A Citizen’s Guide to Combating Election Propaganda: Debunking Anti-Welfare Myths

Political and economic elites’ success in manufacturing mass ignorance represents the largest impediment to democratic empowerment today. Stoking fear of and contempt for the “other” – including minorities and the poor, is a common tactic employed in election to gain voter support. So is the stoking of hubris – as seen in the demonization of the poor, and in the rhetorical glorification of those “who work” against those (allegedly) “who don’t.” Unfortunately, countless Americans fall victim to divide and conquer techniques employed by elites. The goal moving forward must be to create a critical citizen consciousness, so the masses don’t simply “accept what they’re told” once every four years by the pretty faces running for office. What follows is a primer for readers to help in their conversations with friends, neighbors, acquaintances, and family, to fight back against the racist, classist propaganda so often employed against disadvantaged groups in the U.S.

I focus here on anti-welfare stereotypes promoted by the major candidates this election year. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, in addition to Hillary Clinton, rely on tired stereotypes, demonizing the poor in their efforts to gut social welfare spending. Clinton’s stereotypes reach back to the 1990s, when she and her husband championed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), which eliminated the national government’s Aid to Families with Dependent Children program (a highly successful anti-poverty initiative with roots in the Great Depression). The Clinton’s support for PRWORA was justified via the assumption that the poor were seeking a free ride by gaming the welfare system and refusing to work, compared to most Americans who made their way through hard work and sacrifice.

Cruz and Trump continue Hillary Clinton’s assault on the poor. Cruz attacks the food stamps program (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) for “trapping millions in long-term dependency,” while Trump alleges that welfare programs create “an incentive” on the part of the poor “not to work.” Trump recycles Romney’s old language from the 2012 presidential race, arguing that “we have a society that sits back and says we’re not going to do anything. And eventually the 50 percent cannot carry, and it’s unfair to them, but cannot carry the other 50 percent.”

I’ve long been frustrated by what passes for “common knowledge” regarding American welfare programs. Many conservatives I know embrace this “knowledge” simply because they’ve been socialized by parents, friends, and political elites to do so, without looking into the actual evidence. Cognitive dissonance is a major problem, with citizens becoming even more entrenched in their beliefs when confronted with evidence that clearly refutes their preexisting prejudices.

The U.S. is historically the least committed of all wealthy countries to taxing and spending on all types of social programs, although one would hardly know this by looking at popular media and political commentary. But what about many of the specific anti-welfare claims that pass for informed discourse in the U.S.?   I tackle them head-on below, showing how most everything political elites tell you about welfare recipients is wrong.

The “people on welfare are Cadillac-driving, lobster-eating cheats” myth.

These claims have been common since the Reagan years. Welfare recipients, we are told, are so good at manipulating the system and have so much money on hand that they can afford to drive Cadillac Escalades and buy steaks and lobster, compared to the average working American, who struggles economically and avoids frivolous extras.

In reality, most poor Americans struggle when it comes to eating well and in securing basic transportation. Regarding food consumption, it is well known that there exists a strong correlation between poverty and obesity in the U.S., with poor Americans having greater difficulty affording healthy foods like fruits and vegetables. By comparison, processed foods, often comprised of government-subsidized corn-based products, are far cheaper and more likely to be consumed by the poor. Consider recent data from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, which finds that $1 can purchase 1,200 calories of potato chips or 875 calories of soda, but just 250 calories of vegetables or 170 calories of fresh fruit. Also consider that the poorest American states are among the most obese. As CNN reports, “the five poorest states are also among the 10 fattest, and eight of the 10 poorest states are also among the 10 with the lowest life expectancy.” In the U.S., the average individual in a family of three in the poorest 20 percent of the income distribution receives just $3.33 a day from the SNAP program to pay for food  This miserly subsidy means poor Americans are forced to try and “do more with less,” often turning to low-cost, high-salt, and fatty foods.

Concerning transportation, welfare recipients seldom fit the affluent description of the Cadillac-driving elitist. One shouldn’t be surprised to find some welfare recipients who still drive expensive-looking cars from the days prior to losing their job. Many Americans were fast-tracked from prosperity to the unemployment line following the 2008 economic collapse. In general, however, welfare recipients are significantly less likely to own cars than non-welfare recipients. While only three percent of families not on welfare fail to own a car, the number for those on public assistance is nearly a quarter. The average family on public assistance has one car, whereas the average non-welfare recipient family owns two.

Previous studies find that transportation issues abound among welfare recipients. One Minnesota study, for example, found that 85 percent of state welfare recipients cited transportation as either a “big problem” or “somewhat of a problem” when it came to holding a job. Studies in Illinois and New Jersey found that about a quarter of states residents cited transportation issues as interfering with their ability to work. The numbers were higher in studies from Missouri and Utah, which found that 57 and 55 percent respectively cited transportation as “a barrier to employment.” The reality of work in the United States is that we are a car-centric culture. To exploit job opportunities, one needs money to afford transportation. Many poor Americans experience difficulties in this car culture, either due to an inability to afford a vehicle at all, or difficulty in maintaining aging vehicles.

The “they don’t want to work and have never held a job” myth

Many friends, family, and students I’ve spoken with over the years simply assume that welfare benefits are so generous that those benefitting from these programs don’t have to work. This assumption can be soundly rejected for a number of reasons. First, if one looks at those benefitting from the main state welfare program in the U.S. – Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) – work requirements are at least 30 hours a week as an individual, or 50 hours a week as a couple, in order to receive benefits. Furthermore, these benefits have a five-year lifetime limit (less in some states). In short, there is no way that TANF recipients can avoid holding a job because of the extremely short-term nature of this program, and due to its built-in work requirements. TANF benefits themselves are quite meager too, ensuring that surviving on them is next to impossible. The average TANF beneficiary in a family of three in the poorest 20 percent of the U.S. income distribution receives an average benefit of $42 a month, hardly enough to afford not to work. The claim that welfare recipients benefit from programs so generous they don’t have to work is silly, naïve propaganda, and supported by none of the available evidence. Two-thirds of TANF recipients are on the program for less than one year, and the average food stamps and Medicaid beneficiaries are on the programs for between one to three years.

The “welfare enables laziness among the poor” myth

Recent statistics on welfare recipients suggest that the vast majority hail from demographic groups that would be expected for obvious reasons to need federal or state assistance. The vast majority of recipients are not able bodied adults who refuse to work. More than 90 percent of welfare recipients fit one of the three following descriptions. They are A. already employed, and have earnings so low that they’re classified as the “working poor” and eligible for public aid; B. disabled, and unable to perform the same physical or occupational tasks as able-bodied or able-minded individuals; or C. elderly, and are on fixed incomes from retirement savings based on 401K benefits, Social Security, and other benefits. The vast majority of these individuals in the third group worked their entire adult lives, so the claim about laziness simply doesn’t hold.

The “they just want to have lots of babies to get more benefits” myth

One of the nastiest myths against welfare recipients is that they have large numbers of children, simply to pump up their benefits so they don’t have to work. Having known many people on welfare (and having been on welfare myself), I have yet to meet someone in my entire life who fits this description. Nonetheless, the repetition of this claim is a near constant among most welfare opponents I know. The average size of a family on welfare is 3.7 people, which is the same for non-welfare families. Looking more closely at family size by income, one sees that there is little evidence of poorer Americans having larger families. The median household size in the U.S. is 2.54 people.

The data suggest that larger family sizes are most common among higher income families, as the three groups with the largest percentage of families of three or more are the very top of the income distribution. Those earning less than $10,000 a year are the fourth largest group with families of three or more, but the three groups with the smallest number of families of three or more people are under the national median family income of $50,000. In summary, the evidence here suggests that most individuals with lower incomes are actually likely to have smaller families than those with higher incomes, and welfare-receiving families are no bigger on average than non-welfare receiving families.

The “welfare benefits are so generous that the poor are now rich” myth

This myth should by all rights be too stupid to even discuss, considering the obvious chasm between the image of the Cadillac driving welfare queen, and the reality of welfare recipients living in poverty. And yet such stereotypes are very common today among many embracing reactionary political values. To provide a much needed corrective on this misinformation, consider the following statistics. 1. The vast majority of families on welfare – 75 percent – are renters, not homeowners. In contrast, more than 75 percent of non-welfare families own their homes. 2. The average income of those in the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution – those most likely to rely on welfare – is quite meager. Their incomes as part of the working poor averaged just $11,490 a year in 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Their small incomes were supplemented by much needed welfare benefits, although these benefits were also meager. According to the Census Bureau, for families of three in the poorest 20 percent of the income distribution, benefits from the 10 largest welfare programs, including Medicaid, Women and Infant Children, public housing subsidies, food stamps, TANF payments, state child health insurance, the Earned Income Tax credit, the child tax credit, “Obamacare” health insurance subsidies, and the dependent tax exemption, averaged just $9,000 a year, or $3,000 per person. For a family of three in the lowest income quintile, income and welfare transfers combined to an average income of just $20,490 a year. It’s a serious victory for propaganda that a family of three with such a low income could be framed as part of the American elite.

The “people on welfare would rather do drugs than work” myth

This myth should be permanently laid to rest in light of recent data tracking drug use among welfare beneficiaries. When Tennessee instituted mandatory drug testing for welfare recipients, many thought it represented a step toward greater accountability in government. To the contrary, the testing found that drug use among welfare recipients was non-existent, statistically speaking. Just one in 800 people on welfare tested positive for drugs, or .1 percent of total beneficiaries. Other states, including Arizona, Kansas, Missouri, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Utah also implement drug testing. The testing in these states reveals that, on average, positive drug tests are found in between .002 percent to 8.4 percent of welfare beneficiaries, despite surveys suggesting that the national drug use rate is 9.4 percent. Conservative officials claimed that drug testing would save states tons of money by kicking countless addicts off the welfare rolls.   But the attempt to demonize welfare recipients as drug addicts is a red herring.

Many Americans will refuse to reconsider their ill-informed hatred of the poor. It is too deeply engrained in their psyche and identity to simply cast aside. But as progressives, we have a responsibility this election season to debunk this nonsense whenever we can, regardless of the source. The stakes are too high for those relying on government aid to be demonized, needlessly, by political elites in pursuit of their own narrow, upper-class agenda.

For interested readers, the data from this article was derived from the following sources:

Arloc Sherman, Robert Greenstein, and Kathy Ruffing, “Contrary to ‘Entitlement Society’ Rhetoric, Over Nine-Tenths of Entitlement Benefits Go to Elderly, Disabled, or Working Households,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, February 11, 2012, http://www.cbpp.org/research/contrary-to-entitlement-society-rhetoric-over-nine-tenths-of-entitlement-benefits-go-to

Bryce Covert, “Your Assumptions About Welfare Recipients are Wrong,” Think Progress, December 18, 2013, http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2013/12/18/3081791/welfare-recipient-spending/

 Tax Policy Center, “Household Income Quintiles, 2000-2012,” June 25, 2014, http://www.taxpolicycenter.org/taxfacts/displayafact.cfm?Docid=330

LZ Granderson, “Poor and Fat: The Real Class War,” com, June 8, 2012, http://www.cnn.com/2012/06/05/opinion/granderson-poverty-health/

Glenn Kessler, “A Misleading Chart on Welfare Spending,” Washington Post, February 21, 2013, https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/fact-checker/post/a-misleading-chart-on-welfare-spending/2013/02/20/1b40bcde-7ba4-11e2-82e8-61a46c2cde3d_blog.html

Pew Research Center, “January 2014 Political Survey,” January 15, 2014, http://www.people-press.org/2014/01/19/january-2014-political-survey/

Bryce Covert and Josh Israel, “What 7 States Discovered After Spending More Than $1 Million Drug Testing Welfare Recipients,” Think Progress, February 26, 2015, http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2015/02/26/3624447/tanf-drug-testing-states/

Heidi Goldberg, “State and County Supported Car Ownership Programs Can Help Low-Income Families Secure and Keep Jobs,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, November 28, 2001, http://www.cbpp.org/archives/11-8-01wel.htm

Darlena Cunha, “Why Drug Testing Welfare Recipients is a Waste of Taxpayer Money,” Time Magazine, August 15, 2014, http://time.com/3117361/welfare-recipients-drug-testing/

Arthur Delaney, “How Long Do People Stay on Public Benefits?” Huffington Post, May 29, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/05/29/public-benefits-safety-net_n_7470060.html

Anthony DiMaggio is Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He is the author of Rising Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here (Routledge, 2022), in addition to Rebellion in America (Routledge, 2020), and Unequal America (Routledge, 2021). He can be reached at: anthonydimaggio612@gmail.com. A digital copy of Rebellion in America can be read for free here.