Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

America’s misguided war on low-income financial assistance

America’s misguided war on low-income financial assistance

The poor, perceived as casualties by larger society, have long been dehumanized in an ever-growing class war. Those at the top capitalize on division, and push the idea that disadvantaged people are lazy and undeserving of assistance by their character alone, to suit their own agendas. This behavior is rooted in the idea that one can cross the social class barrier with hard work and perseverance, which has long been a trademark of the American identity. However, as we have seen in recent decades amidst increasing wealth inequality, this promise is no longer realistic.

Within this crooked agenda, to be vulnerable is to be weak. For this reason, the most disadvantaged groups who make use of government aid programs are targets of discrimination and exclusion—whether that be through Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), welfare or other forms of economic assistance. There exists the narrative that the recipients of these programs are merely unwilling to put in the effort to overcome their financial instability, which could not be farther from the truth.

This falsity has been perpetuated by the ingrained notion of the “welfare queen”—the image of an impoverished individual taking advantage of the assistance systems in place, and addicted to drugs or alcohol. Pushed by Ronald Reagan during a 1976 campaign rally, he brought this myth into the public sphere: “She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.” Since then, while the “welfare queen” is a casually expressed term, the idea behind it has become masked.

Political rhetoric has taken on the form of the “war on the poor” as the masses clamor for recipient drug testing and the elimination of funding across the board. Yet, as those at all levels of poverty are demonized, the same individuals calling for this “reform” ignore the comparably disproportionate amount of corporate welfare allotted. The latter takes on the form of federal, state and local subsidies granted to corporations as well as tax breaks granted to those corporations. According to a Good Jobs First report, enumerated in a Forbes article, these corporate subsidies alone totaled nearly $110 billion in 2014. On the other hand, SNAP is a $75 billion federal program, covering nearly $45 million low-income Americans. For an individual to call for the removal of public welfare programs while completely ignoring these “corporate handouts” exemplifies the societal hypocrisy and misinformation surrounding the topic.

Individuals on food stamps have high work rates, as do all SNAP households with working age, non-disabled adults; 58 percent are employed within a month and 82 percent are employed within a year, which disputes the “unemployed stereotype.”

Furthermore, recent studies surrounding supposed welfare drug abuse have found low drug dependence by the recipients. In 2011, Missouri passed a law that required drug testing for welfare applicants; of the 38,970 applicants, only 48 tested positive. Similarly in the first few years of Utah’s welfare-recipient substance abuse testing, only 47 of the total 13,799 applicants “were found to have drugs in their system.”

While this claim is continually rebuked, lawmakers consistently push for drug testing. These efforts cost the taxpayer more than they benefit; in the aforementioned Utah example, only 0.3 percent of all applicants exhibited positive results in a program that costed nearly $93,000 over three years. Yet, drug-testing for wealthy CEOs—those who receive federal subsidies—is non-existent. Why do the poor have to “prove themselves” to be worthy of assistance, while the rich are exempt from this same scrutiny?

Individuals cite successful efforts to improve their own financial reality as justification to impede support for those unable to in a world where social mobility is less possible. From their limited perspective, they see others who fail to better themselves as lesser, which is an evolved stereotype that originated in the “welfare queen.” This reflects the American obsession with hard work equating to success.

This is also unfairly used as ammunition for the anti-immigration hysteria, as both legal and illegal immigrants are characterized as non-tax paying welfare abusers. Contrary to reality, “the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act restricted noncitizens’ eligibility for major federal public assistance programs, such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps), Medicaid and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF),” who are only eligible following a five-year period of employment. Undocumented persons expressly do not receive these benefits, yet pay $90 billion in taxes.

It is time that we, as Americans, re-evaluate our subconscious opinions about the poor that have long furthered division. As individuals are less able to climb the social ladder, many are forced to rely on these government assistance programs to survive, all while working multiple jobs. This unfair image of the poor removes blame from those responsible, transferring it to the most disadvantaged groups as a smokescreen.

Living in deep poverty, I owe my survival to these federal programs. The claim that individuals like myself “choose” poverty to rely on government handouts is rooted in misguided stereotypes. In low-income situations, there is often no choice involved; under a looming fate of starvation, homelessness and further financial instability, recipients choose life. As the poor are further used as cannon fodder in divisive politics and corrupt agendas, we as a nation stray from reality. Redefining financial vulnerability, we must ensure that the individual need for government assistance is not an avenue for discrimination, shaming and dehumanization.

Timothy Scalona is Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected].

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  • J

    John aimoJan 25, 2018 at 1:34 am

    I am going to give my opinion and hopefully the columnist does not get offended. I read some of his other stories and I understand he has had a difficult life and one outside of his control.

    I myself have been poor and prior to becoming poor, I always had sympathy for the poor and supported welfare benefits and other services, because I believe that for the most part, anyone should have their basic needs met. Later on being poor, despite having this attitude I was appalled by two things. One is how some poor people make choices and contribute to their poverty or living circumstances, I don’t mean in terms of work, but like not spending their money well or buying things they don’t need or not taking advantage of opportunities like the maximum financial aid a person can receive; which won’t pay for an university but will pay entirely for community college. Also I was shocked by the lack of solidarity in the poor community, poor people rarely help each other, and if they organized together they could improve their standard of living and options. Also not all, but do to some extent contribute to the lower quality conditions, like pollution(litter) and crime and so on, although I understand on the other hand, many poor people don’t and are subject to living in those communities.

    The other thing I was appalled at is the judgement including towards myself for being poor, something I had no control over and a judgement from appearance to how things outside of your control effect you(like not being able to afford something or maybe being late because you had to take the bus) to judgement/presumptions that it’s your ‘fault’ that your poor.

    I would think that the philosophy and attitude that anyone can get out of poverty makes people very mean to the poor and make it seem like it is their fault. Although those people would have probably been mean regardless, it is ultimately a personal choice to mistreat someone or judge them. On the other hand, the opposite philosophy that nothing can be done about poverty, your stuck there, you shouldn’t be judged, it’s fixed, and we should just give life-time welfare to the poor, isn’t helpful either, as it robs people of a sense of free will and power.

    Ultimately government programs and other forms of aid can be helpful; and on the opposite hand ‘work’ isn’t some magical solution that fixes anything, if your choice is between a dead-end minimum wage job that is demanding on your body and mind and welfare, maybe welfare is the better choice.

    Although although changing attitude or perspective might be helpful, someone who is poor has to want to get out of poverty and ultimately they themselves will have to get out of it.