It seems, around here at least, that one of the most common issues among conservatives relates to welfare. So I thought I'd make a few points to clear up some confusion.
Have you heard about this? According to the stories, the Obama administration has created a program intended to provide high-end cell phones to welfare recipients. The numbers recited are typically something like 16 million people receiving free cell phones. At work just this evening, I heard someone comment on this phenomenon and lament the fact that a bunch of people who "refuse to work" have "better phones than I do."
This story has been passed around so much and so frequently that it appears that the vast majority of people familiar with it don't realize that it's all a hoax.
It's not real.
It apparently started as a spam email forward (shocking, I know), and then got to YouTube and went viral. I can tell you with absolute certainty that a significant number of college-educated people who I work with believe that this story, and this program, is real.
It's not real. It's made up. There is no such thing as an ObamaPhone.
Welfare in the United States is a very, very complicated business with numerous different facets. The very term "Welfare Program" can be misleading, because there is no one, single, overarching government program that establishes welfare. Instead, it's a combination of numerous federal, state, and local laws that, when taken together, constitute "welfare," or "government assistance" in America. And it's not even administrated by the federal government; state governments run welfare programs.
In 1985, a program was added to existing welfare laws to provide assistance to low-income individuals to help pay for their phone bills - phones being a necessary device in modern life and irreplaceable in an emergency. It is called the Lifeline program.
Until 2008, it included only land line phones. That year, during the Bush administration, assistance was expanded to cell phones, due to the decrease in land line usage. Other than more companies getting permission from the FCC to provide subsidized phones to low-income individuals, no further changes have occurred during the Obama administration.
Finally, the money that funds this program comes from fees assessed to telecommunications companies. In other words, your tax dollars do not pay for these government-subsidized phones.
The simple fact is, this entire story has gone viral simply because it plays on the misguided suppositions and false assumptions that people already have - that welfare recipients are somehow living like kings while the rest of us work our asses off to stay afloat. In the hospital where I work, we have a lot of low-income patients. Many of them, in the Emergency Department in particular, come in with cell phones. So then you hear a story about the ObamaPhone, and all of a sudden it seems to click. That must be why all these ratty patients come in with fancy cell phones! The liberals are giving it to them!
In fact, the whole thing floats on an undercurrent of racism and especially classism. How else could a poor black person have a nice cell phone? It couldn't possibly be that maybe they saved their own money to buy it, or maybe their grandmother bought it for them, or maybe they're just not as poor as they look. It must be a liberal agenda in Washington.
And this leads into a much broader discussion about welfare in general. Another co-worker of mine, yesterday, told me that she agrees with Romney's infamous "47%" comment. She feels, basically, that half the country believe they are victims and won't work and rely on the government to take care of them. I'm sure if pressed, she might agree that it's not really 47% of Americans, but I bet she thinks it's pretty close to that.
In fact, roughly 4.5 million Americans receive welfare in any given month. By "welfare," I mean actual cash from the government that is given to poor people to help them pay their bills. In case you aren't good with numbers, that represents roughly 1.5% of the U.S. population. One-point-five percent. Nowhere in the same universe as 47%. Even if you count people who receive food stamps or other government assistance in any given month, it's only about 15%.
The notion that half the country, or even anywhere remotely close to half the country, is living on government assistance is ridiculous.
Welfare laws were overhauled in 1996, during the Clinton administration. It was a bi-partisan overhaul between Clinton (a Democrat) and a Republican-controlled Congress. Limits were added for how long you can be on welfare (no more than 2 consecutive years, and a 5-year lifetime limit), and a work requirement was added for those on welfare who are capable of working. As a result, the number of people getting a welfare check every month has decreased by 67% in the last 15 years - from over 12 million in 1997 to the 4.5 million today.
THE POVERTY LINE
The most recent numbers I have seen in regards to poverty in the U.S. is that roughly 15% of Americans live at, around, or below the the poverty line. The "poverty line" varies depending on age and family size (for a family with two adults and three children, the poverty line is about $26,000 per year before taxes; for a single adult under the age of 65, it's about $11,000 per year).
What happens if you put the welfare numbers together with the poverty numbers? 15% of Americans live in poverty. Only 1.5% of Americans receive a welfare check. That means that even among poor people, the vast majority are not "on welfare" at any given time.
It seems that a lot of folks go through life just assuming that all the poor and homeless and disabled they see around them are "living on welfare" (i.e., "living on my hard-earned money!"). That's simply not true. Most poor people, if they receive anything at all, are getting non-cash assistance (like telephone subsidies, food stamps, and the like).
Of course there are people who take advantage of government assistance programs. Is it possible that some welfare con-artist is out there receiving a welfare check for a family of eight that doesn't actually exist, and is living fairly comfortably by doing it? Sure. But there is absolutely not one shred of evidence to suggest this sort of major fraud is widespread. The laws themselves have safeguards built in to both detect and prevent fraud. This is one of the reasons why the number of people receiving welfare checks has decreased by 67% in the last 15 years. Fewer people are eligible, and there are fewer ways to take advantage of the system. This is also why the number of people on assistance programs like food stamps is roughly equivalent to the number of people below the poverty line. If numerous people above the poverty line were simply defrauding the system, it would show in the statistics.
Suggesting that welfare should be de-funded or in some other way "gutted" by Congress, simply because there are a few people taking advantage of the system, would be akin to suggesting alcohol should be banned because so many people drive drunk.
The simple fact is that there are not nearly as many people are on welfare as a lot of folks suppose, not nearly as many people "depend on the government" to take care of them as a lot of folks suppose, and the entire welfare system is not nearly as much of a black hole in the federal budget as many folks suppose.
One final note: In 2010, the amount of federal money spent on welfare checks to poor people amounted to less than 1% of the total federal expenditures - something like 0.7%. Even if you add in the cost of food stamps and other assistance programs, it's only about 3% of the total federal budget.
If we can't live in a country where three government dollars out of every one hundred go to help the poor and needy, then we have a serious ethical dilemma on our hands.