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.