The stories about so-called “welfare queens” began with Ronald Reagan in the mid-1970s. You know the story – the people who find ways to game the federal welfare system so that they can live supposed lives of luxury.
With unemployment still dogging us as a country – locally the rate is over 9 percent – there are more people receiving some kind of assistance than there were 10 years ago. As a result, these kind of stories are making a comeback.
More than once recently I have heard some version of this lament, and maybe you have too: “I was behind this woman at the grocery store and she was buying a whole bunch of junk food, then she reaches into her expensive purse and pays for it with a Link card.” (If you don’t know, the Link card is what the state of Illinois gives to people so they can redeem cash or food-stamp benefits.)
Or someone will complain about the person on welfare who has a fancy cellphone or a flat-screen TV, or drives a nice car. Or maybe a couple are having children together but won’t get married because then the mother would lose her assistance checks.
The implication, of course, is that people are out there sponging off the government while somehow generating enough money to still afford luxury goods.
Meanwhile, us poor saps are clipping coupons out of the Daily Chronicle and driving the same car we’ve had for eight years so we can get to work and bust our hump to afford the taxes to support these people.
Ah, the indignity of it all.
Only a fool would say that no one abuses the public aid system. In a country as big as ours, it is a certainty that abuses happen. Like all instances of government waste, they should be stopped, either through creating better processes or investigating cases of abuse.
But too often we jump to conclusions about people who receive public aid, as though receiving a monthly support check from the government, collecting unemployment payments or living in subsidized housing is some kind of dream setup akin to winning the lottery.
It is not. For one, the federal assistance program we commonly refer to as “welfare” was reformed in the 1990s to include time limits and requirements that recipients find work.
In reality, many of us rely on income from our employers to support our families. A 2012 survey of 30,600 people by the American Payroll Association found that 68 percent of American households live paycheck to paycheck – they’re not saving much of anything.
Only about a quarter of American households have enough savings to cover three months of household expenses; 27 percent have no emergency savings at all, according to a June report released by Bankrate.com.
When workers in those households lose their jobs unexpectedly – and most layoffs are unexpected by design – chances are it won’t be long before they have to turn to the government for some kind of assistance.
But what else should they do? Should they rip the flat-screen TV off the wall, trade their fashion jeans in for tattered dungarees, and throw away their fancy handbags? Do they have to pawn their jewelry? If they own a nice car, should they stop driving it?
Most people would not do these things, particularly with items that they bought or had received as gifts.
But they very likely would feel the real or imagined stares of judging eyes each time they had to pull out their Link card at the grocery store, fully conscious of the fact that people were silently questioning whether they were “needy” enough, evaluating the wisdom of their publicly funded purchases, and so forth.
If we’re finding fault, it should be with our continued failure to set our economy back on the right track and create jobs that pay a living wage for workers.
Do Americans’ sense of entitlement and willingness to take on consumer debt play a role? No question if people spent less and saved more, they would be better prepared for a job loss or other hardship.
Then again, consumer spending is the key driver of our economy, and the economic culture we have created places and emphasis on buying and consuming material goods. Like President George W. Bush told us with recession threatening in December 2006: “I encourage you all to go shopping more.”
Even if they’ve saved little or nothing, most people do not choose welfare or the stigma that comes with it.
The arguments against that last sentence are predictable. People say that some people grow up on the dole and consider it perfectly normal, they feel no guilt about gaming the system and never will. Or: Whatever, I know that so-and-so is making money through other means and still is collecting assistance and it’s wrong.
If you know someone is cheating the system in Illinois, you can report them at http://www.state.il.us/agency/oig/reportfraud.asp, or by calling 800-843-6154.
Although government should address abuses, incidences of abuse don’t make it acceptable for society to turn its back on people in a time of crisis.
Like so many things in life, you shouldn’t judge a person with a Link card without knowing his or her story.
• Eric Olson is the editor of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841, ext. 2257, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.