It’s Time to Say Farewell to Welfare Stigma

Frankie Leon
Frankie Leon

By Tasha Sanders

I’m pacing outside a government assistance office, deciding whether or not to go inside. The harsh stereotypes attached to someone on welfare are humiliating, but with a child to support, I don’t have a choice. After a few minutes, I go inside. I can’t afford not to.

I have lived most of my adult life, up until the last few years, in what would be categorized as abject poverty. My income topped out at $12 an hour in a Midwestern state. During the worst of times, I often had to ask for an advancement on my meager paycheck to pay my rent. The first bi-weekly check of the month didn’t even cover my rent expenses. It was such a struggle to make my car payment that eventually I had no choice but to cease payments. In the best of times, it was just a relief to have the bills paid up. My saving grace was government assistance.

Even now when I speak of it, I get a lump in my throat. Americans are inherently proud people, and it hurts to have to ask for help. It pains me to think that I couldn’t provide for my kids on my own, without help. The stigma surrounding people on welfare is harsh: They are lazy, irresponsible, drug-users, and are somehow milking the system. New legislation in some states limits what recipients can purchase with their TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), placing bans on items such as cruises and strip clubs.

Constituents clutch their pearls at the thought of their hard-earned tax dollars going to fund vacations for “welfare queens.” And I’ll concede: There are bad apples in every bunch. Roughly 2% of welfare recipients in the United States abuse the system. To put this statistic into perspective, about 2% of the American population thinks news anchor Brian Williams is Joe Biden, vice president of the United States. No, seriously.

But from my experience with government assistance, I can tell you it isn’t as easy as just signing up for help. The extensive application process includes a background check, paystub reviews, copies of your bills, and letters from people you know vouching for your character and (lack of) income. It isn’t exactly easy to cheat the system. You have to follow up with the office, in person, twice a year. And cash assistance, also known as TANF? I never qualified for it, even when I was making $9 an hour. In my state, the maximum amount a family can even receive from TANF is $292 a month.

If someone is making less than $9 an hour, please tell me how $300 a month will fund a cruise to the Bahamas. You are completely out of touch with poverty-stricken America and can thank your lucky privileged stars if you seriously think someone who qualifies for TANF will be indulging in those kinds of luxuries, when it’s a daily struggle to put food on the table or buy diapers.

The implications of these new laws restricting what TANF recipients can purchase are concerning. But what makes it worse is the righteous indignation many Americans feel and outwardly demonstrate toward someone on assistance when, chances are, they have benefited from government assistance without even realizing it. Ever been on unemployment assistance? Do you receive veterans’ benefits? Do you claim the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit or the Earned Income Tax Credit? Even those on Medicare and SSI are government assistance recipients. The only difference is we make the poor jump through hoops for their benefits and subject them to humiliating tactics to prove they’re worthy of help, like (costly) drug testing or setting questionable boundaries on their benefits.

These procedures are allegedly created out of concern for the recipients, but look closely. You’ll see it’s just another classist way to place judgment on those living in poverty and perpetuate harmful stereotypes. You’ll see it in the way people frequently point out someone on assistance driving a BMW or pulling their benefits card out of a Louis Vuitton purse, without pausing to think with a hint of compassion that perhaps this person fell on hard time, and their belongings help provide comfort in some small way. But these benefits police are right, of course. Everyone on assistance should drive a Geo and sport sweatpants wherever they go.

Despite what you hear on the news, people on welfare are also not any more likely to abuse drugs (rates are similar to the general population, or about 4%), nor are they likely to blow their insubstantial food benefits (now called SNAP) on lobster or filet mignon, as one representative seems to think. Shall we have lobster tonight or keep the heat on, honey?

I’m finally off assistance after sheer luck landed me a great job with benefits, but I have a deep respect for those still receiving it. It takes a big person to ask for help, and to put up with the stigma surrounding that help. Contrary to popular belief, you can’t just imagine someone else’s circumstances without actually having lived it. Bootstrapping is asked of many, but what if someone has no boots to work with in the first place? We’re told our dreams will be ours if we just work hard enough, but this discounts the very real oppression that millions of Americans face because of their skin color, gender, disability, or other identities.

We all don’t have the same opportunities afforded to more privileged Americans. When you’re living in a dangerous inner city and have several mouths to feed, it isn’t easy to simply “work hard enough” to succeed. When you’re living in a rural Midwestern town and the nearest city or college is hundreds of miles away and you don’t have a car, it isn’t a snap to just “overcome your obstacles.” When you face discrimination before you’ve even gotten a job interview because your resume says your name is Jamal or Tanisha, it’s more than just trying harder.

Government assistance isn’t a means to an end, and it doesn’t help perpetuate poverty. It just helps level the playing field a smidge so these folks can have a little breathing room. Maybe if we all cared more about their well-being and the reasons why someone might need assistance rather than what kind of junk food they might possibly have in their grocery cart, we could actually start working toward fixing the real systemic and structural problems perpetuating poverty in the first place.