By John Cheese
What do you imagine when you hear the word "welfare"? Most of us think of a minority living in a filthy house with five kids running around while an alcoholic dad sleeps it off face down on the couch ... if there's even a dad at all. I talked in another article about the things politicians will never understand about poor people, but it's not just Washington elites who treat the poor like an alien species. Hell, I find myself thinking in "welfare queen" stereotypes, and I grew up among them.
The problem is that everyone -- from the news media to well-meaning activists -- refer to "the poor" as one group having the same problem, when in reality no two people are in the category for the same reason, and almost none fall neatly into the stereotype. Right now there are millions of people out there who are using government assistance because they are ...
#4. People in a Temporary Emergency
Want to know kind of a cool fact that politicians tend to leave out of the rants when they're tossing around numbers like a monkey throwing its shit? Nineteen percent of people on AFDC (one of the most common forms of government aid) are on it for less than seven months.
That's pretty damn important in my book, because it's a huge demographic that never, ever, ever gets covered by the news. And why would it? That statistic doesn't help support any political points because it ... well, it's kind of boring. It shows that this part of the system is working exactly as it should. People get into some trouble and need some help, the government supplies that help, the people get back on their feet, and everyone walks away happy. Problem solved. Eat a butt-fart, poverty.
I've decided to start saying "butt-fart." I'm sorry.
I've known many people who have been in situations where they've lost their jobs (hey, nowhere in the company handbook does it say we can't do "ninja flips" off of the forklift), and unemployment simply wasn't enough to live off of -- or was denied altogether. Or maybe the company flat-out closed. Maybe there was an injury or an illness, and the job doesn't pay sick time. Put yourself in those shoes: In the ensuing clusterfuck, you realize that you were making just enough money to survive, even while working a 40 (or more) hour job. There is no savings. At least not one that can support you and a family for any extended period.
So you swallow your pride, head down to the public aid office, and get set up with your "just got wallet-fucked by a company dildo" check, and then you bust your ass looking for a new job. Shit happens. Learning to deal with it is what makes you an adult. Don't let the government bullshit you into thinking that welfare is a system they handed you out of the goodness of their own hearts, using their own money that they pulled out of thin air. The checks you've received from all of the (legal) jobs you've ever worked have paid into this system. It's yours to benefit from when you need it.
And like almost everyone who has ever had to be on this assistance, they hate every second of it. They can't wait to get off of it because every time you use a Link card to buy food or a medical card to pay for the removal of the LEGOs you glued to your neck (or whatever it is that people go to the doctor for), you feel like a failure. The sooner you can stop depending on that shit, the better. Regardless of what the extremists say, getting government assistance is not like finding buried treasure -- it's like digging coins out of the bottom of a sewer.
"Well if so many people get off of welfare so quickly and easily, why do we still have such a massive problem with it? Are the politicians and media just lying?" Well, no, not really. See, a frighteningly large number of welfare recipients are ...
#3. People Trapped in (and by) the System
In my last article on poverty and welfare, I cited a staggering statistic, and it bears repeating here ... and in every article I ever get a chance to bring it up: 91 percent of welfare benefits go to the elderly, the disabled, and working households. And that number I quoted earlier in this article? The 19 percent who get off of AFDC in less than seven months? Well, it turns out that pretty much the same amount stay on it for more than five years. There's a reason, and it's a pretty common one.
Well, no, not really. Getting out of poverty requires massive sacrifices. This is the part that seems to be the hardest for others to understand, because the easy answer is "Well, no shit, I sacrifice hobbies, sleep, and even time with my family for my career. If I can do it, you can do it, too, Poor Person!" But urging someone to sacrifice is making a huge, unspoken assumption: that they have something to sacrifice in the first place. If they're unemployed, they're in a Catch-22 where they need a car and a working phone to get a job, but they need a job to afford a car and a working phone (and yes, if you are lacking both of those things, your application is almost certainly going in the trash -- they won't hire somebody they can't call in for work on short notice).
And if they are employed, it's actually worse. This is why that stat about how most of the poor have jobs is so important -- it's one thing to ask somebody to sacrifice sleep and bong time in order to get a job, but it's another to ask them to sacrifice their paying job in favor of college classes or an internship that won't pay anything. At that level, the current employer doesn't give two shits what else you're trying to fit into your schedule. Throw kids into the mix, and it gets more complicated still. You can't get ahead because all of your time, money, and energy are being poured into just maintaining the life you're currently living.
That's how they get stuck in perpetual welfare. They're using 100 percent of their time, money, and efforts to maintain this level of basic life -- including the government assistance. Without some kind of outside intervention, they just never break free. This isn't theory -- I've seen it happen. I grew up with it. And it's terrifying to see that machine in action. After continually fighting it for so long, people just give up and resign themselves to that life.
And this is where it gets really crazy, because once you introduce children to this cycle, you get ...
#2. People Who Have Been Trained to See It as Normal
Every single person I can remember on my mom's side of the family was on welfare in one form or another. All of them. The woman who would be my off-and-on stepmother for most of my childhood came from a family that was the same way. My dad was on welfare, sporadically, through most of my childhood and teenage years. When you grow up in that environment, it becomes the ruler by which you measure everything in life. Middle class people are rich to you -- a status that's virtually unattainable. They got lucky. Probably had everything in life handed to them. Actual rich people are fairy tales, so setting their lifestyle as your goal is beyond laughable. It's like telling someone your career plan is to win the lottery or to master telepathy. Maybe become a butt-farter. Nope, I'm not stopping that.
Welfare life is normal because not only did you grow up with it, but every friend and relative did as well. You filled your fridge on the first of the month, when your Link card reset. When they needed to use a phone, the whole neighborhood knew one person who was rich enough to have one, and they all constantly filtered in and out of her house like giant ants. You had cable for a month, and then not again for another five. You borrowed money from relatives on a weekly basis, knowing it was never going to be paid back, the word "borrowed" used only as a polite formality.
As a kid, you didn't know you were fucked because this was life. As a teenager, you realized, "Yeah, this is bullshit. This isn't normal," but you still accepted it, because now "life" was just another term for "fucked." "Yeah, we're all fucked. What else is new? Isn't everybody?" Then you put on your black trench coat and rollerbladed away because it was the early '90s.
That's not just an angst-ridden teen spouting dumb, eye-rolling bullshit. It's honestly the mindset you grow up with because it's what you've directly observed. Normal people don't buy new cars. They buy the hand-me-down, 200,000-mile piece of shit from their uncle for a couple hundred bucks. Normal people don't buy houses. They rent the cheapest shithole they can find because a house is just a place to keep the rain off of you. And normal people don't get cushy jobs that they enjoy. They work ball-crushing, exhausting labor for shitty pay and no benefits because that's just what people do. Any goals higher than that, and you're treated like an entitled little butt-fart who's "too good" for the people he grew up with. He "forgot where he came from."
And strung through all of these things that he "knows" is that the entire lifestyle is supplemented by government assistance. You make what money you can, and welfare takes care of any holes in your budget. You take it for granted, the way everyone else takes roads and bridges for granted -- it's just a part of your life. And if that doesn't sound crazy enough, here's something to really tip the scales: Finally getting off of welfare is considered a loss.
No, really. If you've had a source of income, no matter how small, for your entire life, and suddenly someone took that income away, it's a financial disaster. So when you start to earn more money through your actual job, there's this weird tipping point where you make just enough to stay on assistance, but not enough to be free from it ... so you're earning your normal pay plus welfare. At that moment, you're pulling ahead of the whole poverty trap. BUT ... once you cross that line, even by one dollar, that public aid is stripped and you take a huge step backward. Yep, you've escaped, but you're now taking a net loss compared to where you were a month ago, and it sends the message "Working is bad."
This gets treated like a horrible moral failing ("You're a lazy, greedy parasite!"), but those insults come from people who don't grasp how much government assistance they soak up every year. Here's a hint: Every single one of us is getting government subsidies for electricity and food -- you just don't see it because it's the producers who get the check, not you. Yeah, we're all on welfare, buddy.
But the group of welfare recipients virtually everyone forgets about happens to be the most important in my eyes ...
#1. People Who Have No Say in the Matter
You could include the severely handicapped and the elderly in here, too, if you like -- there's plenty of room for their thonged asses in this hot tub of a subject, baby. But on the whole, I don't think any group is as overlooked as children. And now I'm positive that this whole paragraph just put me on a government watch list.
I don't blame anyone for forgetting about them because when we have the welfare debate, it's almost entirely based on how we perceive its fully adult, able-bodied members. In those exchanges, kids are only brought up as ammunition. "They keep having babies, and I'm the one who ends up having to pay for them!" I've even heard people saying that poor people reproduce so they can get more government money. Just an honest, no bullshit note here: If you're one of the people who think this, you're far too fucking stupid for this conversation. Door's to the left. You can take a lemon bar on your way out.
When I was finally old enough and found out what public aid actually was, I was mortified. Even though my only input in the need and decision to be a part of the program was my simple existence, I felt like the most worthless piece of shit in our whole school. I did everything I could to hide the fact that we were on it. When I had friends stay the night, I begged mom to buy groceries before they came over so they didn't see her using food stamps. I took jobs during the summer so I could restock the clothes that were starting to look old. I fucking hated being on welfare. If welfare were a face, I would have punched it right in its stupid suckhole.
And even back then, it was still a debate. Even at that age, when I heard people on the news talking about it, it didn't matter that they were discussing my parents. As far as I was concerned, they were talking about me, too. I was a burden on them. The country hated me because I couldn't afford to pay the rent or buy food. Even at my age, it was my fault. I didn't understand it, but I felt that heat. They fucking hated me.
It's hard to remember that as an adult because we've talked about the issue so much, we've dehumanized it. We wrapped it in an unrealistic stereotype that doesn't accurately portray the people who are actually in the program. We throw up our own reasons for their needs, depending on which talking point is most likely to secure a conversational victory for us, forgetting that these are real fucking people, and with just a few tweaks of our luck, we could easily be one of them.
That doesn't mean that the debates shouldn't happen. I'd love to live in a world where there was no need for government assistance and everyone was able to take care of themselves no matter what obstacles were thrown in their path. I think that these debates are a positive step in that direction. But I think that if we lose sight of the fact that the statistics we're quoting have names and families and dreams and fears and loves and boners, all the talking points in the world don't mean jack shit. At that point, we're just playing a game of "I've memorized more numbers than you."