Here, people on food stamps are compared to wild animals and the implication is very clear that those who receive free benefits "will not learn to take care of themselves."
I have a story.
I was on food stamps for quite a while during my adolescence. After my parents divorced, there was a nasty custody fight, a lot of quibbling over child support, and a long, long time where all parties involved were a standstill. Court orders were ignored, feelings were hurt, my sister and I were drug in and out of courtrooms for years.
My mom had been out of the workforce for my entire life. She had a steep learning curve ahead of her when it came to getting back, but she was determined to support her family, and she worked really hard to overcome both her lack of experience and issues with anxiety that made it hard for her to leave the house. She was brave, she was determined, and I am proud of her.
But that path wasn't easy. And there were times when it didn't work out all that well. And, yes, for many of those times, we used food stamps.
If we hadn't used food stamps, we would not have eaten. It's that simple.
Also, there were jobs that my mom had to turn down because the rules for food stamps were so strict that--if she'd accepted them--she still wouldn't have been able to afford food because she'd have had to pay daycare for my little brother and the money she'd made would have disqualified her for aid.
Welfare Makes People Lazy
I know it's an election year, and I know emotions run high, so I typically just ignore the inflammatory stuff being shared on social media sites. But this one hit a nerve, one that I didn't even know was particularly raw. For some reason, this was the first time that all of these "welfare is for lazy people" quips felt like a personal attack. And there are plenty of them. I can't even count the number of times I've seen cartoons like this one:
The image is that all people who are getting assistance are just trying to game the system so that they don't have to work for themselves. It's incredibly over simplistic, and it pretends that welfare is some sort of free ride in the lap of luxury when the truth is that the average benefits are barely enough to make ends meet.
I take a lot of issue with this narrative, especially the image that sparked this post because rather than suggesting that people who are already lazy seek out loopholes and handouts from the system (which, really, is bad enough), the "don't feed the animals" argument suggests that getting help during a time of need is what makes someone lazy to begin with.
One Lazy Welfare Kid's Story
I know this is just an anecdote. I know that I do not represent every person on food stamps, but this is my story.
Watching my mom struggle to figure out how to get back on her feet after the divorce destroyed every safety net she had was sobering and terrifying . . . but in some ways it was also inspiring. It made me prouder of her than I've ever been. She navigated a minefield, and she didn't always make the right steps, but she came out on the other side and she works hard to keep her household together (without food stamps, for what it's worth.)
It also inspired me to work hard, both out of necessity and out of determination. On a typical day in high school, I got up early and tutored for an hour before school, worked at fast food restaurants in the afternoons, and worked other odd jobs on the weekend. I'm not telling you this to be all "woe is me," and I know that there are plenty of people out there who had/have it harder. I had what I needed: a roof over my head, clothes, and food. But I also paid bills and bought most of my own food and clothes.
Then I worked at least two jobs all through undergrad. I would spend time between classes working in the Writing Center on campus and evenings and weekends working at Wal-Mart. I graduated summa cum laude and went to graduate school, where I also worked multiple jobs.
I vividly remember sitting in a classroom my senior year of high school. I was exhausted, having worked until close at a Dairy Queen the night before and getting ready to go right back as soon as school let out. A group of kids were sitting around chatting about cars, and one girl had started to dominate the conversation because she was getting a new car that week. As they discussed their preferences, I was thinking about my car (which I've talked about in the past): a rusted-out Dodge Shadow convertible with a broken top. It cost me $300. I said prayers that it would get me to my destination without incident every time I got in it. While I'm thinking about this, I hear the girl go off on a rant about how her parents weren't letting her pick the make and model of her brand new car that they were buying for her. It ended with the line, "and so I said to them, if you aren't going to let me pick the car I want it better be fully loaded!" Yet I'm somehow the one getting set up for future work ethic problems because my mother wanted to make sure we could eat.
There are plenty of things you can criticize about me--my cluttered house, my somewhat tragic fashion sense, my tendency to get overwhelmed by numbers, among other things--but you can't question my work ethic. It's strong.
So, that was my personal story. I hope that it does something to disturb the notion that all people who are on food stamps will grow up to be lazy and self-indulgent. At the same time, I want to do something to dispel the myth that people currently on food stamps are lazy and self-indulgent, too.
Look, I know that there is fraud in the system (I've seen it firsthand), but I also know that the majority of people using food stamps are using them because they need them. Furthermore, I know that--even for those people who are abusing the system--the benefits are not some amazing ticket to the good life. They're a fraction of what most people spend in a month.
So, here are some facts:
In fiscal year 2010, the program achieved the highest level of overall payment accuracy in its history: the national overpayment error rate—the percentage of SNAP benefit dollars issued in excess of the amounts for which households are eligible—fell to 3.05 percent; the underpayment error rate was less than 1.00 percent. (USDA April 2012 report)
- Most food stamp participants are children and the elderly (about 55% of all individuals receiving assistance). Of the remaining 45%, many are single parents in households with children:
|USDA April 2012 report|
- Not all people on food stamps are jobless. About 30% of all households have earnings from a job.
- SNAP is not a lifelong plan for most people:
Half of all new SNAP participants received benefits for 10 months or less in the mid 2000s, up from 8 months in the early 2000s. Single parent families and elderly individuals tended to stay in the program longer than did working poor individuals, childless adults without disabilities, and noncitizens. Seventy-four percent of new participants left the program within two years. This is an increase from 71 percent in the early 1990s. (USDA April 2012 report)
Take a look at those numbers. Three-fourths of new participants entering the program were off of assistance within two years. Since the majority of those remaining on longer are people with children and elderly individuals, that means that an even higher percentage of working poor and childless adults only used the benefits for a brief period of time. That suggests to me that they needed the help and were willing to use all of their resources to get to a place where they didn't need the help as soon as they could. What would have happened to those people if the assistance they needed to eat hadn't been there?
- This wasn't brought up in this particular Facebook post, but I've seen it often enough that I'm going to go ahead and throw it in. Most of the recipients of food stamps are white. I'm really, really tired of people using "food stamp" references as veiled (or, in some cases, not-so-veiled) racial commentary:
In 2011, more than 45 million people – about one in seven Americans – received benefits from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the most ever. Fewer than 31 million people collected the benefits about three years earlier.
Forty-nine percent of recipients are white, 26 percent are black and 20 percent are Hispanic, according to Census data. (Washington, Huffington Post article).
Nuance is ImportantI know that it's a lot easier to send out a simple cartoon or picture that denigrates the "opposing side" during these heated months leading up to an election. I'm not trying to demonize the people who are using these tactics because it's somewhat human nature to boil things down to their simplest terms and then set up dichotomies that make the world look simple to navigate.
If only lazy people are on welfare, then welfare is bad. Look, simple.
But the world isn't simple. Pretending that you can make sweeping generalizations about groups of people is stereotyping. It's by its very definition overly simplistic and doesn't take into account the lived experiences of real people.
Not to mention, letting ourselves fall into these dichotomized ways of thinking impacts our ability to empathize. The fact is that many, many people (people we know, maybe even ourselves) are going to need help over the course of their lives. Lives are messy. Things happen. Recognizing that can go a long way toward making the recovery from those messes a lot easier on everyone.