A few weeks ago, I was listening to a radio program about the current Republican primary candidates. At one point a woman called in complaining that the candidates are not talking enough about welfare reform. She went on to say that she is a single mom working 60 hours a week to pay for a lifestyle her son’s friends get for free, because in their households one or more parents aren’t working, in some cases by choice. When I told my husband about this later, we had a good laugh about the idea that public assistance and welfare benefits pay for “lifestyle.” As a family who has been on multiple kinds of welfare over the last 5 years, from Medicaid to Food Stamps to WIC, we couldn’t help but wonder what we were missing out on. Where were our IKEA stamps?
When I hear an average citizen make the mistake of conflating public benefits with “lifestyle” benefits, I recognize it as a dangerous ignorance arising out of having little or no contact with the welfare system or anyone who is in it. When a current or formerly elected official with experience working for the government says something like Newt Gingrich, who publicly claimed that some people were taking their food stamp money and going on vacation to Hawaii, I recognize this as a dangerous lie.
The political discourse in our media about welfare has skewed the national conversation such that many citizens actually believe that it is both easy to get benefits, and that you can use benefits any which way you want. The reality could not be more different. Getting into the welfare system requires intense levels of documentation (including but not limited to: social security cards for all adults applying; birth certificates for all children in the family; marriage licenses; utility bills; lease agreements; vehicle titles; proofs of income; bank statements for any accounts you hold; documentation of any daycare expenses; documentation of any school expenses; etc). Most public benefits offices are set up to screen people out of the system, rather than in, which means that any applicant must jump through a variety of hoops (including having their application and documentation “lost” and having to start the whole process over again), miss work or school to attend multiple appointments, and then wait a month or more from their application date for their benefits to kick in.
Once benefits are in hand, they can only be used in a specific way. For example, Food Stamp benefits (also known as food assistance, or SNAP) come in the form of an EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) card. It looks like a State ID card, and works like a debit card. The benefits on the card can only be used to buy food. An attempt to buy anything other than food-i.e., beer, cigarettes, or a plane ticket to Hawaii-will be rejected by the card. WIC (Women, Infants, and Children food assistance) is even more specific, because it comes in the form of a series of checks that are handed directly to the cashier. Each check outlines which items can be bought with it, and they come with an accompanying guide that outlines which brands of these items are approved and which are not. A grocery shop with WIC checks can actually take twice as long as a normal shop because the items are so intensely regulated.
So, are frauds perpetrated within this system? Certainly. But in my experience of helping people negotiate these systems, the most frequent fraud perpetrated is this: NOT reporting all of the income a family earns. For example, people who are self-employed may choose to not report all of their income because they know that if they do, the result is being kicked out of the system. The reason these kinds of frauds are committed is very simple: survival. The public benefits system is set up to take into account ONLY the most basic expenses a family will have-rent, utilities, school, and child care-in its evaluation of whether or not a family qualifies to receive benefits. The system does not take into account cost of living variations around the country, or a host of other expenses that the average family either requires or incurs: transportation to/from work/school/daycare; clothes and diapers; student loans and other kinds of debt repayment; phone and internet bills. These are all things that most citizens would agree are necessary for the average family to function in this country. Yet these expenses are not included in an evaluation of whether or not a family needs health or food support.
So if we can recognize that the kind of fraud that usually takes place is under-reporting of money earned, rather than the myth of using food stamps to pay for vacations, then we begin to paint a different story than the one repeated in the national media. This alternative story is that people ARE working, but are unable to report their income for fear of losing their benefits. And fear they should. For we live in an economy where people are penalized and made homeless for not being able to pay back their loans on time, even though this aspect of our collective financial duress is left out of the process of evaluating whether or not people need public assistance. The notion that this system needs reforming in the direction of screening MORE people out of the system is just plain false. And dangerous.