Who is on Welfare?

About a month ago my husband was reading an article on why people who live in impoverished areas of the country have started to vote against their own best interests by supporting politicians who campaign on abolishing votingsocietal safety net programs.  This article caused him to ask the question “Who is the typical person receiving welfare?”  We have since had a few conversations on both the topic of why some people are voting against their own best interests and who the typical public assistance recipient is.  When we have a minute or two, both of us have been searching for an answers to his question.

So I wasn’t surprised when a few days ago when I received an email from him with a link to an article written by a woman calling herself a welfare mom.  This poignantly written article discusses the nightmare in which this woman finds herself and her children living after her husband abandons them.  Prior to her husband leaving she was a stay at home mom, so when he left she had no way to support her children.  Realizing she needed to take drastic measures to keep her family from ending up homeless and hungry, she went to the Department of Human Services for help.  After waiting for 6 hours with her infant and toddler, she finally was able to see a social worker, only to be told the waiting list for section 8 housing was 5 years long and they were not taking any new applicants.  The social worker gave her information about a shelter, which offered a maximum of 6 weeks residency, when there were beds available.

She tried to get cash assistance, what used to be referred to as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), and is now called Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF).  She qualified for the meager amount of less than $100 per week for her family of three, but would have volunteer 20 hours per week as a requirement to get the assistance.  She had no complaint with the requirement to volunteer, but she had two young children who would need daycare during the hours she volunteered.  Unfortunately, she was told the waiting list for daycare assistance was 6 month long, meaning she was unable to receive this assistance because she was unable to fulfill the required volunteer hours.

She did sign up for, and receive benefits from, The Special Nutritional Supplemental Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and thefood pantry good Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).  She was forced to give up the WIC benefits because she lacked daycare for her kids so that she could attend the classes required by the program.  Her SNAP benefits took 6 months to get because of a delay due to an in-house paperwork backup.  In the end, her SNAP benefit is so low she is still forced to go to a food pantry monthly to have enough food for her family.

She and her children also got free health insurance trough Medicaid, but have suffered heartbreaking experiences nonetheless.  As she put it, “We have free health insurance, but that doesn’t mean we have healthcare.”  Her children’s pediatrician is located several hours away and her local hospital is considered out of network.  She has a special needs son, who at the time she wrote the article, had hospitalbeen waiting 18 months to see a specialist.  The receptionist confided in her that he would probably never see the specialist, because privately insured patients would constantly be moved ahead of him.

All of this is pretty horrific to me, but perhaps what seems to be the most egregious aspect of her situation is that she is trapped in this state of poverty.  If she makes $100 more a month she will be ineligible for almost all of her public assistance, what used to be referred to as welfare.  She will have to cover the total cost of her children’s daycare, food and health insurance.  She can not plan ahead by saving her money, as you and I do, because she becomes ineligible for public assistance when her savings account exceeds $3,000.  So for her to lift her family out of needing public assistance, she must somehow accumulate the money necessary to pay all those bills in a month’s time with her current income.  That is a herculean task, which I am certain very few accomplish.

Neither my husband, nor I have found an article defining the typical public assistance recipient, but all of my research, reading and volunteering experience indicates that this mother and her family are fairly typical.  The manner in which she found herself needing public assistance, due to circumstances beyond her control, is fairly typical.  I have encountered or read accounts of numerous individuals who find themselves in desperate need due to loss of a job, illness, injury or abandonment by a spouse.  Not only is her reason for need typical, but her experience once she requests assistance is typical too.  In the book, All You Can Eat:  How Hungry is America? I encountered this quote describing our food safety nets as providing “enough food to prevent widespread starvation but not enough to actually end hunger in America.”  This assessment is accurate for all our societal safety net programs.  They provide just enough to keep people from slipping further into poverty, but never enough to pull themselves up and out of poverty.




4 thoughts on “Who is on Welfare?

  1. Jeff Roberts December 17, 2015 / 2:35 PM

    Great post, Jenifer. Nothing is more frustrating when conversing with a more conservative minded friend or acquaintance than having to hear about how great the poor in America have it. Well, that, and white people talking about ‘reverse racism.’ Besides always vastly overestimating the percentage of people receiving direct monetary assistance from welfare, they also manage to completely underestimate the near impossible struggle of digging yourself out of the poverty hole. We are the land of ‘equality’ and ‘opportunity’ after all, so it’s your own damn fault if you’re poor. And, as you start off with, these are often work-a-day, paycheck to paycheck living ‘voters’ convinced that everyone on welfare is just a lazy, illegal immigrant looking for handouts. Here in CA anyway, as you may well remember. I was reminded of this good NPR story that you may have heard, but in case you haven’t… http://www.npr.org/2014/05/19/312158516/increasing-court-fees-punish-the-poor…Another eye-opener of an often overlooked aspect of the poverty spiral.


  2. Jenifer December 22, 2015 / 2:41 PM

    Jeff, thanks for the link to the NPR story. I had not heard it. It was an eye-opener. I really do not think the average American has a true understanding of how difficult it is to be poor in the United States, and more importantly, how nearly impossible it is to lift yourself out of it once you find yourself there. The myth of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is very powerful. I also don’t get the desire to punish impoverished people for their situation, especially when many find themselves in poverty due to circumstances beyond their control.


  3. Laura January 4, 2016 / 12:42 PM

    This is really interesting – great read and a great perspective.


  4. Jenifer January 6, 2016 / 9:00 AM

    Thanks Laura. I’m very curious about the disconnect between those I have observed and read about receiving public assistance and the recipient sometimes portrayed in the media or discussed on Facebook. I especially find this to be the case since the passage of the 1996 legislation which made receiving welfare much more difficult. When you add in the recent cuts to SNAP benefits, there is just no way someone is living large off public assistance.


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