The Myth of Welfare and Work

IMG_2370Little Rock   A central part of conservative ideology repeated moronically by many liberals and, sadly, even some progressives perpetuates myths about welfare recipients and work, while victimizing them as lazy, shiftless, baby making leeches on society and good, upstanding hardworking taxpayers. None of this has ever been true, and the fight to embrace rights and entitlements over the last fifty years of organizing has often been lost in the fog of war and various prejudices, as I recently discussed in Social Policy in looking at some of the recent literature on the progressive side.

Now there’s another growing problem as empirical evidence and scholarly reports build up and multiply: none of these reputed disincentives to work that are supposed to be embedded in the receipt of direct cash payment welfare are true. And, that other scurrilous canard that women have more children in order to receive a couple of extra dollars in welfare, well, that’s a bold faced lie, as we all knew as well.

Recently, Eduardo Porter, a columnist for the New York Times marshalled some of the growing evidence debunking the mythical relationship of welfare and work, and as an aside, let me ask why this guy doesn’t already have a Pulitzer Prize or some recognition for public service for these kinds of columns – how do we nominate him? Anyway, he points out the following facts:


· One billion people receive at least one type of “unconditional cash assistance” in 119 countries. In 52 other countries there are some conditions but most of them are minor, like sending children to school.
· The Poverty Action Lab at MIT studied “seven cash-transfer programs in Mexico, Morocco, Honduras, Nicaragua, the Philippines, and Indonesia” and “found ‘no systematic evidence that cash transfer programs discourage work.’”
· A 2014 World Bank report looking at cash assistance in Africa, Asia, and Latin America “found, contrary to popular stereotype, the money was not typically squandered on things like alcohol and tobacco.”
· A 1995 study in the USA found “that welfare payments did not increase single motherhood.”
· The Center for Poverty Research at the University of Kentucky found that “these disincentive effects are overstated in the policy discourse.” Furthermore the impact of pushing people off welfare and onto limited benefit programs with work requirements hurt the poor or in their words, “what we lost is a commitment to the poor who face significant barriers to work, whether because of child care or physical or mental disabilities.”


So the evidence is overwhelming and has been for decades. Welfare doesn’t hurt work and in fact only impacts in minimally when there is any impact at all. Nor does welfare encourage socially unacceptable behavior.

Yet, welfare recipients and the poor generally are still scapegoated constantly – and globally – by these slanderous falsehoods. A case in point is that the newly crowned Speaker of the House Paul Ryan wants to mount yet another crusade against the poor from his exalted office.

Without a voice or effective organization, lies have a field day and the truth about so many things, including welfare and its impacts, is relegated to the occasional newspaper column or academic report, and the few that care to read and think about it.

I can hear the mothers and children weeping from here. How is it that everyone cannot hear their cries?