If You Want to Expand Our Welfare System, Call It ‘Assistance to the Poor’

By Ashley Jardina, an assistant professor of political science at Duke University. Originally published at Talk Poverty; cross posted from Alternet

Last Spring, in a highly publicized meeting with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, President Donald Trump received some startling news. One of the members mentioned to Trump that pushing forward with “welfare reform” would be hurtful to her constituents, “not all of whom are black.”

“Really?” Trump replied. “Then what are they?”

Statistically, they were probably white. But given the United States’ history with the word “welfare,” it’s not all that surprising that Trump was confused.

Despite the fact that white Americans benefit more from government assistance than people of color, means-tested aid is primarily associated with black people and other people of color—particularly when the term welfare is used. For many Americans, the word welfare conjures up a host of disparaging stereotypes so strongly linked to stigmatized beliefs about racial groups that—along with crime—it is arguably one of the most racialized terms in the country.

Martin Gilens, a professor of political science at Princeton University, has studied the relationship between whites’ racial attitudes and their opinion on welfare extensively. In one study, he finds that white people’s racial attitudes are the single most important influence on their views on welfare. In other words, white people who are more prejudiced toward black people are also significantly more opposed to welfare. Numerous studies in the social sciences have substantiated this claim.

That has tremendous consequences for the types of policies that are proposed and passed. Public support for programs associated with the term welfare are generally weaker than support for other programs, like unemployment insurance, primarily because welfare is so strongly linked to the negative attitudes white people possess about black people. However, the public is willing to support redistributive benefits generally when they are not called welfare. For example, in 2014, 58 percent of white people thought that we are spending too much on welfare, whereas only 16 percent reported that we are spending too much on the poor.

Source: Author’s analysis of 2014 General Social Survey data.

These same racial attitudes also structure the way policies are designed. They inform which groups we think are deserving of assistance, and which are not. Nicholas Winter, for instance, notes that part of why Social Security is so relatively popular compared to welfare is because of how both policies are racialized. Social Security, he argues, has been framed as a policy that is both universal—that is, it benefits all groups—and as one that has been contrasted with welfare as an earned reward for hard work (stereotypes associated with white people), rather than a handout for the lazy and dependent (stereotypes associated with black people).

In contrast, negative beliefs about the beneficiaries of programs we think of as welfare have arguably lead to a system of surveillance and sanctions. After Reagan popularized the disparaging stereotype of the ‘welfare queen’ in the 1980s, Bill Clinton passed welfare reform policies that restricted access to benefits to satisfy racist attitudes. In addition to placing significant and often unfair burdens on the individuals seeking assistance, these restrictions—like required drug-testing of program applicants, restrictions on where benefits can be spent, and specifications on what types of work count toward required hours—relied on stereotypes and reinforced the belief that beneficiaries of these programs are undeserving. According to work by Joe Soss and Sanford F. Schram, more people believed that welfare benefits lead to dependency in 2003 than in 1989.

The media have played a significant role in establishing the link between poverty, welfare, and race in the public mind. According to Gilens, these trends were forged in the 1960s, when race riots drew the nation’s attention to the black urban poor. In just three years—from 1964 to 1967—the percentage of poverty news stories that featured images of black people grew from 27 percent to 72 percent. These trends have persisted in the present day.

But both Gilens’ and Winters’ work suggests that the media can also help promote anti-poverty legislation by avoiding racialized terms, like welfare, to talk about public assistance. But if they keep leaning specifically on the term welfare—as they have during Speaker Ryan’s recent push to cut anti-poverty programs by referring to them as “welfare reform”—then otherwise popular policies may be dragged down with the word’s racialized history.

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  1. Disturbed Voter

    Assistance to widows, orphans and indigent would work, if it weren’t associated with politics.

    1. jrs

      Well then such assistance would be limited to them, and be more narrow than even the scant safety net is at present.

      1. ChiGal in Carolina

        Indigent covers a lot of ground. The old testament prophets spoke eloquently of the importance of caring for widows, orphans, and the downtrodden.

  2. The Rev Kev

    Beating up on the poor is a long-standing tradition and not just a modern thing nor has it always been about race. In the 19th century the UK introduced workhouse for the poor which people hated with a vengeance over the generations. It was a way of corralling the poor and the conditions were deliberately cruel, according to official documents, in order to deter people from going into them.
    Wives were separated from husbands and children from parents upon entry and a page at http://www.workhouses.org.uk/life/rules.shtml will give an idea of what life was like inside these places. In modern times, governments have learned that there are always votes to be gained on punishing the poor. In the US it was ‘welfare queens’ while in Australia it was dole-bludgers at the beach but the intent was always the same – to get people to resent the poor and punish them consequently.

    1. Lynne

      Anyone who thinks resistance to welfare is strictly race-based has never heard people get started on “poor, white trash.” Or read any online comments from rich suburbs trashing the working class and poor after the election.

      1. jrs

        As a complete explanation it seems to not translate globally either. There is some truth to it but … Take the present UK, benefits for many things are being actively cut there, is that also all about race?

        In the U.S. it has a racial context sure, and maybe it would be better to call it assistance to the poor. But then even extremely popular programs like Social Security are forever being threatened with cuts.

  3. chewitup

    Social Security does not have a stigma because it is associated with work. Welfare does because it is associated with not working.
    What a perfect argument for a job guarantee program. Oh, sorry. We can’t afford it. Too bad we don’t have academic studies pointing out the absurdity of the political establishment and their semantic gymnastics.

    1. Croatoan

      Interesting. Being on Social Security Disability has a huge stigma. I face it all the time. But the Social Security that people get in retirement, no stigma. Is it just that there is a larger voting public more likely to get one rather than the other? Is it because that is the welfare that “rich people” get? That “normal people” get?

      I need to think about this…

      But thank you, because this has helped me with a come back. When people scoff at me for being on SSD I will just ask them if they will take SS money when they retire.

    2. jrs

      It wouldn’t take much of a study, all that needs to be shown is that there are more people who need to work than there are jobs. That IS ALL. That is the entire of the case! Then you either provide people with jobs or income or you are letting them suffer and die from lack of resources. Of course official figures and so on are so gamed these days. But yet workplace participation rates tell a story …

      The full ugliness of workplace participation rates will become visible at one point, when the tide goes out. I mean some people probably manage to live ok with lower workplace participation, a spouse can’t find work so they live on one income instead of two. Someone takes in a family member and at least has the minimum to spare to keep them from starving in the streets. Ok those are the good cases. But come a recession these people have absolutely no wiggle room should the sole remaining breadwinner etc. lose their job.

  4. JTMcPhee

    Yah, good luck changing the terms of the Narrative, especially replacing “welfare” with something less inherently derogatory. (Rich people are very concerned about THEIR personal “welfare,” but of course there are several entries in the lexicon under the word “welfare—“ some carrying the meaning of very decent impulses, but in that wonderful cognitive-dissonance discordant chord “we” manage, the others carry the absolute opposite (“Welfare Queens,” anyone?)

    Though as to changing the lexical markers of the Narrative, I note an increasing use of “mope” to describe the “looteds,” the working class and unables, as contrasted with “Elite” to denominate the Looters. Some here, the ones who can swim with head well above water in the “Exposed To Risk” deep dark oceans of The Market, no doubt think of “mopes” (also known as “muppets” and “dumb money” and other Wall Street “looking down from the top floors” pejorative) as “failures,” because they Don’t Have Money, and have neither the peculiar twists of mind nor access to the backgrounds and tools, like “liquid net worth,” that let the Neoliberal Supermen find all that alpha and beta and those 10-baggers. And of course way too many of us mopes, with jawbs, or unable to find jawbs, or unable to even greet at Walmart or god help us, work the concrete floors and iron walls of Amazon’s distribution centers or those Whole Foods Little Shops of Horrors, still think of themselves as ‘temporarily embarrassed millionaires,” just knowing that their ship is going to come in shortly.

    So it’s nice to cast around for a better meme to describe “welfare,” but just think of how many squillions of indexed entries in the Vast New Cloud of Big Data, and how many well-exercised neurons and synapses, already carry the mass and momentum of the derogatory and negative connotations of that word “welfare.” Language has inertia and momentum too. Needs a vary particular beat of a butterfly’s wing to catalyze a change in the cognition that carries the current exsanguination of the mopery forward and downward.

    1. mle detroit

      Excellence in Commenting prize to you!
      Do our wonderfully informative media ever give us an in-depth look at the joys of mobile home park life, especially the economic class gradations? A motor tour through half a dozen of them is wonderfully educational.

    2. animalogic

      (“Welfare Queens,” anyone?)
      Do I remember correctly — these WQ’s were all driving Cadilacs ?

      1. Lil’D

        In my youth I volunteered at a food distribution charity (1970s)
        We put together boxes and twice weekly were open for pickups
        Every week came three well dressed black ladies with plenty of gold jewelry, driving up in a Cadillac to load up.
        I made a self righteous snarky comment to one of the other volunteers about welfare queens
        She said “let’s talk to them”
        Said hello, that we saw them every week, how were they doing, how did they like the food boxes…
        “Oh these aren’t for us. A family at our church needs them and can’t drive so we come to get them.”
        The shame I felt…

  5. marym

    Per the CBPP study in the link, whites without a college degree are the largest group helped out of poverty by social progams, and stand to lose the most from the next round of reductions.

    Why is using terminology that doesn’t remind them of black people a better idea than educating people about the reality of the economy and of these programs? Why should semantic cover be provided for the destructive and divisive notion that poor/working class white people are paying the bills for non-white people? Or that any benefit they receive is somehow different in kind and thus “deserved” compared to the exact same benefit someone else is receiving?

    What am I missing?

    1. Mel

      No reason, except it might be quicker. Maybe over two or three presidential terms we could achieve a country where non-elites could live. A true democracy with a responsible government and informed citizens would probably take longer, and barring other measures, the misery would be going on most of that time.
      “And when he asks for bread to eat, give him an online civics course.” — not Bertold Brecht/Marc Blitzstein.

  6. Dan

    How about “Aid To Families With Dependent Children”? Oh wait, people called that welfare!
    How about “Food Stamps” or “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance”? Oh wait, people call that welfare!
    How about “Temporary Assistance to Needy Families”? Oh wait, people call that welfare!
    Moral of the story: any program that helps the poor will be stigmatized unless it is a universal program like SS & Medicare. SS & Medicare are welfare, too, but people won’t admit it because they don’t want to admit that they receive welfare.
    One partial solution might be a universal child subsidy similar to what the Nordic countries offer. Everyone with children gets the subsidy, though the poor get a bigger subsidy than the rich.
    Likewise Alaska’s UBI is not thought of as welfare because it is universal.
    Medicaid is stigmatized because it is associated with the poor. Solution: replace it with universal health care. Everybody in, nobody out.

    1. JTMcPhee

      SS and Medicare and Medicaid are “welfare” in the sense of “social welfare,” and “the general welfare,” that discredited bit of constitutional lingo. Although to differing degrees they are “paid for” by the benefciaries, via FICA and the like. My feeling is that the language and belief structures are so poisoned by all the endless ladling out of Bernays Sauce that there’s a huge mountain to climb to even affect the discourse in a comity-friendly direction.

      And to borrow that NRA-ism, you will take the wealth and power and privileges of the Ruling Elites only by prying them from their cold, dead hands. And those who do the prying, more likely than not, given “history,” will just appropriate what they take for themselves. I don’t recall any great armies ever installing a “sharing economy” after storming and looting the citadels of the rich… Was it Samuel Gompers who, when asked what Labor wanted, had this one-word response: “MORE!”? Which of course is what pretty much every human wants, all the time. Therein lies the rub. Not too may of us will, even if allowed the alternative of “MORE!,” settle for a genteel sufficiency. How many of 7.6 billion would do so? Let alone the 330 million nominal Citizens of the US Empire? The sharpies among us will quickly figure out how to sucker the mopes out of their “modest competence.”

      Of course, that does not mean that “we, the mopes,” and the very few who have interpenetrated the ranks of the Elite and are doing a little worming from within, should stop trying…

      1. Jamie

        Was it Samuel Gompers who, when asked what Labor wanted, had this one-word response: “MORE!”? Which of course is what pretty much every human wants, all the time.

        Yes, clearly some very rich do not stop wanting more, but it matters whether those wanting more are above the mean or below the mean in what they already have. Society as a whole can appreciate the difference and support the efforts of those below the mean and restrain the efforts of those above the mean. Or it can, through culture and custom, support the desires of those above the mean and suppress that of those below.

        As to the rest, the number who might “settle for a genteel sufficiency” is also dependent on current conditions. Whether people display their inherent greed or their inherent complacency depends on the cultural environment and current distribution of wealth, and not solely on some absolute human nature. The “human nature” displayed under one set of circumstances is not necessarily the same as the “human nature” displayed under a different set. Part of politics is to shape and determine what set of circumstances will rule, and thus which aspects of “human nature” manifest.

        1. JTMcPhee

          But: which set of circumstances and behaviors, shaped by culture and politics and artfully manufactured desire and demand, seems to obtain over most of the world?

          I’d like to be optimistic, really I would, but there’s this by Robert Frost:

          Some say the world will end in fire,
          Some say in ice.
          From what I’ve tasted of desire
          I hold with those who favor fire.
          But if it had to perish twice,
          I think I know enough of hate
          To say that for destruction ice
          Is also great
          And would suffice.

          Local conditions might produce other localized outcomes, thank goodness, but most of us live in Friedman’s Flattened Globalized Earth. Meannes, in all its meanings, sure seems to be the reversion to the mean.

      2. MichaelSF

        Medicaid is paid out of general revenues, not the various SSA trust funds. It is “welfare” just as SSI (the Federalized former state aid to the aged/blind/disabled poor) is welfare. When I worked at SSA in our manuals people who got SSI were termed “recipients” while people getting SSA Title II retirement/disability were “beneficiaries”, with those distinctions based on the source of the funds.

  7. Brooklin Bridge

    How long would it take interested parties to re-brand “assistance to the poor” as the new bête noir to replace “welfare”? Right now, “assistance to the poor” may look pretty hard to bend out of shape into a pejorative, but is that really so? Time, money and (TV or it’s modern equivalents) would almost certainly do the trick. Or, perhaps another approach would be to keep shifting the names we call things at each toxic tipping point of the old term.

    In general, while racial stereotypes have indeed been extensively and pathologically used to blame the victims of our economic system, the whole underlying notion of “helping others out”, compassion, empathy, etc., has been made to look like a sucker’s errand.

    Perhaps “Assistance to the poor” along with other terms would be a good starting point, to sort of crow bar attitudes away from established ruts, but still…

    1. rusti

      This sounds like what linguists call The Euphemism Treadmill:

      To a linguist, the phenomenon is familiar: the euphemism treadmill.

      People invent new “polite” words to refer to emotionally laden or distasteful things, but the euphemism becomes tainted by association and the new one that must be found acquires its own negative connotations.

      “Water closet” becomes “toilet” (originally a term for any body care, as in “toilet kit”), which becomes “bathroom,” which becomes “rest room,” which becomes “lavatory.”

      1. Paul Cardan

        Good point. But consider the history of the term ‘democracy.’ Starts out referring to rule by the demos, the people, as in the many, hoi polloi, the poor. The only people (men) with the leisure to write about politics certainly aren’t poor. And so ‘democracy,’ for much of it’s history, is a pejorative. Relatively recently, that changes in connection with broader social change, much of it full of conflict. Semantics shift with changes in the balance of power.

        ‘Welfare’ and it’s ilk (‘assistance to the poor’) are fighting words. Their meanings depend on who’s winning.

      2. Jeremy Grimm

        I would make a small addendum to your comment about euphemism treadmills. Not only is the substitution of “assistance to the poor” just another in what is becoming a lengthy chain of euphemisms all transforming to pejoratives but worse — it rings to my ear as downright Victorian like words which might flow from the mouth of Scrooge somewhere between prisons and workhouses.

  8. Exlcus

    Do you really not know why people don’t like the word welfare? Because it is now synonymous with free money for people. And if you say that to the middle class, they instinctively know that you are robbing them at gunpoint to give their hard-earned money to someone else. Surprise! People don’t like that.

    And how could anyone, when we have a govt that is incredibly corrupt on the institutional level at this point! Even if you like poor people, like me, at this point, the worst place to run your money through is the federal govt. It’s almost as likely to end up killing and injuring poor people through the warfare machine as it is to help anyone through the welfare machine.

    Assistance to the poor is just another way to say free money for the poor. It sounds like maybe you’re just giving a poor person a pat on the back, and a pamphlet with information to point them in the right direction. You’re not. You want to give them more free money. Maybe you’ll fool a few people at the beginning with your fancy new slogan, but they’ll figure it out and then you’ll have to move on to a new one.

    My full time career at this point is helping people improve their financial situation. It takes good choices, it takes work, but I see it done and I’ve helped plenty of people move up the social ladder by quite a bit. And plenty of them were broke when we started. But I never give them a penny of money (well, almost never).

    In my opinion, in my personal experience, the social safety net in this country is way too comfortable. I see all the time how it’s a huge disincentive for people to actually do any work and actually take responsibility for their financial decisions and other life decisions.

    It’s just my personal subjective experience, and no, I am definitely not a republican, nor a democrat, and I am not some rich person, I’m very middle class. But I sure as heck am going to fight if you want to take any more of my money in taxes “for the benefit of poor people”. You ain’t fooling me with that one.

    You really want to help them, improve the quality of jobs in this country for people who never went to college.

    1. tongorad

      It’s just my personal subjective experience, and no, I am definitely not a republican, nor a democrat, and I am not some rich person, I’m very middle class. But I sure as heck am going to fight if you want to take any more of my money in taxes “for the benefit of poor people”. You ain’t fooling me with that one.

      Your federal taxes do not pay for government spending.
      MMT: Government Budgets Are NOT Like A Household

        1. Carla

          That is correct. At the federal level, there is no connection. At the state and local government level, there is a connection; these governments, not being currency creators, must balance their budgets much as households have to do.

          1. Exlcus

            So therefore the federal government can just give $1 billion dollars to every American and we can all ride around in our G-5 jets with butlers and maids and live happily ever after.

            In fact, every country could do that!!! Every person in the world could be a billionaire!!! No, we could all be trillionaires!!!

            Are you really serious that you think there’s no connection at all between tax revenue and govt spending? Did you REALLY think this through?

            1. none

              It’s not gov spending, but rather the size of the entire economy that constrains the amount of money that can be created without inflating it.

              1. Exlcus

                Are you not aware that the govt does not have the ability to print even one dollar? They have delegated that authority to the Federal Reserve Bank. The govt can only mint coins, that’s all the authority they have left. Only the central bank can print dollars. So if the govt has a hole in its budget, it must borrow money, and that is limited. That kind of constrains its finances. That’s by design, that’s part of the goal of the central bank, among others.

    2. jrs

      “It sounds like maybe you’re just giving a poor person a pat on the back, and a pamphlet with information to point them in the right direction”

      I have opinions on where I think those pamphlets should be stuffed. No advice can fix some people’s problems, they need either a job or an income period, not more useless advice (“how about you take out a bunch of student debt and get more edumacation, surely you can retain at 50 something and lots of people will be looking to hire a newly trained 50 something FOR SURES!!!” and then if they live that long (poverty kills many before then) they will garnish their social security for the student debt to train for the job they never got to pay it back – poverty squared. There are often no good choices to make.).

      I don’t’ know what your career is. Here’s the naked truth: a lot of peoples careers are basically dishonest scams. But this is a scam country so there you go. Everyone out to scam everyone else and figure out what the best scam is, be a scam artist winner! Some are only low level scams (the job that doesn’t give enough work to do so one pretends to work for the paycheck when they do 2 hours a day work max and the company doesn’t even notice). That is mostly harmless. Other scams are more harmful. One goes around preaching some garbage like The Secret or other new age or prosperity garbage for money. Now that isn’t necessarily what you do. Depending on the audience your work might do some good, if it is just encouraging middle class people to give up some needless spending and put more in the 401k that’s benign. If it is just encouraging a 20 something even if they come from a disadvantaged background to go to college so long as they don’t take out much debt that’s mostly ok advice (though no guarantee of anything these days). But it ignores the fact that these are the EASY CASES. What makes even psychotherapy most successful is being an easy case, there is research on that. The hard cases don’t necessarily have a solution. They need aid to the poor at present to NOT DIE. Not providing it has a good chance of killing them. Better work for non-college grads, more unionization, worker empowerment for them, a non corrupt federal gov would be nice, but currently anti poverty programs prevent death.

    3. rusti

      In my opinion, in my personal experience, the social safety net in this country is way too comfortable. I see all the time how it’s a huge disincentive for people to actually do any work and actually take responsibility for their financial decisions and other life decisions.

      It’s just my personal subjective experience, and no, I am definitely not a republican, nor a democrat, and I am not some rich person, I’m very middle class. But I sure as heck am going to fight if you want to take any more of my money in taxes “for the benefit of poor people”. You ain’t fooling me with that one.

      Especially those lazy kids! I’m with you, no more redistributing my hard-earned money to those moochers who are over-represented:

      In 2014, 13.5 percent of people aged 18 to 64 (26.5 million) were in poverty compared with 10.0 percent of people aged 65 and older (4.6 million) and 21.1 percent of children under age 18 (15.5 million). Children represented 23.3 percent of the total population and 33.3 percent of the people in poverty.

      1. Exlcus

        Because there’s no free breakfast for kids at school, free lunch for kids at school, free “education”, free SNAP to cover the cost of dinner, free Section 8 housing, free Medicaid for kids, free assistance for utility bills for low-income families, free assistance for living expenses for pregnant women, free tax credit money for kids, and the list goes on and on and on. What else should I be giving these kids at the expense of my kids?

        1. marym

          Maybe give some votes to politicians who won’t give tax breaks to companies and billionaires that employ the kids’ parents but don’t pay them enough to afford food and medical care and heat? These kids and disabled people aren’t stealing from your kids. The predator wealth accumulators are stealing labor and resources from all of us.

          Close to 70 percent of SNAP participants are in families with children; more than one-quarter are in households with seniors or people with disabilities. SNAP provides only a modest benefit (on average, less than $1.40 per person per meal)…


          1. Exlcus

            marym, I agree, let’s have a much deeper conversation than, “We have to give more money to poor people”.

            Why is poverty growing? If it’s a systemic problem, then giving a few more bucks to poor people is not really going to help them. It would be like giving a painkiller to a dying patient.

            Maybe people are so far in debt because we have a debt-based monetary system that requires debt for it to grow?

            Maybe the rich get richer because lobbying pays off so well for them?

            Maybe setting up systems that reward recklessness over responsibility are a bad idea?

            This country needs massive systemic reform. We are 100% agreed on that.

        2. Matt

          What about when school isn’t in session? Ever navigate the paperwork and eligibility requirements that simply dissuade many people who do qualify for assistance from actually applying? Maybe you can remember that you have to re-certify your poverty with the state twice a year or lose your benefits, but I imagine it’s difficult juggling several jobs and kids.

          1. Exlcus

            There are free meals for kids even in the summer in my state.

            Is there a ton of paperwork and mindless bureaucrats to go through, yes! We’re talking about a corrupt govt. That’s not my problem, that’s the govt’s responsibility to keep their act in order, good luck with that! Remember, institutions are financial creations. There really only exists people, not companies or govts. Don’t let them hide behind a shield or a desk. If the govt treats the poor like sub-humans, I do apologize, that is largely outside my control. I treat everyone like my equal.

            1. rusti

              Is there a ton of paperwork and mindless bureaucrats to go through, yes! We’re talking about a corrupt govt. That’s not my problem, that’s the govt’s responsibility to keep their act in order, good luck with that! Remember, institutions are financial creations. There really only exists people, not companies or govts. Don’t let them hide behind a shield or a desk. If the govt treats the poor like sub-humans, I do apologize, that is largely outside my control.

              So if I’m understanding you correctly, the conditions under which a large segment of the poor live, including all those spoiled kids and their free meals even in the summer, shouldn’t be addressed until we have a “deeper conversation” but you never actually expect any sort of systemic reform, because “good luck with that!” and “what am I to do?”

              You expect nothing to change and want a bigger piece of the pie. This sounds like the definition of punching downwards.

              1. Exlcus

                Rusti, it’s called personal responsibility. Today someone is murdered in Chicago, are you responsible, Rusti? Probably not.

                If the SNAP program is inefficient, and I’m not a manager there, it’s not my responsibility, sorry. Setup a podium and lecture the useless bureaucrats as they leave and enter their work.

                All I can do to help that is vote for responsible politicians, of which there are virtually none. There was one about 8 years ago, and I volunteered for the campaign and went door to door even.

                The truth is neither you nor I nor any politician is the savior of the world. Our community is a product of the people that make it up, not one single person. I try to do my part, please don’t blame me or lecture me because someone else is not doing theirs.

                For starters, my taxes, my money, is funding these programs to a level that I deem adequate. If they misuse the money, don’t come to me asking for more money, you need to have a conversation with the people misusing the money.

                1. Matt

                  I actually cannot parse what your argument is. You started off by saying that our social assistance programs are far too generous and dis-incetivize working. When numerous people in these threads have pointed out the stinginess of public assistance, as well as the number of hoops you have to jump through to get help, and how easily these benefits can be taken away, you started talking about corrupt politicians, as if the problem with these programs is that the money that’s supposed to help people is being squandered by inept bureaucrats.

                  There isn’t mounds of paperwork because the program administrators can’t do their jobs; it’s there to satisfy voters can’t stand the idea of their “hard-earned money” being used to subsidize “lazy, irresponsible people.” And because this country hates the poor and thinks they should be punished.

                  You can think whatever you like about welfare spending in the U.S. But if you think that poor people receiving welfare are living high on the hog, you’re simply wrong. The majority of people receiving government help are working a paid job, disabled, or are caretakers of a family member. Many of these people are ashamed of receiving assistance. Waste, fraud, and abuse is minimal, something we know because of the insanely intrusive regime that looks for any opportunity to cut off benefits.

                  1. Exlcus

                    Matt, the voters don’t want mountains of paperwork. The govt employees and govt employee unions want that because it creates tens of thousands of easy jobs to hand out to their good friends at a time when easy good-paying jobs are very scarce.

                    If you think fraud is minimal, all I can say is ha!

                    Just google Medicare fraud and study that for a little bit. And that’s outright criminal fraud, not the soft kind of abuse I’m talking about.

                    Here’s a subjective example of mine. Do you know how many people have told me to my face that they won’t take a job because they’re still on unemployment? Eventually you start to expect that response when you know someone is on unemployment and you are recommending that they take a low paying job as a stepping stone in their career. Like I’m legitimately surprised if I don’t get that response now.

                    1. jrs

                      Taking a low paying job as a stepping stone in a career strikes me as terrible advice. This is different than taking a low paying job to avoid sleeping in the streets, if that is actually a likely outcome then that it *might* prevent (if it pays enough for some form of shelter), but it won’t lead to a career because that’s not what low paying jobs tend to do.

                      There are limited cases that might be exceptions most of which apply exclusively to the young: someone with zero work experience might benefit from something on the resume rather than nothing. Internships at summer break in college might help one’s career, rarely a low paying job will provide some useful training in one’s career (rarely) and generally these jobs market themselves only to fresh college grads. But these are exceptions to the rule that most low paying jobs lead exactly nowhere, and summer internships aren’t what most people are thinking of when they think “low paid jobs” anyway. Now an unemployed person with a real career might have to take a bit of a pay cut to get back to work in a job still in their field but that is not what most people think of when they think low paid jobs either.

        3. JBird

          What else should I be giving these kids at the expense of my kids?

          I would like to think that the growing percentage of we Americans’ children that are in poverty might move somebody to do something about it rather than bellyache about spending money.

          The number, both in absolute numbers, and as a percentage of the population of American homeless, unemployed, poor, sick, and yes dying, is growing and has been for years. This regardless of race, and has been moving up the class lines with at least the lower middle class currently being sucked down too, and the very middle getting greased. And yes, people do not yearn for homelessness, or illness either, and decide not to work so that they may fulfill it. I am assuming that you are middle class, if so, you and your children, are on that greased slideway to poverty, no matter how hard you work, or how educated, or skilled, even if you do not believe it.

          If you ask were all the money is going, it is going towards an every shrinking number of extremely wealthy Americans doing everything they can to eliminate their taxes on the increasing amount they divert from everyone else’s income to their growing pile of concentrated wealth. Our nation, and country, is being transformed into a dystopian, kleptocratic oligarchy in which wealth, and the connections it gives, are more important than anything else to a success life.

          We have the means to change this and we can do so if we stop lauding the thieves called “Job Creators” doing this transformation, and if… We. Stop. Blaming. The. Victims.

          So I ask you, what should I believe, what should I stand for, and what should I do?

          1. Exlcus

            Thank you for this comment, JBird. It’s nice for someone to bring the big picture into focus for us.

            What should you do? I honestly don’t know. What can you do?

            I do what I can. I avoid dealing with the financial system as much as I possibly can, because they are at the heart of this. I help out the individuals in my community as much as I can. I devote a good chunk of my time, through my career, to helping people who need financial assistance. That’s my humble best at the current time.

      2. sharonsj

        Apparently you don’t know someone who has needed the social safety net and very likely you’ve not been in a position to even apply for help. So let me enlighten you. I know people getting Social Security Disability; they get $750 a month plus food stamps (the amount varies by state).

        That’s another problem; whatever you receive varies immensely depending on where you live (and doesn’t get much better over time). Twelve years ago I applied for food stamps and was given $10 a month. I recently applied again; it took seven weeks of supplying an immense pile of paperwork, after which I was given $15 a month.

        If you think this is “way too comfortable,” you are delusional.

        1. Exlcus

          I have been in a position to apply for help plenty of times, but I chose not to.

          I do personally know someone who was on disability for 40 years maybe. He recently passed away from cancer and left almost $50,000 in savings to his family. I don’t know how much he got in disability, but it was obviously enough. He hadn’t worked a day for the last 30-40 years.

          I do know people who live in poverty like you have no idea. My mother-in-law lives on maybe $400 per month. We stay with her often enough, so I’ve experienced it first hand. I have told my wife to just have her mom live with us but her mom is too proud to depend on someone else. What can I do, I find an excuse to give her some money about once a year, but I’m not rich.

          As to SNAP, my state doesn’t have an online calculator, but Oregon does so I plugged in numbers there. A family of 4 could get $640/month in SNAP. That is in addition to the free breakfasts and free lunches for kids at school.

    4. JBird

      In my opinion, in my personal experience, the social safety net in this country is way too comfortable. I see all the time how it’s a huge disincentive for people to actually do any work and actually take responsibility for their financial decisions and other life decisions.

      Of course, having around 4% of Americans living on $2 a day, or approximately 7,000 homeless in San Francisco, or having a local county’s section 8 waitlist closed to new applicants for a decade, which means some people already on the list have been waiting 10 years to get a voucher, shows just how disincentivizing our generous social safety net is to having hope.

      This really annoys me so I am risking being too unpleasant; I have to ask if you have ever been poor, or seen your family, friends, and acquaintances so? It is easy to slide right into it, and once there, getting up that greased slideway is very difficult.

      1. Exlcus

        JBird, I have been completely broke with tens of thousands of dollars of debt. I have had days where I had no money in the bank, maybe $2 in my pocket, and all my credit cards maxed out.

        And I had to give up everything I had been “programmed” to do by our materialistic society.

        1. ChiGal in Carolina

          At these times were you completely without assets or did you own a home, a car, etc?

          Did you have a college or even an advanced degree under your belt?

          Did you have family that could help out in a pinch? Retirement accounts, the expectation someday of an inheritance?

          Leaving this information out, you are not providing a compelling answer to the question here.

            1. Exlcus

              I owned a car with a loan on it. There was no equity in the car, but it was a functioning car, yes.

              I owned a home that was underwater, so negative equity there. That was a mistake I learned from.

              I had no college degree, no.

              I had no family members that would help me financially, no expectation of inheritance or anything like that.

              I had about $10,000 in a 401k from an old job, but I was young enough that I didn’t think I could withdraw that money before I got to 65 years old. So in my mind, that money was untouchable. I have since withdrawn that money, with a penalty, because I have pulled all my money out of Wall Street.

              This is not about me though, let’s keep this on the issues.

    5. Jeremy Grimm

      You seem very concerned about “free money for people” as you characterize welfare. If the people are poor and unable or unwilling to benefit from your help to “improve their financial situation” through “good choices”, and “work” just what would you have society do with them? And though it’s somewhat off topic — just out of curiosity — how do you feel about oil depletion allowances or farm subsidies or some of the thousands of interesting elements in the IRS tax codes?

      1. Exlcus

        Jeremy, I am not against all welfare. What I’m saying is that we have enough right now.

        More money does not solve every problem. It’s limited, you have to use it wisely.

        We are already throwing a ton of money at the problem of poverty. It’s enough money.

        The real problems are systemic. Just off the top of my head, lack of good jobs, a debt-based monetary system, policies that reward recklessness over responsibility (aka bailouts), widespread institutional corruption…

        1. Jeremy Grimm

          Sorry! I was not suggesting that you were against all welfare. I was intimating that you seemed to have greater concern for welfare for the poor while overlooking the considerable public welfare for the rich — something of a cheap-shot all be told. I agree with your assertions that more money will not solve every problem. And I agree that many of the real problems are systemic to which I might add cultural. However I am not so certain we are “throwing a ton of money at the problem of poverty” — or perhaps I should say I am not so certain we are “throwing a ton of money at [mitigating] the problem[s] of poverty”. I share your concerns for the “good choices” and “work ethic” of the poor as well as your concern for what I might characterize as self-destructive behaviors which many of the poor manifest. I am not so certain we are spending enough money to help the poor — though I would caveat that with my agreement that “widespread institutional corruption” eats the money we allocate for helping the poor. Consider for example the considerable amounts the State of New York pays to obtain housing for the homeless, placing homeless in assorted hotels, motels, and apartments while paying the owners of those hotels, motels, and apartments some very generous rents. And we should not forget the considerable expense of “qualifying” the poor to make sure they are “deserving”. I share your distaste for the some of the foibles of the poor much as I believe we share distaste for the “foibles” — to be especially “nice”, perhaps too nice — of the wealthy and powerful.

          But taking all things into account I am loathe to quietly live in a society as wealthy as ours which treats its poor so very poorly. We can and must do better. And finally — I believe the work you do helps the poor — who can be helped — and I admire your efforts as you have described them. Please carry on.

          1. Exlcus

            Thank you Jeremy for your thoughtful comments. If only everyone were as open-minded and intelligent as you. (Seriously not sarcasm.)

            Everyone on this site knows there is not a little but a lot of welfare for the rich. We all know there is a giant circle of money from the rich to the politicians and then from govt back to the rich. How anyone can call that anything besides bribery, when there is clear quid pro quo, it blows my mind.

            We could clearly cut some of that out and direct that money to the more needy in society.

            I agree with you that we need to do more. And I am humbly open to hearing suggestions of concrete things I could do besides giving them more money.

            1. Jamie

              This has been an interesting exchange, especially as it’s an emotion leaden topic. It is difficult to state an opinion that does not rile, and stick to the arguments. Congratulations to everyone for doing so.

              And I am humbly open to hearing suggestions of concrete things I could do besides giving them more money.

              If one understands The Problem as the inequitable distribution of wealth, there is no solution that does not redistribute that wealth. We might suggest a minimum wage… someone will see that as taking money from employers and giving it to poor workers. Socialized health care… the same. Even moral instruction on how to make the “right choices” (if it actually led to fixing the problem, which it wouldn’t) would be seen as taking from the rich and giving to the poor. If you are asking, “how can we reduce inequality without actually redistributing wealth?” the short answer is, we can’t.

              On the other hand, if you think The Problem is not inequality… if you think there’s plenty of opportunity and resources for everyone but some people simply don’t know how to use their opportunities, then some kind of educational program might appeal to you… but, how will you measure whether your educational efforts make any difference? The only measure that has any meaning is concrete material benefit: a change that leaves the former poor with more, without putting someone else in poverty by doing so, and that more has to come from somewhere. Do you believe that proper motivation and training can induce the poor to create more wealth for themselves?.. wealth that does not have to come from any existing resource?.. that they can make out of thin air?

              You are not responsible for fixing the problem of poverty alone. It is a social problem and it does not have a personal solution, only social solutions. But you can chose to support policies of redistribution or not, and you can select, from a range of redistributive policies, those that reduce inequality by shifting resources from the top to the bottom, policies that limit accumulation at the top, and policies that inject resources at the bottom. In my opinion, we need policies on all three fronts, but the most effective will be policies that shift resources from the top to the bottom.

              And you are right to reject policies that claim to address the problem by shifting resources primarily from the middle to the bottom, because those policies do not actually address The Problem and will leave inequality largely in place, or worse, increase it.

              1. Exlcus

                Jamie, I appreciate the long, thoughtful comment that contributes to our discussion.

                Don’t even get me started on the education system, please. That is a whole other topic that I refuse to start on here. But no, I don’t think all the unemployed need is a little more training, or one more degree. That has been very succinctly put by other people in this thread.

                I’ve stated above that we need good quality jobs in this country. As far as I can tell, there is a real lack of jobs that pay a true middle class wage.

                I do appreciate your comment, but for the sake of discussion, I’m going to be the devil’s advocate just for a second, pardon.

                I get the impression, but maybe I’m wrong, that you want every single person in this country to make the same amount of money. You phrase the problem as wealth inequality. That means you want every person to have the exact same amount of wealth, a perfectly even distribution, is that your goal?

                Please, if you will, humor me and describe please how you would redistribute the wealth, in your plan. And how will you do it in a way that still creates an incentive for people to work hard?

                1. jrs

                  the correlation between hard work and money is so weak I’m not sure it would convince even a rat in a Skinner experiment to work harder. Maybe rats are more observant than people though.

                  I don’t think anyone does (or pretty much anyone every has) argued everyone should make the exact same amount. It’s an interesting thought experiment I guess, but not what anyone tends to be actually arguing. Meanwhile in the U.S. the wealthiest 160,000 families own as much wealth as the poorest 145 million families, and that wealth is about 10 times as unequal as income.

                  Inequality in the U.S. is much worse than you think:

                  1. Exlcus

                    jrs, it’s a good point, and I challenge you to a thought experiment.

                    If you take the 10 richest Americans and confiscate half their wealth, you would have about 300 billion dollars. Now, let’s give it evenly to the bottom 1/3 in this country. Every poor person gets $3,000. How long till all the poor people are right back as poor as they were, and all that money has gone right back into the richest people’s pockets again. I say it’ll take 2 months.

                    Just passing out free money ain’t going to fix the problem here. This is a systemic problem. The tables are tilted. You better even out the tables before you keep passing out free money or that money just goes right back to the rich.

                2. Jamie

                  There is far too much to say about this to cover in a brief comment to a web post. But let me say simply that, no, I do not think everyone having the same income will solve the problem and I do not think everyone having the same income is a reasonable social goal. Poverty and wealth are relative terms. Poverty does not mean simply having less than other people. It means not having enough to cover basic needs. (This is why poverty is a “problem”… inequality is a larger problem encompassing both the material shortfall on the one end and material and moral corruption on the other.) One can argue over the definition of basic needs… perhaps meaningful work is a basic need? perhaps simply food and shelter. What is “basic” to a society depends on the particulars of the society, its level of technology, the amount of natural capital available to it, its population density etc. etc.

                  And I agree with you that money is not the measure of all things. When society provides amenities, such as free public transportation, well regulated utilities, free recreation centers, free public toilets, free public education, free public parks and libraries, free public health care etc., then the quality of life goes up for everyone, rich and poor alike, but disproportionately for the poor, and the distribution of money resources becomes less an issue. But society cannot provide those things without spending resources (money, yes, but also natural capital, time, labor etc.) and every resource spent on universal amenities, diminishes the amount available to accumulate at the top. That is, every resource devoted to making life “nice” for everyone, is a resource not available to make life “nice” exclusively for the rich and vice versa.

                  The problem of distribution is one of the three big problems in economics. We have a current distribution. It is not god given. It is a result of past decisions. Somewhere between the impossible, exactly equal, distribution of everything and the current intensification of the class war, is a distribution of resources that is optimum for the health and long term survival of our society. One needn’t necessarily be able to point out precisely where that optimum is in order to know when we have gone too far in one direction or the other. One good indication of approaching the optimum is when the large majority of people have enough to meet their basic needs and more, and no one lives like a king among paupers. Another might be when there is a robust commons and public goods (clean air, clean water, trees and grass…) are protected and accessible by everyone, even the poorest. Instead, we live in a society where pubic goods are locked up and owned by private individuals and the poor and middle classes are routinely denied access or charged fees for access.

                  The problem of optimum distribution cannot be solved by a one time payment from the top 10 to the bottom 100 million, because the current distribution is a result of established flows. More important than moving money one time from the top to the bottom is to establish a system of resource flows that prevents top heavy accumulation and low level depletion. (‘Progressive taxation’ is supposed to be such a flow and there are many others.)

                  If you have ever gardened, you know you don’t have to carefully measure a precise amount of water for each plant. You just have to make sure the whole garden is sufficiently watered. You also know plants will die both from too much, as well as from too little, water and your garden will suffer for it. “Sufficiently even” is not “precisely equal” and due to the way water is absorbed and held by the earth, all the plants benefit from and share the ground moisture. It would harm your garden to isolate each plant and attempt to provide precisely equal watering.

                  1. Exlcus

                    Thank you, Jamie. I agree with what you’re saying. Every system needs to be judged first by its results. The current system is the reason we have this massive inequality. It gets a very poor grade from both of us.

                    It is a complex system though and we should be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater, so to speak.

                    I misunderstood your previous comment though, so thanks for explaining.

    6. cnchal

      . . . But I sure as heck am going to fight if you want to take any more of my money in taxes “for the benefit of poor people”. You ain’t fooling me with that one.

      Fooled again.

      The greediest welfare recipient in the country is Jeff Bezos, the richest man by contrived stawk market value on the planet.

      He works hard, and he works his employees infinitely harder, and many of them are on welfare (SNAP benefits) too.

      When he takes your money, are you OK with that?

      1. Jack

        I would say the greediest welfare recipients are the Waltons (Walmart). Latest numbers I could find was that the Walmart workers receive $6.2 billion in benefits because of their low wages. As the Waltons own over half the stock of Walmart then in effect they control the company.

      2. Exlcus

        No, I am definitely NOT ok with that! I want no greedy hands in my wallet, please!

        As I have mentioned in several places in this exchange, I realize there is an inordinate amount of welfare for the rich in this country. It is absurd. I think all of us here agree that needs to end immediately.

        1. cnchal

          Here is something for your reading pleasure. Ohioans have been muppetized with an absurd combination of “privatized” economic development and secret agreements between them and the financial rapists, whereby the rapists not only get millions in subsidies, property tax exemptions and cheap power, but also a three or four day heads up on any FOIA requests.

          In other words become a law unto themselves.


          The collusion between leading politicians and big business has been transformed into criminal enterprise in the name of economic development. Yet if a poor person receives a buck in welfare, condemnation is the result. Peasants be damned.

          1. Exlcus

            How can you make a law that says “Entity XYZ” pays less in taxes than everyone else? I thought everyone was equal before the law with no special treatment?

            These tax subsidies are exactly that. Just like you say, one set of laws for the privileged, one set of laws for the plebes like us.

            And then “Entity XYZ” just happens to give a contribution to the campaign of the politician that signed that law. Uh huh. Very convenient.

            1. cnchal

              Actually you have cause and effect reversed. “Entity XYZ” contributes to a politician’s campaign and then the politician signs the law as presented by “XYZ’s lobbyists”.

  9. Bobby Gladd

    Socioeconomic Drama

    “We tend to attribute our successes to acumen and initiative, while declaiming responsibility for our misfortunes, which are proffered to be the result of bad luck or the machinations of more powerful adversarial others.”

  10. TG

    Instead of calling it welfare for the poor say that we are “injecting capital into the financial system.” That’s what we call it when we bail out the big banks.

    And on that note, I think all these bank bailouts should be renamed as welfare. Those CEOs of financial institutions whose pensions were guaranteed by the US taxpayer, should be properly termed welfare recipients. I think they should be required to take random drug tests to continue to qualify for their welfare payments. And maybe there should be a work requirement. And I mean real work, like picking up trash in public park. Fair’s fair, right?

  11. Darthbobber

    Not a problem of the names of things. The branding of the”War on Poverty” immunized it not one bit against criticism. And a large part of the attack on “welfare” is really based on the very old by now arbitrary distinction between the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor.

    I think welfare itself was originally a euphemism of choice by antipoverty activists and their supporters in govt to tie the programs as closely as possible to the constitutional power to provide for the common defense and general welfare.

    But it is the thing itself and not its name that is the real subject of the fights.

    1. JBird

      As we supposedly live in a “meritocracy” in which it at least inferred, if not declared, that the “winners” and “losers” have all earned and been sorted into their proper place, too many believe that there are no deserving poor. The winners, and I think some of the losers, do not want to notice that most winners are born on 2nd or 3rd base while the losers often cannot even get a bat to swing with.

  12. Duck1

    Well, Exicus who seems to be a relatively new poster, is expert that we are spending an optimum amount of money ameliorating poverty, and seems like maybe bootstraps are more effective. Really think it would be better to not let vomitous posters hijack such an important thread where maybe more nuanced thinking is required. Hate to be a hater, but people need to limit the amount of posts on a thread.

    1. Duck1

      people need to consider limiting the number of posts that they add to the thread, also, as entertaining as anecdotes might be are they relevant
      I see recycling from other blogs happening

      1. sharonsj

        “Anecdotes” are real-life situations, which I prefer over generalities. They are informative, not entertaining. I think too many people are so self-oriented that they cannot understand the reality that others have to deal with.

    2. JBird

      We all have varying amount of knowledge and we have to start from that level when debating on a subject. Yeah, it is annoying to have to talk with someone without any real understanding of something you might have been studying for years. The bang your head on a wall annoying, but I just remind myself to be nice about that, and realize that I am that bang your head on a wall annoying to others sometimes.

  13. Code Name D

    This is an example of typical neo-liberal thinking. Focus in image at the expense of policy. The reason why “welfare” has become a dirty word is because neo-conservatives have made it so through systematic media campaigns. What ever “alternative word” you select will also be targets, and you will forever chase your tail trying to rebrand terms Worse, you can be called out. “See, this is just still ‘welfare’ under another label.”

    Meanwhile, so called “support for the poor” is also a concept that remains undefined and vague. Still managing the ignore the real issues that form the foundation of poverty. All of the real problems under “welfare” remain examined. Indeed, I would argue that this is the typical Democratic approach to difficult political problems.

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