May 1 1995

Five Media Myths About Welfare

1. Poor women have more children because of the “financial incentives” of welfare benefits.

Repeated studies show no correlation between benefit levels and women’s choice to have children. (See, for example, Urban Institute Policy and Research Report, Fall/93.) States providing relatively higher benefits do not show higher birth rates among recipients.

In any case, welfare allowances are far too low to serve as any kind of “incentive”: A mother on welfare can expect about $90 in additional AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) benefits if she has another child.

Furthermore, the real value of AFDC benefits, which do not rise with inflation, has fallen 37 percent during the last two decades (The Nation, 12/12/94). Birth rates among poor women have not dropped correspondingly.

The average family receiving AFDC has 1.9 children — about the same as the national average.

Money/Photo: Flickr of 401(k) 2012

Money/Photo: Flickr of 401(k) 2012

2. We don’t subsidize middle-class families.

Much of the welfare debate has centered around the idea of “family caps”–denying additional benefits to women who have children while receiving aid. This is often presented as simple justice: “A family that works does not get a raise for having a child. Why then should a family that doesn’t work?” columnist Ellen Goodman wrote in the Boston Globe (4/16/92).

In fact, of course, families do receive a premium for additional children, in the form of a $2,450 tax deduction. There are also tax credits to partially cover childcare expenses, up to a maximum of $2,400 per child. No pundit has suggested that middle-class families base their decision to have children on these “perks.”


3. The public is fed up with spending money on the poor.

“The suspicion that poorer people are getting something for nothing is much harder to bear than the visible good fortune of the richer,” wrote columnist Mary McGrory (Washington Post, 1/15/95). But contrary to such claims from media pundits, the general public is not so hard-hearted. In a December 1994 poll by the Center for the Study of Policy Attitudes (CSPA), 80 percent of respondents agreed that the government has “a responsibility to try to do away with poverty.” (Fighting Poverty in America: A Study of American Attitudes, CSPA)

Support for “welfare” is lower than support for “assistance to the poor,” but when CSPA asked people about their support for AFDC, described as “the federal welfare program which provides financial support for unemployed poor single mothers with children,” only 21 percent said funding should be cut, while 29 percent said it should be increased.

Money/Photo: Flickr of 401(k) 2012

Money/Photo: Flickr of 401(k) 2012

4. We’ve spent over $5 trillion on welfare since the ’60s and it hasn’t worked.

Conservatives and liberals alike use this claim as proof that federal poverty programs don’t work, since after all that “lavish” spending, people are still poor. But spending on AFDC, the program normally referred to as welfare, totaled less than $500 billion from 1964 to 1994–less than 1.5 percent of federal outlays for that period, and about what the Pentagon spends in two years.

To get the $5 trillion figure, “welfare spending” must be defined to include all means-tested programs, including Medicaid, food stamps, student lunches, scholarship aid and many other programs. Medicaid, which is by far the largest component of the $5 trillion, goes mostly to the elderly and disabled; only about 16 percent of Medicaid spending goes to health care for AFDC recipients. (“What Do We Spend on ‘Welfare’?,” Center for Budget and Policy Priorities)

Furthermore, the poverty rate did fall between 1964 and 1973, from 19 percent to 11 percent, with the advent of “Great Society” programs. Since the 1970s, economic forces like declining real wages as well as reduced benefit levels have contributed to rising poverty rates.


5. Anyone who wants to get off welfare can just get a job.

Many welfare recipients do work to supplement meager benefits (Harper’s, 4/94). But workforce discrimination and the lack of affordable childcare make working outside the home difficult for single mothers. And the low-wage, no-benefit jobs available to most AFDC recipients simply do not pay enough to lift a family out of poverty.

Although it is almost never mentioned in conjunction with the welfare debate, the U.S. Federal Reserve has an official policy of raising interest rates whenever unemployment falls below a certain point–now about 6.2 percent (Extra!, 9-10/94). In other words, if all the unemployed women on welfare were to find jobs, currently employed people would have to be thrown out of work to keep the economy from “overheating.”