News Flash: Poor Mothers on Crime Spree!

"PrimeTime goes undercover to investigate welfare fraud, and the mess of a system that entices people to break the rules and gouge the taxpayers," Diane Sawyer announced last year, introducing a segment of ABC's PrimeTime Live (9/17/92). "With so much money up for grabs," Sawyer declared, "investigators in the field say it's even better than robbing a bank."

One bandit rolling in cash was "Mary," a single mother on welfare who secretly worked two part-time jobs. "Mary" thereby netted approximately $16,000 a year, a figure even Sawyer seemed to acknowledge was hard to live on. Nevertheless, the PrimeTime host scolded her subject: "But you know people say you shouldn't have children if you can't support them."

Contrary to the popular myth that the welfare rolls have been expanding for decades, the population on public assistance actually stabilized in the early 1970s at about 3.6 million families, and only began to grow with the 1989 recession. AFDC families are hardly making out like bandits: In 1990, the average welfare grant for a family of three was $377 per month, which would put these families at 50 percent below the poverty line.

Throughout Sawyer's report, hackneyed images of welfare recipients, mostly black or Latina, paraded across the screen. Although a fraud investigator interviewed on the program reported that "by far the majority [of welfare defrauders] are non-minorities" and "come from middle-class families," PrimeTime's hidden camera followed the standard media race line by portraying mostly black and Latino inner-city "cheats."

This same focus on the welfare recipient as criminal was visible throughout 1993 in stories about plans to make fingerprinting a requirement for public assistance. A Newsday editorial (2/17/93) presented the fingerprinting scheme as a blessing in disguise for the poor, because "rooting out waste...might provide more funds for the truly needy."

Predictably, the welfare-buster is now a media hero. The St. Petersburg Times (1/17/93) ran a glowing profile of welfare fraud investigator Crystal Richard, whose "vigilance" caught some 110 people she suspected of defrauding the system. Richard was presented as an expert on poverty: "I don't feel sorry for anyone who lies to get assistance.... I was on food stamps when I was in college. I was on the system. And I know there's so much out there, why lie?"

A more realistic view emerged in a New York Times Magazine piece by Rosemary L. Bray (11/8/92), former editor of the New York Times Book Review and once an AFDC recipient herself. Bray countered the myth of welfare families rolling in cash: "It's painful to remember how much every penny counted, how even a gap of 25 cents could make a difference in any given week. Few people understand how precarious life is from welfare check to welfare check."

As for so-called welfare fraud:

It took, as well, turning of our collective backs on the letter of a law that required reporting even a small and important miracle like a present of $5. All families have their secrets, but I remember the weight of an extra burden. In a world where caseworkers were empowered to probe into every nook and cranny of our lives, silence became defense. Even now, there are things I will not publicly discuss because I cannot shake the fear that we might be hounded by the state, eager to prosecute us for the crime of survival.

Another piece that saw through the hysteria was an op-ed by Mimi Abramovitz and Frances Fox Piven (New York Times, 9/2/93): "Welfare mothers make good scapegoats at a time when politicians and experts need scapegoats. Welfare is a code word for women and for blacks."

Despite these dissenting voices, the media groundswell of mushrooming welfare rolls and rampant fraud has already taken its toll. The welfare-fraud hype has effectively put broader discussion of poor peoples' conditions on the back burner. What media debate exists has largely centered on "welfare reform," which misses the point entirely, according to Abramovitz and Piven:

If there were good job training, adequate child care and decent wages at the end of the road, many women would eagerly leave welfare. But such programs would cost upward of $50 billion, so that is not what government is doing. Instead, the harassment of welfare mothers in the name of reform continues.

In a time of economic decline, the "welfare cheat" (along with the "illegal alien") seems to be one of the figures the media love for you to hate. PrimeTime rebroadcast its controversial "Welfare Fraud" segment on Aug. 26, 1993. In an update of what happened since the first broadcast, Sawyer glibly announced that "Mary" -- the single mother on welfare who was "cheating" by working night shifts -- had since been fired from her two part-time jobs. "Mary" and her child are now living on a grand total of $7,000 a year from welfare.