(WOMENSENEWS)–What a difference an economic crisis makes.
Now each day the brutal job market is throwing more men, white people and two-parent households into poverty and onto the welfare and food stamp rolls–some for the first time.
The new poor are showing up on the old welfare rolls causing a surge nationwide. Still below earlier peaks, the numbers are reportedly up a soaring 14 percent in hard-hit states such as Ohio, where the director of a community coalition explained that they used to see the same people come in for help, but now it’s a lot of newcomers. In Fort Myers, Fla., nearly 40 percent of the 812 welfare applicants in October had never before asked for help.
The food stamp program, which also serves the new poor, is adding some 20,000 people a day. More than 36 million, or 25 percent of the population in 240 counties nationwide–that’s 1 in 8 Americans and 1 in 4 children–use the program to stave off hunger, according to The New York Times. A male head of a household who applied told the Time’s reporter how his mind had changed.
"I always thought it was people trying to milk that system. But we just felt like we really needed the help right now," he said.
Once Regularly Demonized
For years, women relying on federal cash supports were regularly–and wrongly–demonized as lazy, immoral cheats.
You also heard well-paid pundits such as Charles Murray, resident scholar at the Washington -based American Enterprise Institute, insist that "poverty results from a lack of personal responsibility."
Critics such as Heather MacDonald and Steven Malanga, columnists for the City Journal published by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank in New York City, shared a similar sentiment, saying things like "children of women on welfare become teen mothers and criminals."
Then there was the "welfare queen" slur that Ronald Reagan made viral with his tale of a woman who "ripped off $150,000 from the government, using 80 aliases, 30 addresses, a dozen Social Security cards, and four fictional dead husbands."
These false yet powerful images fueled welfare reform and other policies that penalized poor women in need for seeking federal cash supports, food stamps and public housing.
Today these negative comments have more or less died down as middle-class people in small rural towns, sprawling suburbs and big cities have lost their jobs, savings and homes and turned to the government for aid.
As the new poor fill the rolls, the vitriol that used to be sprayed at single mothers who needed public assistance seems to be fading.
Instead of bemoaning the added cost, Sara Murray, a Wall Street Journal columnist, sympathetically declared that "the recent rise in welfare families across the country is a sign that the welfare system is expanding at a time of added need." It was also notable that the longstanding racialized hostility to welfare did not surface when President Barack Obama’s stimulus package included dollars for states to meet the program’s rising cost.
Faced with the ravages of the economy, Congress destigmatized the food stamp program by changing its name to Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP, hoping to attract the new poor.
Going beyond the unprecedented extra welfare dollars in the stimulus package, word has it that Democratic majorities in Congress may also suspend welfare reform’s punitive time limits and work requirements when they renew the federal law in 2010. And we can also hope lawmakers will fund supports for practical education and child care, options that can lift many women out of poverty.
As more people come to rely on public benefits, this is a good time to look around and
notice the extent to which many people beyond single mothers routinely get a break from the government but do not think of it in this way.
The former working- and middle-class adults who are receiving extended jobless benefits, "cash for clunkers" and the upcoming "cash for caulkers" do not think of themselves as "on welfare." Nor does the public begrudge them their public assistance.
The same goes for the 52 million seniors who were collecting monthly Social Security checks in 2009. Social Security–a cash assistance program for the middle class as well as the poor–was sold as a repayment plan back in the 1930s. The reality is that the taxes taken out of our wages each week won’t repay us. They’ll pay benefits to workers who have already retired and it’s easy for many beneficiaries to take more out of the system than they ever pay in.
Mortgage Holders Also Take Handouts
Data from 2006 showed there were 35 million middle- and upper-income homeowners who lowered their tax bill with the mortgage interest tax deduction. None of them seem to think they are taking a handout.
Yet the $61.5 billion lost to the Treasury because of the mortgage interest tax break is more than twice the $29.4 billon that the Department of Housing and Urban Development spent on low-income housing and rental subsides for the poor.
The CEOs of banks, auto companies and other corporations regarded as "too big to fail" also accepted "welfare," better known as the $700 billion bailout. Their check was far more than the $585 billion spent for Social Security pensions in 2007.
Yet the execs only complained about the accompanying regulations designed to restrict their irresponsible behavior. Such non-impugned corporate "welfare" is nothing new.
In 2006 alone the federal government provided some $92 billion in tax-funded subsidies–such as the Advanced Technology Program, the Export-Import Bank and the federal crop subsidies among others–to corporate giants such as Boeing, Xerox, IBM, Motorola, Dow Chemical, General Electric and wealthy farmers–up 11 percent from 2001.
None of these upscale recipients suffer public stigma because controversy almost never glares down on them. Most eagerly look forward to collecting their tax-funded government benefits.
As the nation discovers that most people, including single mothers, fall into poverty due to forces over which they have little or no control, there seems to be more sympathy and understanding to go around. Let’s hope this generosity of spirit outlasts the current downturn.
And let’s also keep better tabs on who’s really getting the biggest handouts and then redirect more dollars to those most in need
Mimi Abramovitz, the Bertha Capen Reynolds professor at Hunter College School of Social Work, is author of "Regulating the Lives of Women: Social Welfare Policy From Colonial Times to the Present;" the award-winning "Under Attack, Fighting Back: Women and Welfare in the U.S.;" and co-author of "Taxes are a Women’s Issue: Reframing the Debate." She is currently writing "Gender Obligations: The History of Low-Income Women’s Activism since 1900."