Anyone who has been on Newsvine for more than a cup of coffee has seen this before; a person who insists on pitching myth after myth about welfare in order to sidetrack substantive debate about social welfare policy and spending, as well as to demonize Democrats and President Obama in general. In fact, these myths don't just occur on the Vine; they are also prominently displayed on television, in books, and on various websites, as well as heard on radio and in direct conversation. They tend to go something like this: "lazy people looking for handouts are ruining the country", "lazy people are taking my tax dollars", "welfare makes people dependent", "welfare queens have more children in order to get more money", "the poor refuse to work because they will be supported by the rich", "Obama wants to take from the 'haves' and give to the 'have nots'", "Obama supporters want a handout", "Obama wants everyone dependent on the Government". If they aren't worded exactly like this, they are simply different variations of these types of statements.
As it turns out, according to the TANF statistics on welfare recipients, these statements - all of them - are, quite simply, false. That's right, every single one of them isn't supported by anything not produced by the Heritage Foundation. As often as these myths get thrown around, you'd think they'd have been proven to the degree that the Pythagorean Thereom has. But, a rather peculiar thing occurs each time one of these welfare gems is carelessly floated into a discussion; it never seems to be accompanied by any supporting evidence. It's generally lobbed into the discussion without explanation as if everyone knows it to be true. Well, let's take a look at the numbers:
In the fiscal year of 2009, there were an average of a little over 4 million people on welfare in any given month. With a population of over 320 million people total, 4 million's a pretty miniscule number to act as if a large portion of someone's tax dollars are going to 'some lazy person on welfare' link. Not to mention, About 75% of all 'lazy' recipients were children (link pg. 86).
That last fact provides a nice segue for another welfare myth: that people have more children in order to get more assistance - welfare queens, as they are generally referred to. Well, the average number of recipient children in a welfare family -1.8 (link pg. 86) is actually less than the national average for number of children in a family - 1.86 (link pg. 1). In fact, one in two recipient families only had one child and only one in ten recipient families had more than three children (link pg. 86). How could that possibly be if welfare recipients have more kids in order to receive more assistance? Quite simply, it couldn't.
Oh, and in regard to that 'welfare creates dependency' diatribe? The average stay for a family on welfare was 35 months, with only 6.6% of families exceeding the limit for benefit assistance (link pg. 8). According to the 1996 House Ways and Means COmmittee, half of families on assistance exited assistance in less than 24 months link. Not to mention, the average assistance - cash and noncash combined - was $370 a month (link pg. 12). Dependence? On $370 a month?
In terms of tax dollars, USgovernmentspending.com lists 2009 expenses budgeted for Family and Children programs at $80.1 billion, which was around 2% of the federal budget link.
Say we throw in unemployment as well - even though unemployment is seperate from welfare in eligibility criteria and application primarily because uemployment is paid into by the person while they are employed - $106.5 billion, still under 5% of the Federal budget when combined with Children and Family expenditures link.
Hopefully, everyone is starting to get the picture. The welfare landscape that is consistently created primarily by Republicans and Conservatives is that welfare is bankrupting the nation; that lazy people are draining society because they refuse to do for themselves and would rather take from everyone else. The Conservative story goes that Barack Obama and his Administration are trying to grow the 'lazy, handout wanting pool' so that they can gain some form of diabolical control of the people. All of that plays well on FOX News, but statistically speaking, it's just not true.
The fact is that welfare rolls grow when the jobs go; it's that simple. As these NPR and WSJ articles point out link, link State welfare rolls have increased - some rather substantially - since the economy (and thus employment) went belly up. This suggests rather succintly that people were working and taking care of themselves and their families until they lost their jobs, primarily through no fault of their own.
Since Clinton's 1996 Welfare Reform Act, welfare rolls had been on a steady decline until the recent economic turmoil. That 1996 legislation essentially capped the amount of money each state would receive for assistance and capped the time a family could spend on assistance. Also, that legislation provided incentives for States which proved effective at helping transition families from welfare to work. As the Wall Street Journal noted, these changes resulted in welfare rolls decreasing by over 60% since 1995 (roughly 5 milllion families to 1.6 million before the recession) link:
Welfare cases peaked at above five million in 1995 and declined sharply after the 1996 law put time limits on benefits and emphasized moving recipients from welfare to work.
The numbers speak for themselves. However, too often, people utilize their own anecdotal experiences to generalize millions of people. They say something like "my neighbor has a big screen TV, 20 inch rims on her car, and a brand new cell phone but she's got six kids and still receiving welfare" - as if that story somehow means that every person on welfare MUST be exactly the same. It's a classic case of comparing the ant with the elephant and acting as if they are the same size simply because they both exist.
Contrary to what each individual's anecdotal experiences may suggest, the collective numbers paint a much, much different picture. Of course there are always going to be a small portion of individuals who abuse various systems - we see the same thing with wealthy individuals abusing the high end of the tax system. However, generalizing that small group as justification for not paying attention to the facts of the situation is recipe for disaster.
So here's a gentle plea that if people are going to discuss welfare, why not keep the discussion within the ballpark of factual and reliable?