The Other Story (from Autumn Brown)

this is brilliant and timely piece from my sister Autumn Brown, reposted from her newsletter!

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 benefits?

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 this, as Newt Gingrich did when he 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, and 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, and yet this aspect of our collective financial duress is left out of the process of evaluating whether or not people can afford food and health care. The notion that this system needs reforming in the direction of screening MORE people out of the system is just plain false. And dangerous.

However, I also do not want to come across as defending the notion that all adults should be working for an income and that there is something wrong with people “choosing not to work.” I have noticed a transition in the national discourse about this question from when I was a kid. It used to be that we lamented the fact that in most two-parent households, both parents have to work. In the last decade, among conservatives and progressives, this has shifted to an expectation that both parents should work, and a criticism of those who “choose” not to work. There is an underlying assumption here that goes unquestioned and unexplored: that all of the other things we do in our homes and lives – things like cooking, cleaning, raising children, volunteering – are not work, and therefore have no value within our economy. We no longer recognize the value in a parent choosing to stay home with their children, because this is not considered “work.” How bizarre. And this notion that both parents MUST work comes with an additional accompanying assumption that goes unquestioned and unexplored: that both parents are working for themselves and their children to have a particular lifestyle – a middle class lifestyle replete with multiple cars, phones, and other gadgets – which is inherently more valuable than the lifestyle they might otherwise have. 

As a full-time mother who must also work somewhere in the range of part-time to full-time doing contract work in order to make ends meet, I recognize that public benefits have been critical to my family’s ability to survive. I expect the government to take responsibility for citizens by redirecting resources in this way and I think it is one of the few things our government could do quite well if it had the right resources. I find it painful to realize that many political figures, when faced with a choice between providing these necessary benefits and allowing children to starve because their parents are not able to afford food, would choose to allow children to starve – even if their position is only rhetorical. The politicians who espouse these dangerous ideas are the same people who claim to uphold Christian values and to defend the family. The hypocrisy is painful to witness, especially because it allows non-elected citizens to feel comfortable and confident sitting in judgment of those who have less than them, from a place of unacknowledged privilege and unabashed indifference.

When we allow this dialectic to go unchallenged, we reinforce the stigma attached to receiving assistance that results in our country’s public benefits being underutilized (in point of fact, close to half of all citizens who are eligible to receive food assistance never do).  We also reinforce the notion that the only appropriate way for individuals and families to receive assistance is through religious charity, which is hugely problematic because these forms of assistance play out primarily within private institutions with few accountability protocols that protect those in need from being abused by those in the position to help them. We reinforce the idea that people in need are only deserving of what those in power are willing to give.

I would much rather put in place systems that reinforce the alternative idea: from each according to their ability, and to each according to their need. Systems where we all have enough to eat, and the health care we need, and a warm house to make a home. We can have fullness, wholeness, and wellness. And maybe go on vacation to Hawaii, too.