Geez, Don’t Let a Few Little Facts Get in the Way of Your Perceptions of People on Welfare

Like me, maybe you have a few (ahem) “friends” on Facebook that post things that make you cringe. Lately, a few posts in particular have driven me to write this blog. I was going to try and just provide insights through comments on their posts, or send them a direct message, but figured this medium may do even better.

I start by posting the memes that I have seen more than once in the last month, which tells me that if they are being shared with frequency, these are resounding with some people…

In a nutshell, what’s wrong with these pictures?

  1. Several of the images racialize poverty. Truth is, most recipients are Caucasian.
  2. There is a perception that those that receive welfare have large families and an increasing number of children to maximize benefits. Truth is, most welfare recipients are single persons and very small families (the average is 1.8 children per household in fact for TANF…which coincidentally is almost the same as the national average; the average size is 2.4 when you consider all welfare benefits, which is a massive decline of family size of welfare receiving families since the 1960s).
  3. Somewhere along the way the stigma of being a substance user was attached to be on welfare. Truth is, most people with problematic substance use in our society do not receive welfare. And another inconvenient truth, it costs way, way more to test people on welfare (which is an intrusive violation, but I will park that for now) than it “saves” when users are caught. Oh, and it is private enterprises that profit from the drug testing with your tax dollars (sometimes with direct ties to the elected official that was the crusader to put the drug testing in place). Plus, in locations like Florida do you know what percentage tested positive for drug use? Two percent. That’s a fact.
  4. Welfare receipt is implied to be a lifetime choice. Truth is most recipients (4 out of 5) receive benefits for less than 5 years – and most of those for much less than that. The single largest group that benefits from welfare is children.
  5. Related to point 4, you have probably heard the stories of the families that have been living off welfare for generations, or the woman who has bilked the system for millions using fake identities and fictitious addresses (anyone else remember Ronald Reagan’s Chicago Welfare Queen Stories…and they were just that – stories made up of just fiction loosely associated with some facts not attributed to any one person). Truth is, fraud within the welfare system is lower than corporate fraud. For example, the rate of food stamp fraud is less than 1%. Oh, and as for the generations of welfare receipt, I just love this quote from Adrian Sinfield, Emeritus Professor of Social Policy at the University of Edinburgh in reviewing a recent UK report where there was an attempt to find families where no one in the family had worked for three generations: “People working and living in the area knew all about such people, of course, but not well enough, it turned out, to be able to identify any of them.”
  6. Read across these memes, and it also seems to suggest the “free money” on welfare allow people that don’t work to enjoy a glamorous lifestyle of parties and higher end consumer products. Truth is, while benefit levels vary dramatically by region economic poverty is still a reality for welfare recipients. Let me give you an example from where I live. If you are a single person without dependents and without disability, you get $230 per month in money to meet your basic needs (food, personal products, etc.) and $376 in shelter allowance to rent a place. What would you do with $606 per month in a community where the average market rent for a Bachelor unit is $840 per month or a one-bedroom is $1,040 per month?
  7. Many people make comments that people on welfare should not have a smart phone – or any phone for that matter (yet, having a phone is kind of important, I hope you’d agree, to have contact with potential employers). Or there is a critique of the type of phone…or phone package…or purse that the phone is in…or manicured nails that stroke the phone…or whatever. Truth is, people that experience economic poverty experience no difference in impulse control in consumer spending that anyone else in society – it simply has a bigger impact. But even with that said, you don’t know when they got the phone, as it could have been before they were receiving benefits or even a gift from a relative or a $0 down monthly package where the phone company undertook its own financial risk assessment and still decided the person was a good candidate for its product. And if the reality in your community is similar to the rate of benefits received in my community (read section 6 again) please tell me how someone uses their welfare money to buy that phone?

I’ll leave it at those 7 comments for now because they are most related to the memes. I could go on and on. The false perceptions of welfare, though, only make it harder to convince elected officials to consider increasing rates to meet the costs of today’s community; to truly ensure people have the chance to achieve vitality and security.

About Iain De Jong

Iain is a playful nerd, hellbent on ending homelessness, increasing affordable housing, creating vibrant communities, and expanding the knowledge amongst leaders that influence social issues. Having held senior management and professional positions in government, non-profits, and the private sector, Iain has a wealth of experience and has garnered dozens of awards for his work across Canada and internationally. His work has taken him across Canada, the United States, and to Australia. In 2009, Iain joined OrgCode as its President & CEO, and in 2014 assumed full ownership of the firm. In addition to his work with OrgCode, Iain holds a part-time faculty position in the Graduate Urban Planning Programme at York University.


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