5 Welfare Myths We Need to Stop Believing

Anti-poverty and welfare programs have received shockingly little attention this campaign season. Even the Democrats, whose primary has shifted further left than many would have predicted, have rarely brought up these programs on the campaign trail.

As Annie Lowery recognized in a recent column in New York Magazine, however, welfareprograms need desperate attention. Not because, as you often hear, they’re wildly inefficient or that there’s too much waste, fraud and abuse. We need to pay attention to them because they’ve been neglected, and families and children suffer because of it.

Lowery also points out that campaigning on improving welfare and spending more money on anti-poverty programs is unfortunately not typically a winning issue. Impoverished people are not a substantial voting bloc, and many people are suspicious of these programs.

But if people knew the truth about welfare programs, I suspect they would favor them more. We believe a lot of myths about welfare that at least partially account for its diminished place in the national political dialogue. Here are 5 myths about welfare that we need to stop believing:

1. MYTH: Welfare programs discourage work.Depending on how they’re structured, some welfare programs can discourage work. Lowery points out that this was the case in the 1990s before Bill Clinton’s welfare reform law was passed.

But a new analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Prioritiesshows that this is not true today. While some benefits decrease as your income increases, other benefits like the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit fill the gap as your income rises, so there’s no incentive not to work. In fact, the authors of the analysis argue that there are greater incentives for working class people to work than there are for high income earners.

2. MYTH: Welfare programs make people lazy. This myth is related to the first, but it is a distinct argument. Many people believe that social safety net spending encourages people to be satisfied living off the government, regardless of whether the program incentivizes work.

As Eduardo Porter argued in the New York Times, all the evidence seems to suggest otherwise. Welfare payments frequently enable people to better their own conditions. Extensive research on cash transfer programs from multiple countries shows no sign that they make people less likely to work.

3. MYTH: Welfare programs enable drug habits.The standard view of people on welfare often imagines that recipients are disproportionately addicted to drugs. However, some studies have found that beneficiaries of programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) have lower rates of drug use than the rest of the population. And the World Bank has found that transfer payments are rarely spent on goods like alcohol or tobacco.

4. MYTH: Welfare programs don’t work.This is a frequent claim of opponents to welfare, but it is very hard to defend. In fact, recent analyses have found that typical measurements of the success of anti-poverty programs significantly underestimate their effectiveness. And though it may be true that some people need welfare for a long time, or that poverty hasn’t gone away because of these programs, welfare programs do in fact succeed at relieving suffering and providing much need help and support.

5.MYTH: Current welfare programs are sufficient.Lowery extensively addresses this claim in her article about welfare reform, but here are some of the key points to know. TANF, one of the most important programs for poor families, hasn’t increased in 20 years despite population growth and inflation. Individual states often get to decide how they spend these funds, and funds are frequently directed away from direct support to households. And between 2007 and 2012, after the biggest nationwide recession in several generations, eligibility for TANF actually decreased from 36 to 32 percent.

Our country still does not take the needs of people in poverty seriously enough. If we did, we’d know enough to replace these myths with a thoughtful discussion about how to best support those who are economically vulnerable.

Near the end of her piece, Lowery writes an extended plea to Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, which is worth quoting in full:

Bring welfare back. Bring it back because you love poor children more than you judge their parents for their inability to keep a job. Bring it back because you love poor children more than you hate their fathers for abandoning them, or their mothers for having an addiction. Do it because you recognize that some parents will have mental-health conditions that our public system will never adequately treat. Do it because you recognize that some adults will have disabilities that Social Security will never recognize. Do it because some children will have parents that will make terrible decisions over and over and over again, and we still especially need to support those kids. Do it because you realize that welfare reform was a punitive policy whose consequences were papered over by an economic expansion, during which time everybody in Washington declared victory and walked away.

Let’s hope someone listens to these powerful words.

Photo Credit: Wyncliffe

99 comments

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus1 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill1 years ago

I completely agree with Eric and Dan. It is the responsibility of local charities and churches to take care of the poor, not the government's. Government's main purpose is to protect the people and keep them safe from harm.

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Robert Hamm
Robert Hamm1 years ago

Blah blah Blah the government is evil Dont you people ever get sick of bleating the same shit your entire frigging lives??? Evil is in business.....evil is in rich and poor. Evil is in socialism and Capitalism. POOR people are the PROBLEM>......they are the SYMPTOM> Low taxes wont get rid of the poor......low paying jobs wont either. And the MYTH that higher taxes cause a lack of jobs has been proven false in most cases.

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Robert Hamm
Robert Hamm1 years ago

MOST PEOPLE ON PUBLIC ASSISTANCE ARE WHITE AND WORK. MANY MORE THAN ONE JOB. Stop this insane judging. These talking points are 50 years old for chrissakes

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Margaret Goodman
Margaret G1 years ago

Fred L. wrote, " ...Men and women who receive public assistance should be educated in and encouraged to practice birth control. ... " So, Fred, you are probably for affordable, effective, convenient, safe, and legal contraception and abortion, right?

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Margaret Goodman
Margaret G1 years ago

Diane L. wrote, Why do people who accept government assistance keep popping out kids? ... "

I have read that one of the welfare myths is that welfare recipients keep having children. In fact, the average family on welfare has fewer children than the average family not on welfare.

So, Diane L. you are probably for affordable, effective, convenient, safe, and legal contraception and abortion, right?

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Margaret Goodman
Margaret G1 years ago

Emily J. wrote, " .. the people who are against welfare would prefer to see starving, desperate people who are so beaten down they accept being treated like dirt by employers ... "

I believe that Emily's musings are correct. Republican politicians are against welfare because they represent the rich who love to have docile underpaid workers.

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Sharon S.
Sharon S1 years ago

Excedllent article.

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Dan Blossfeld
Dan Blossfeld1 years ago

Eric,
Many good points. Like most government programs, if they ever solved the problem, they would put themselves out of work. Therefore, they aim to give just enough to keep them where they are.

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Eric Lees
Eric Lees1 years ago

Cody your making many assumptions on limited data. I don't think any of these can be clearly labeled as a MYTH.

Some people do turn down low paying jobs as taking the job would mean a loss of benefits. Some people on welfare are lazy and choose not to take a low paying job.

Welfare programs are a band-aid and do not address the root cause. They are not the best approach if the goal is getting people out of poverty.

The little welfare that is needed once the root causes are addressed should be handled at the local level through private charity not government. Government is too wasteful and too easy to cheat.

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