Commentary on current events, politics, government, and popular culture from John Sheirer, author of the book, Make Common Sense Common Again.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Myth of Lazy People

This column originally appeared in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

Government benefits have long been stigmatized. When I was young, one particular family teased because they were "on welfare." I remember hearing a chorus of "Farewell, welfare!" when these kids trooped, heads down, off the school bus.

I asked an older kid what "welfare" was. He said it was free government money for lazy people. The family in question, he informed me, spent their welfare on an expensive sailboat that they displayed outside their house for everyone to see.

That didn't make sense to me, so I visited the family's neighborhood after school. A ratty rowboat with duct-taped, hubcap-size holes leaned against the tiny house where two parents and five kids lived. I found better boats discarded along the banks when I explored the local streams.

Years later, I learned that the family father had lost his factory job for health reasons, so he did odd jobs for cash around town when he could. The mother labored raising five kids in cramped conditions with limited means. If ever people needed help, here they were. The kid who called them "lazy" and described their "expensive sailboat" was full of crap.

Many prominent conservatives today seem as reality-challenged as the bullies on the school bus. Republican Representative Paul Ryan claims that people are abusing our social safety net as a "hammock." Ryan himself went to college partly with government benefits after his father died, but he enjoys accusing others of taking advantage of the system.

Republicans praised Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich for telling people protesting economic conditions to "get a job after you take a bath" and for calling Barack Obama the "Food Stamp President," referencing the increase in SNAP beneficiaries. Gingrich conveniently ignored the SNAP rate increase under President Bush, and that the economic downturn making increased government assistance necessary predated the Obama administration.

The idea that people receiving SNAP benefits are lazy holds about as much water as that rotting rowboat. In fact, 75% of SNAP benefits go to households with children, senior citizens, veterans, or disabled people. Many SNAP recipients actually have jobs, but their wages are so low that they still need government assistance. The vast majority of able-bodied people getting benefits would rather work, but America still has three applicants for every job opening. Meanwhile, corporations that bankroll people like Ryan and Gingrich have fully recovered from the recession and are hoarding huge profits but not hiring.

In short, there is no hoard of unwashed lazy people. That fantasy exists only in the fact-free minds of Republicans who oppose every job-creation and job-training bill that Democrats and the president propose.

Some loud voices want us believe that welfare fraud is rampant and bankrupting America. They rant that their cousin's neighbor's sister's boss's little league coach's hairdresser knows someone who heard about a "welfare queen" trading food stamps for candy bars, cocaine, and an iPhone--and, therefore, America is broke.

How can people believe such nasty bunk? Unfortunately, people believed the fake sailboat story and Ronald Regan's original "welfare queen" story, which was debunked long ago. No one ever offers proof but still demands that these ridiculous claims be honored as obvious truth. We shouldn't base public policy on eighth-hand anecdotes, especially when hungry children are involved. And the millions of needy families helped by the social safety net never make the gossip grapevine or the local news.

Actual research estimates social service fraud around 1-5%--similar to fraud-rate estimates for private businesses. And administrators more often perpetrate welfare fraud than recipients, so the omnipresent welfare cheat is a baseless myth.

Most important, the federal government spends about twice as much on corporate tax breaks, grants, and subsidies as on social service programs. And hungry children don't dump coal ash into our rivers.

Some people take advantage of the social safety net, of course. Let's find and punish these fraudsters. But a small percentage of fraud doesn't justify severe cuts. We don't dismantle the entire energy industry because some terrible companies pollute rivers. When Republicans use their "hammock" analogy to justify budgets that damage the safety net, I question their motives and their common sense.

Let's end on a positive note. I work at Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield, Connecticut, where we are partnering with the Connecticut Department of Social Services to offer a terrific program. SNAP recipients are eligible for scholarships to enroll in our career programs as a way to help them secure better job qualifications. They can study hard and earn an advantage in applying for competitive jobs where they can work hard and overcome the need for government assistance.

Too many Republicans repeat Reagan's fantasy mantra: "Government is the problem." They fail to grasp that one central role of government is to look out for our least fortunate citizens during tough times. I'm proud to work at a government-funded college connected with a government agency that offers government benefits to help people secure jobs.

Believing that SNAP benefits enable lazy people to lead an extravagant life is wrong. SNAP feeds hungry people and, through our scholarship program, helps people get jobs. The program doesn't reward lazy people with fictional hammocks or sailboats. Gingrich can call us the "Food Stamp College" if he likes. We'll wear his ignorant insult as a badge of honor.


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