Making “Welfare” a Curse Word, No Matter How Many Benefit

BOSTON, MA – OCTOBER 14: Members of the National Welfare Rights Organization march along Summer Street in Boston on Oct. 14, 1969. (Photo by Phil Preston/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Kawakawa, New Zealand       Many years ago, we organized tens of thousands of people to demand welfare “rights,” but amazingly to me, the right has managed to usurp a fundamental entitlement by promoting welfare “wrongs.”  The New York Times had a depressing piece on how this tide turned based on an examination of recent work done by Cornell political scientist, Suzanne Mettler.

When I was organizing with the National Welfare Rights Organization in based in Springfield and Boston, Massachusetts in 1969 and 1970, Mettler found that…

7 percent of the average citizen’s income came from federal social transfers, and in 1979 it was 11 percent. By 2014, it was 17 percent, according to Mettler’s analysis of dozens of programs, including means-tested aid like food stamps, benefits tailored to narrow populations like veterans, and broad-based government programs like Social Security.

Of course this doesn’t even count the largest government benefit program we have in terms of cost which is the home mortgage deduction, as I detailed in my book, Citizen Wealth almost a decade ago, because that’s a tax transfer, but because that benefit is enjoyed by the middle and upper classes, no one calls it welfare regardless of the facts.

Ironically, despite the rising number of people benefiting from direct and indirect government benefit programs, Mettler found, surprising none of us, that there’s still no love for the government and these programs, even from beneficiaries.  As the article notes,

Their feelings about government don’t appear connected to their own direct experience of it. But those feelings are shaped by opinions about other people’s reliance on government aid — specifically, on “welfare.”

Welfare has become such a pejorative term in the United States that the Trump administration, fueled by rightwing anti-poor zealots, is trying to rebrand more popular programs as welfare and house them under some agency with “welfare” in the name in order to reduce the support for the programs.  Ronald Reagan doesn’t deserve all of the credit for this, but he was a leader of the hater-pack labeling welfare recipients with a broad brush as “welfare queens.”  Culturally he had help, as many continue to perpetuate myths of themselves and others as the “deserving” poor, rather than the rest of the poor.  All of this despite the fact that thanks to President Clinton and the rest of the gang, there are only 2.5 million people on traditional welfare payments now which is less than 1% of the population.

No small amount of this shaming is evidence of unconfessed racial bias and antipathy to people living in the big, bad city, but no matter the disguise it damages families that need the support and are entitled to receive it.

Mettler is quoted saying that if you want to kill a social program, call it welfare.  She’s probably right, but in every other way, that’s just plain wrong.

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