only get TANF for 5 years. This limit applies to all adults and heads of households. […] Adults who reach the 5 year limit cannot collect TANF for themselves or their children. If you get any benefits from TANF during a month, even if you only receive $1, that month will count as one month against your 5 year limit. Periods of receipt need not be consecutive to count towards the 5 year limit.”
- Alternet says: “Aside from the fact that [the welfare stereotype is] racist, it’s just not true. According to the U.S. government, the majority of welfare recipients are white, live in the suburbs, have two kids, want to work, and stay on welfare an average of only two years. […] While conservatives talk about welfare recipients being a burden on the public, many don’t realize how little we spend on public assistance. The attack on social spending is based on myth. In 1996, all spending on “welfare” programs, including food stamps, free school lunches, unemployment checks, housing assistance, legal defense and the rest came to somewhere around $130 billion. Only counting direct assistance programs like AFDC, however, it was about $50 billion — approximately 4% of the $1.23 trillion budget. When compared to the whole federal budget, the money spent on welfare is trifling, especially when you look at other, truly wasteful federal budget items. Waste and fraud in military spending cost an estimated of $172 billion, while a host of business subsidies — no-strings federal gifts to profitable corporations — cost another estimated $170 billion in taxes. Then there are capital gains and other tax loopholes benefiting the wealthy that cost over $130 billion a year. It looks like the “burdened taxpayers” have bigger things to worry about besides welfare.”
- The real “Welfare Queens” are corporations. We spend $59 billion on human welfare programs, “and $93 billion were devoted to corporate welfare. This is about 5 percent of the federal budget. To clarify what is and isn’t corporate welfare, a “no-bid” Iraq contract for the prestigious Halliburton, would not be considered corporate welfare because the government technically directly receives some good or service in exchange for this expenditure. Based on the Pentagon’s Defense Contract Audit Agency (DCAA) findings of $1.4 billion of overcharging and fraud, I suppose the primary service they provide could be considered to be repeatedly violating the American taxpayer. On the other hand, the $15 billion in subsidies contained in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, to the oil, gas, and coal industries, would be considered corporate welfare because no goods or services are directly returned to the government in exchange for these expenditures”.
- States with the highest benefits have the lowest rates of additional births, and the states with the lowest benefits have the highest.
- “In the median state, which adds $57 in monthly Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC)benefits for an additional child, each newborn brings a minimum $88.50 a month in new expenses, according to estimates by Catholic Charities USA [this means that each additional child costs approximately $30 more a month after any benefit increased are factored in; more children mean less money overall to survive on].
- Contrary to the myth, AFDC families also are slightly smaller than the U.S. average. The typical AFDC family consists of 2.9 people, according to the Children’s Defense Fund, compared to the average 3.16 nationwide. Some 42 percent of AFDC mothers have just one child, and 30 percent have two kids. Just 10 percent of AFDC families include four or more youngsters.”
- Here are the guidelines for TANF (and here are the names TANF may go by in your state, if “TANF” is unfamiliar to you): Be poor, have infant(s) or children under 18, be ready to work (there is no “free ride”), benefits are limited to a total of five years. Be prepared to give up most if not all of your current assets (if any). The government may provide a cheap mobile phone with pre-paid minutes if the TANF recipient is too poor to afford a land-line or mobile phone of his or her own. This is done so the poor person can communicate with potential employers and with the government employees handling his or her files. (Judgmental people will actually covet these “free” phones and make many nasty comments about how “unfair” it is that a person on welfare “has an iPhone”…but do not kid yourself. You know that not one of them would trade places with the poor person, even if they did get a real iPhone out of the deal.) You can not receive TANF if you have no children, if you are unwilling to work, and if you are not destitute.
- Here are the guidelines for SNAP: Be poor and hungry. You can only buy food, and only specific kinds of approved food items. (No toiletries, like toilet paper or shampoo or soap. No pet food items or baby care items like diapers, or feminine hygiene items like tampons or pads. No “hot” or deli foods, no pre-prepared or frozen foods (in some areas). No tobacco or alcohol.) Average cost per person per meal is about $1.60, if s/he can qualify for the maximum food stamp benefits available. There are no actual paper scrip / coupon-like “food stamps” anymore; SNAP benefits are distributed via plastic Electronic Bank Transfer (EBT) cards that look a lot like standard debit cards.
- Here are the guidelines for WIC: Be poor and hungry, have infant(s) or very young child(ren). There are nutrition “classes” available, and the focus is on providing lots of dairy products for small children. Otherwise, WIC has very similar guidelines as SNAP.
- Find your local “Section 8” low-income housing area. What kind of neighborhood is it in? Is it safe? Would you feel comfortable driving through or walking around the neighborhood at night? Is it attractive and conveniently situated near good schools, public transportation, grocery stores and businesses? Would you want to live there, even for free? Do you still begrudge those folks a “free” apartment? (Did you know that people can wait up to a decade or more to be placed in this housing?)
- It’s true that with state and federal expenditures, welfare programs cost a total of $24 billion annually. And yet welfare payments affect only 1 percent of the federal budget.
- Affluent Americans enjoy far greater benefits in the form of tax deductions for mortgage interest and property taxes, capital gains exclusions, and farm subsidies. The higher the household income, under current tax law, the greater the tax advantages. Mortgage interest, which is excluded from taxation on loans up to $1 million, will cost the federal government $53.5 billion in 1995, according to a House Joint Committee on Taxation report—more than twice the payments to poor families.
- Families earning $50,000 or more enjoyed 88 percent of the total tax benefit, and families earning more than $100,000 annually collected 44 percent, according to the same report. “People with million-dollar mortgages do not need a federal subsidy,” says Henry Rose, director of the Community Law Center at Loyola University Law School in Chicago. “You can own two homes and benefit from mortgage interest deductions on both. The government is subsidizing you to own two homes. Is that really where we want our taxes to go? Contributions to Social Security decline as a percentage of income for persons earning more than $60,000. Thus, a worker who earns $20,000 pays 6 percent of earnings into Social Security while another person who earns $200,000 contributes only 2 percent.“
- Unlike federal assistance to the poor, government payments to Social Security recipients are adjusted annually to ease the bite of inflation.
- Via ThinkByNumbers.org: “In 1996, Congress passed a bill enacting limited welfare reform, replacing the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program with the new Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) program. One key aspect of this reform required recipients to engage in job searches, on the job training, community service work, or other constructive behaviors as a condition for receiving aid. [T]he success of this reform was pretty dramatic. Caseloads were cut nearly in half. Once individuals were required to work or undertake constructive activities as a condition of receiving aid they left welfare rapidly. Another surprising result was a drop in the child poverty rate. Employment of single mothers increased substantially and the child poverty rate fell sharply from 20.8 percent in 1995 to 16.3 percent in 2000.”
- The poor unfairly bear the brunt of our political and economic anger and are without powerful defenders. “The typical reaction I hear is, ‘We’re the taxpayers who carry the weight of society. Why are you critical of our meager benefits?'” Rose says. “I can understand that. But when we talk about replacing the welfare state, let’s at least recognize all the forms of benefits and look at who really needs subsidy.”
We don’t think purely logically when it comes to finding solutions to poverty.
We must remember there are suffering human beings involved when we discuss welfare.
“On August 22, 1996 President Bill Clinton signed into law his now infamous Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act thereby “end[ing] welfare as we have come to know it.” The Act replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).TANF establishes a lifetime limit of 60 months (5 years) for federal assistance, mandates that single parents participate in work activities for an average of 30 hours per week, and caps federal block grant contributions to states at $16.6 billion per year. (As a result of inflation the real value of the TANF block grant has already fallen by 28%.)[D]espite few fluctuations in the poverty rate since TANF supplanted AFCD, the participation rate among eligible families has plummeted by 52% since 1995. Over the same time period—and despite flat to declining crime rates— the U.S. prison and jail population has increased by 44% . Perhaps a quickly expanding prison population is precisely the unspoken foundation upon which “welfare to workfare” rests. We haven’t “ended welfare;” instead we’ve invisiblized it by shifting its beneficiaries from the public square to the prison yard.”