Public Assistance Isn’t “Free Money”

by Jonah Shepp

Darlena Cunha, a mother of twins who spent 18 months on the WIC program (while working full time and paying taxes), brings some personal perspective to bear on why drug testing welfare recipients amounts to utter overkill in a welfare system that already assumes all applicants are lying:

It’s also not just a phone call and done. Women applying must be pregnant or up to six months post-partum. Children can receive services Drug Screenup to their fifth birthday, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Services. Once you’ve called, you have to provide proof of income for everyone in the household, proof of identity, proof of residence, proof of participation in any other program—including Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or General Assistance—immunization records for your children, pregnancy confirmation (official note from your doctor), recent height and weight measurements and a blood test for hemoglobin levels, and a WIC Referral Form from your doctor. You also have to provide documentation of any child support payments, unemployment benefits, or short-term disability money received. These requirements vary slightly from state to state, but for the most part they are consistent. …

Applying and being accepted for aid is a mentally grueling process that can stretch on for months. Add to that the humiliation of having to pee in a cup just because you can’t afford to eat.

I’ve touched on this before (and garnered some angry e-mails from readers for suggesting that Paul Ryan was on to something about how demoralizing it can be to live on welfare), but I’m always glad to see someone speak on this from a personal perspective, given how few such stories make their way into the public consciousness. I grew up on welfare in New York City in the 80s and 90s with an alcoholic single mother, so my experience in the system is very different from Cunha’s, yet I agree abundantly with the main thrust of her argument, which cannot be stressed enough: welfare is not exactly designed to make recipients feel good about themselves.

Conservative critics of the welfare state tend to denigrate it as easy money for doing nothing, and often imply or claim outright that poor people feel no shame in taking it because they (I should say, “we”) have no conception of the moral value of labor or feel that we are “entitled” to our food stamps and Obama Phones. That may be true of some poor Americans (Indeed, I have at least one or two family members who fit that description), but it’s not at all representative of those who receive public assistance. The welfare system is badly in need of fixing, not primarily because it’s too expensive but rather because it doesn’t do enough to help ameliorate entrenched poverty. Reform conservatives have some decent ideas about how to do that, but as long as this caricature of the poor is the starting point for their critique of the welfare state, they shouldn’t be surprised if they have a hard time finding an audience.

People tend to take it personally when you call them freeloaders and layabouts. Who knew?

(Photo by Francis Storr)