You might recall a spate of stories from about a month ago involving state legislatures pushing measures intended to make life even more difficult for low-income recipients of government aid. Republicans in states like Kansas, Missouri, Maine, and others pushed aggressive restrictions on the ability to receive and spend welfare dollars – drug-testing, banning the purchase of seafood, limiting cash withdrawals to $25 a day, and prohibiting the use of Electronic Benefit Transfer cards at movie theaters, tattoo parlors, strip clubs, and casinos. Taken together, these measures represent a sweeping campaign to use the power of the state to punish the poor simply for being poor.
Policies like these reflect the longstanding conservative assumption that government assistance for the needy ends up breeding dependence and complacency. People who would otherwise go out and support themselves by getting a job, the argument goes, instead kick back and live the easy life courtesy of the federal government, hanging out in strip clubs and casinos and ordering filet mignon. Thus, if you make the lives of welfare recipients sufficiently miserable or block their benefits altogether, then they’ll go find gainful employment and stop bilking the innocent, hardworking taxpayer. “The law is really about encouraging individuals to become employed,” one Kansas official said of the state’s welfare spending restrictions. “We believe that employment is the most effective path out of poverty.”
The caricature of the deadbeat welfare recipient is a powerful one on the right. Republican economic headman Paul Ryan once famously described the safety net as a “hammock that lulls able-bodied people into complacency and dependence.” A couple of years ago, Fox News put together a “special investigation” into SNAP benefits that focused on a lazy, benefit-abusing surfer as “the new face of food stamps.” That slipshod piece of journalism ended up playing a factor in efforts by congressional Republicans to cut funding for the program.
It’s a message that conservatives at all levels of government push aggressively when trying to make cuts to the safety net. But is it an accurate reflection of the typical recipient of government aid? According to new data from the Census Bureau: no.
As Politico’s Danny Vinik wrote this morning, a new Census report looked at which groups of people ended up on government assistance and for how long. It turns out that a good chunk of welfare recipients are people who work either full- or part-time jobs. As Vinik notes, the report “finds that an average of 6.7 percent of full-time workers were also collecting means-tested benefits in 2012, more than 7 million Americans. For part-time workers, the number was 17.6 percent.” Among full-time workers who’ve collected benefits, nearly a quarter (22.3 percent) collected them for “at least three years between 2009 and 2012.” So for a big portion of people on public assistance, the problem isn’t that they have no incentive to find work; they’re already working, but their jobs don’t pay enough to cover basic expenses.
Data like these undercut the conservative assumption that receipt of government aid represents a moral failing, and that “dependency” can be cured through aggressive stigmatization and/or punitive restrictions on how benefits can be spent. Scolding someone on public assistance to “get a job” when they’re already working full time doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense. Restricting their benefits because you saw some dirtbag on Fox News order lobster with his EBT card makes even less sense – if the goal of these policies is to encourage people to find work, why punish the people who’ve already achieved that result?