America’s misguided war on low-income financial assistance

America’s misguided war on low-income financial assistance

By Timothy Scalona

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]