The Welfare Myth: Confessions of a Former Caseworker

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Richard Sahn

“They drive to the supermarket in their Cadillacs and buy steak, lobster, and cartons of cigarettes.” How many times have I heard that description of welfare recipients? And it’s always a Cadillac, by the way. I inform welfare haters that I used to be a caseworker in New York City and that I and my caseworker colleagues in the unit I was assigned to never came across a serious case of cheating in two years. In fact, I became convinced that welfare recipients rarely cheat. If anything, I sometimes had to persuade my clients to pursue their rights within the system, which typically meant an increase in their benefits.

In the late 1960s, a massive state-sponsored study of the then new “Declaration System” of the New York City Department of Social Services produced startling results. Welfare applicants were not investigated to determine their financial needs. They were approved for assistance based on their word, their declaration. Researchers found very few false statements on thousands of applications.

So why does the myth of the welfare cheater continue? Whenever I bring up the welfare issue in my sociology classes students who are usually quiet invariably seize the opportunity to denounce the very idea of welfare. They try to convince me that all welfare recipients “cheat” and that nobody really needs welfare.  They assert “welfare people” are just too lazy to work and are not victims of the economic system, despite what bleeding-heart liberals, sociologists, and Marxist economists have to say.

The work ethic and the American dream are so ingrained in our culture that cognitive dissonance is produced by the very thought some people need continuous financial assistance. A more friendly position toward welfare is seeing it, not as a permanent way of life but as a temporary fix to allow an individual or family to “get back on its feet.”  But is every American equally qualified to recover from hard times, and equally able to get off public assistance?  Empirical evidence suggests not, but the myth of everyone having equal opportunity to compete and excel in America’s dog-eat-dog version of capitalism still drives national, state, and local welfare laws.

Why So Many Americans Hate Welfare

Ordinary Americans are usually anti-welfare, almost as if it is un-American to support the idea of public assistance. Even some former welfare clients I’ve encountered tend to be opposed to the idea of welfare. They may even feel guilty for accepting help from the state in the first place.

There appear to be several reasons for this opposition to welfare:

  1. Rugged individualism (from the frontier era): The belief Americans are equally able through hard work to take care of their economic needs without government assistance.
  2. The idea welfare recipients are big contributors to the national debt.
  3. The idea people on welfare don’t really need the money; that they are simply greedy and lazy. Related to this is the idea welfare recipients are all able-bodied and not impacted by mental health and related issues.
  4. The idea welfare mothers (“queens”) have children out of wedlock to get on the rolls or have their allowance increased.

When I was a welfare caseworker it took me a while, coming from a white middle-class family, to understand not only the humanitarian necessity of welfare but also the advantages to society of a generous welfare system.  For instance, making it more difficult if not impossible to obtain welfare causes needless suffering and even premature death.

Parenthood as a Full-Time Job

Aside from literally saving lives—as if that weren’t enough in itself–welfare allows parents, usually single mothers with young children, to spend more time with their children.  Isn’t motherhood, or fatherhood in some cases, a full-time job?  While a caseworker in New York City I began to realize that raising children as a single parent—most of my clients were single parents—entails hard work that is generally unrewarded by society. In answer to the question, “What do you do?” I could say I worked as a civil servant.  Welfare mothers, even as they worked hard to raise their children, had no culturally and socially respectable answer to the question, “What do you do?”

The Societal Benefits of Welfare

In my two years working for the Department of Social Services I had two epiphanies. One was that being employed, or starting one’s own business, is simply not what every adult can do. The other epiphany was that society may be better off if many jobs did not exist in the first place (such as manufacturing assault rifles for the masses). Are we not sometimes better off with people not working but living on welfare?  Welfare recipients are free to do other things with their lives which may contribute more to society rather than “work.” My reclusive friend in California who has been on SSI most of his life not only has time to converse with people in person, on the phone, or via Facebook but has also written three books and numerous articles on literary and political criticism.

Politics and Ideology

Republicans on every level of government consistently vow to drastically reduce or eliminate various social safety net programs. In the extreme this includes social security, even for the disabled. More tax breaks (mainly for the rich) can be achieved if we just didn’t give tax money away to people who didn’t deserve it, or so these Republicans claim.  Social Darwinist ideologues see economic handouts as conflicting with the laws of nature.

Even liberal Democrats rarely say they will work to improve the plight of the poor or make it easier to get on the welfare rolls. After all, the poor (underclass) don’t vote as frequently as the higher income populations. (Voter suppression is one reason.)  Welfare will continue to be a dirty word until it becomes respectable to say, “I’m on welfare. What do you do for a living?”

Richard Sahn is a retired professor of sociology and a former welfare caseworker in the Big Apple.

18 thoughts on “The Welfare Myth: Confessions of a Former Caseworker

  1. This article really goes to the heart of the matter. My applause to the author.

    As someone not from America, many common ideas listed in this article that Americans believe puzzle me. Do they have not a single shred of empathy?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s quite simple, really.
      We reduce everything to a sports analogy. We love winning, hate losing. We deify winners, despise losers (it’s why we invented the Participation Trophy).
      But the line between winning and losing is a fine one, and no one likes being reminded that “There, but for the grace of God (or whomever) go I.” So, if you’re on the short and dirty end of the societal stick, you must be okay with that. Otherwise, why would you stay that way?
      Winners may be gracious, even magnanimous in victory, but losers are beneath contempt. As such, the concept of “empathy” ranks with “losing builds character” and the notion of “moral victories”: nowhere.
      I hope this helps clears things up.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re right and in addition there is the ego soothing effect of seeing those at the bottom and thinking “I’m a success and not one of them”. This was one of the reasons racism in the old South was so rampant – the lowest white could look down on any black.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Yes. We are indoctrinated to think of people on welfare and/or without jobs as “losers.” We’re also indoctrinated not to think of all the billions in government subsidies for the fossil fuel industry, weapons makers, etc. Welfare for corporations is OK: it’s framed as making them more “competitive” in the “global marketplace.” But a few hundred dollars a month for a woman trying to survive between jobs is sold as incredibly wasteful.

      My wife reminded me this AM that she went with her mom to the welfare office a couple of times. Her dad was a construction supervisor and his job was seasonal. Every now and then, he couldn’t find work, and welfare got them through the bad times until the next job came along. My wife learned empathy through her own life experiences…

      Liked by 2 people

    3. Americans have no self-awareness, either. Or awareness of anything, frankly: “keep your government hands of my medicare” immediately comes to mind.

      However, there is one valid complaint that Americans (at least, the ones I know, many of whom were born in other countries) have about taxpayer-funded social support programs: they don’t go as far as they should. High taxes in Scandinavia, for instance, go to fund substantial benefits; but high-tax areas in the U.S. don’t seem to take care of their citizens any better than low-tax areas. Infrastructure is certainly better in those areas, but good luck living there if you don’t have a high-paying job.

      If you spend enough time on this blog, you’ll see plenty of articles reiterating the following point: between increased surveillance, an over-bloated military, and corporate subsidies, there are no tax dollars left over to spend on the citizens.

      Liked by 1 person

    4. FIREMINER – in addition to the other perceptive responses to your query, I’ll add my thoughts as follows:
      —. As alluded to by the author of this article, the US has a vestigial ‘pioneer
      spirit’. We’re still a relatively young country/culture (only about 240 yrs
      since our Constitution was written), the US is geographically LARGE, AND
      we still have a fair amount of land that is comparatively available (taken
      by subterfuge & force from the native population), so in a sense we’re
      still in a long-term ‘boom’ mentality.
      — This country was founded by a LOT of driven, self-righteous individuals,
      along with a generous supply of profiteers & hucksters, neither group
      known for their empathy.
      — Being geographically isolated AND economically successful led to a
      sense of self-righteous exceptionalitism, which — when exploited by
      unscrupulous politicians — produced the ‘ugly American’ which
      also downplays empathy, at least empathy for the ‘thems’ as opposed
      to empathy for the ‘us-es’ (and when you don’t have a std ‘job’, you
      automatically become a ‘them’).
      — Residual racism. There’s a perception (cultivated by conservatives in
      this country) in many parts of the US that blacks are stupid, lazy welfare-
      scammers, hence undeserving of empathy. (See ‘The Bell Curve” for
      the pseudo-intellectual version of this).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s kind of difficult to “Pull oneself up by the bootstraps” if you can’t even afford to buy boots. One of the tenets of Libertarianism is that the rich are rich not because they have successfully exploited others, but because they DESERVE to be.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I currently have a brother-in-law (BIL), and his son as well, who are very staunch Republican types. This both amuses me and frustrates me to no end as I know their past histories, and in the son’s case, much of the present as well. My BIL was only too happy to live off the son’s mother’s welfare for a number of years while he was in his “hippy” phase, and the son had no issues with the process either or with living off his wife and girlfriend because he “couldn’t” find a job that was not beneath him (an aspect of his father as well).

    For a short time back in the early 70s, just prior to Hurricane Agnes, I was newly married, and we were both temporarily without employment. Welfare allowed us to live “high on the hog;” after all, we received food stamps and $90.00 every two weeks as well (yes, the high on the hog comment is meant to be sarcastic). No matter that our rent, without utilities, was $90.00 a month. That left us $22.50 per week for all other expenses, a sum that even then was not conducive to digging one’s way out of poverty. The devastation of Agnes allowed my husband to get temporary employment so we did not need to survive long on the public dole, thankfully. We would never have been able to make it out.

    I grew up in a time where my mom was basically a single parent, and that certainly didn’t lend itself to many extras even though we lived with my grandparents/grandfather (my grandmother died shortly after Mom moved back home after a failed second marriage with an infant). My own father managed to avoid paying child support, even skipping out to the Bahamas to avoid it. My stepfather paid a minimal sum that did not begin to cover my brother’s medical bills as he was often ill. My mother tried once to get some assistance when my grandmother was very ill and was denied. Guess she should have been less responsible and tried to have more kids?

    Seriously though, perhaps a bit more empathy and understanding are needed for those who need some help, characteristics it seems are often in short supply. I have met a number of people on assistance. Most of them were not lazy but lacked the education or ability to get themselves off. It takes money to pull one’s self out of welfare because the state(s) may pull assistance when someone finds employment or tries to better themselves through education (because they are not available for work due to trying to maintain a decent GPA), leaving people with limited options. One finding is that the work requirements for obtaining/maintaining assistance are not functioning as intended either, leaving some of the most vulnerable without the ability to maintain housing, a factor which may be/is definitely contributing to the current homeless crisis in what has always been billed as one of the wealthiest countries on earth. This is verified by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:

    “TANF Studies Show Work Requirement Proposals for Other Programs Would Harm Millions, Do Little to Increase Work”
    November 13, 2018, by LaDonna Pavetti, Ph.D.
    https://www.cbpp.org/research/family-income-support/tanf-studies-show-work-requirement-proposals-for-other-programs-would

    So, it seems to me at least, those on assistance are often in that area between the rock/hard place with few options, and as employment continues to require more advanced training than they may be able to obtain or are suited for, their options will be low-income positions that will do little to better their lives or lift them out of poverty. Perhaps, though, that is the whole purpose.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. If I’m recalling accurately, the national assault on “welfare queens” started under Nixon. But the Modern Republican Party was not content with ‘Tricky Dick’s level of meanspiritedness, so they gave us Ronald Wilson Reagan. Ronnie was supposedly a disciple of that living (at one time) embodiment of anti-empathy, Ayn Rand. Rand was a serious intellectual, so I think Reagan must have read only the Cliff’s Notes version of her philosophy. But he and his handlers loved what they saw there. So, why do enough of our fellow citizens swallow–some very eagerly–these toxic ideas to have brought us to our current plight, wherein a real estate mogul rode a wave of racism and xenophobia right into the White House? (Though there is very good reason to believe he neither wanted nor expected to actually be elected.) I suppose it’s because Americans, on the whole, have been spared the depths of suffering and deprivation inflicted–often by actions of the United States itself–on residents of other regions of the world. We know that the dirt-poorest among us are still, largely, better off for income than many folks in what used to be called “the Third World.” In other words, Americans have been “spoiled rotten”: they strut about, in all their ugly obesity, looking down their noses at the rest of the world. (Though, increasingly, they can’t see their own feet!) “Greatest Nation Ever,” “We’re Number One,” etc. Morally bankrupt for many decades now, this nation will finally go down the crapper when the rest of the world refuses to purchase its Treasury Bonds. Who will be scapegoated for that situation?

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  4. What really gets me is that so many of the politicians cutting welfare benefits make a show of their “Christianity.” I can understand people who are greedy. I don’t agree but can understand them. I can’t grasp how people who claim to live by teachings of Jesus can pass laws cutting benefits for the poor and downtrodden.

    “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me.” Matthew 25:40

    “Woe to you lawyers for you place impossible burdens on other men’s shoulders, but you yourselves lift not a finger to help them.” Luke 11:46

    Or, paraphrasing 1 John 4:20 “How can you say you love the unborn child you cannot see when you do not love the women and children you can see?”

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    1. “How can you say you love the unborn child you cannot see when you do not love the women and children you can see?”

      Because this “life” that the political Bible thumpers claim to care so much about “begins at conception and ends at birth.”

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      1. I wish I could be comforted by a belief that Hell really exists, and be confident that one of the deepest levels in the abyss of Eternal Torment would be reserved for these (quoting Mark Twain) “professional Christians.”

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        1. In the words of an old negro-slave plantation spiritual: “Not everybody talking about Heaven is going there.”

          For my two-cents worth, however, I prefer French mathematician Blaise Pascal’s observation that “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” For good reason, Chris Hedges uses that quote as the introductory epigram to his book American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (New York: Free Press, 2006).

          Another excellent treatment of the Republican party’s electoral relapse into fanatical fundamentalism comes from long-time party analyst, Kevin Phillips, in American Theocracy: the Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century (New York: Viking, 2006). An excellent analysis which I highly recommend.

          But getting back to Chris Hedges — the son of a Presbyterian minister and a graduate of Harvard Divinity School — he has recently written a follow-up article on this political “Christian” thing in the U.S., namely: Onward, Christian Fascists, Truthdig.com (December 30, 2019). The key quote, given the subject of this thread [emphasis added]:

          “The greatest moral failing of the liberal Christian church was its refusal, justified in the name of tolerance and dialogue, to denounce the followers of the Christian right as heretics. By tolerating the intolerant it ceded religious legitimacy to an array of con artists, charlatans and demagogues and their cultish supporters. It stood by as the core Gospel message—concern for the poor and the oppressed—was perverted into a magical world where God and Jesus showered believers with material wealth and power. The white race, especially in the United States, became God’s chosen agent. Imperialism and war became divine instruments for purging the world of infidels and barbarians, evil itself. Capitalism, because God blessed the righteous with wealth and power and condemned the immoral to poverty and suffering, became shorn of its inherent cruelty and exploitation. The iconography and symbols of American nationalism became intertwined with the iconography and symbols of the Christian faith. The mega-pastors, narcissists who rule despotic, cult-like fiefdoms, make millions of dollars by using this heretical belief system to prey on the mounting despair and desperation of their congregations, victims of neoliberalism and deindustrialization. These believers find in Donald Trump a reflection of themselves, a champion of the unfettered greed, cult of masculinity, lust for violence, white supremacy, bigotry, American chauvinism, religious intolerance, anger, racism and conspiracy theories that define the central beliefs of the Christian right. When I wrote “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America” I was deadly serious about the term “fascists.”

          Penultimately, I recommend another article on “political Christian” fascism by Mike Lofgren, a former Republican congressional staffer. See: GOP insider: Religion destroyed my party, Salon.com (August 5, 2012). Essentially:

          “Having observed politics up close and personal for most of my adult lifetime, I have come to the conclusion that the rise of politicized religious fundamentalism may have been the key ingredient in the transformation of the Republican Party. Politicized religion provides a substrate of beliefs that rationalizes—at least in the minds of its followers—all three of the GOP’s main tenets: wealth worship, war worship, and the permanent culture war” [emphasis added].

          So, all you bible-thumping Crusaders: “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition” (preferably purchased by extorted U.S. tax dollars from Raytheon, Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, Northrop-Grumman, etc. …). Warfare Welfare and Make-work Militarism have “divine” authorization, haven’t you heard, mercilessly marketed to the “moral” masses through Manufactured Mendacity and Managed Mystification — or the “Gospel” of Greed.

          Finally, as only Caitlin Johnstone can put the case: “The only real “welfare queen” that’s ever existed is the US military. Not even Reagan’s most dementia-addled fantasies ever dreamed up a welfare moocher this minted.” What the Australian lady said.

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          1. Both these observers are quite on the money. The Modern Republican Party would win precious few elections without the Bible-thumping element. Some GOPers now sport lapel pins with the US flag side by side with a cross. If we could revive Thomas Jefferson, I swear he would rip these hideous devices from their suit jackets and give the wearers a very sound thrashing!!

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          2. Good gawd. Beware of anyone posing as holier-than-thou. They almost always have much sin to hide.

            When I think of “true” Christianity, virtues like humility, compassion, generosity, and simplicity come to mind. Of course, Jesus reduced it to two great commandments, love of God and love of neighbor.

            Much of American Christianity has one commandment: love of self. And perhaps a corollary: love of money.

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  5. There are many myths pertaining to welfare. However, what was suppose to be a temporary safety net has morphed into life-long dependence.

    My question is what is the best route to guiding welfare recipients to financial independent?

    A direct question with a most likely a complicated answer. Work requirements, job training programs, etc. have failed to remedy this issue. While we cannot let people starve, we also cannot allow people to be on welfare indefinitely ( barring any disabilities prohibiting work).

    https://invertedlogicblog.wordpress.com/2020/02/08/the-samartians-dilemma-welfare/

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