Welfare is not a dirty word

I cried at work this week. More than once. It’s something I don’t often do. Like so many of us, I’ve learned to become desensitized, detached even, to the horrific tales of suffering that I hear. But then I met Claire.

Claire has five kids between 6 months and 16 years. She was a teenage mom and has suffered abuse her whole life. She’s had to go on welfare several times since she was a teen on her own. Now it looks like she’s about to lose this safety net no matter how bad things get.

In Washington, you will soon get cut off of welfare if you’ve been on for a total of 5 years. Losing these benefits is about to be a new reality for many struggling families and is a direct result of our state’s budget crisis.

I could tell you more sad and horrible details about Claire’s life in an effort to convince you that what’s happened to her is not her fault. But I think you’ve heard stories like this before. I remember what it was like for me before I started this work. When I heard about an awful situation I thought “I must not know all the facts. They might have made bad choices.”

After years of working with people living in poverty, I now know that there is not always the opportunity to grab those bootstraps and pull your way out. Meeting Claire hammered this home for me once again.

Claire has worked harder in her life than I will ever have to. She’s surely made a few mistakes, but haven’t we all? She has also done a lot of things right. So it makes me angry that in this country, where we have so much, she should get so little for all her efforts.

I am asking you to change your perception of people on welfare. It’s supposed to be a safety net when a person falls on hard times, but over the past 14 years this net has been neglected and cut to the point where it’s not very reliable anymore. Welfare is not a dirty word and it should be there to catch us if we fall.

(c) Independent Media Center

9 thoughts on “Welfare is not a dirty word”

  1. Thanks for writing the article and highlighting the broad issue, but I’m getting some mixed signals about what argument you’re trying to make.

    With the bulk of the article comprising of the story about Claire, I think you’ve given a strong example of why welfare should exist. And that’s a fine point to make, though I’m not sure if there is significant controversy on that point that threatens its existence.

    However, the title of your article and the concluding paragraph suggests a different point. You ask the reader to change their perception — presumably a largely negative (“dirty”) one, and follows with the observation that funding has declined.

    Note that a discussion about a possible link between perception and funding is an entirely different discussion then one about the merits of having the program to begin with.

    Continuing with a discussion of the link anyway…

    As in the example you gave about WA, the cut to welfare is directly due to a financial crisis, where presumably many things, along with welfare, are being cut/reduced — such as the freezing of state employee salaries, closing of public parks, reduction of professional training programs, etc.

    So, it seems that the decline in funding for welfare is just part of a broad pattern of budget reductions, and not, as you suggest, a result of some “dirty” perception of welfare that people have?

    Are there some statistics about this negative perception of welfare that you did not have space to include in the article?

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Chi. It’s true that the broader point I aimed to make was that Claire’s story (and the many like hers) illustrates the important need for welfare. In my mind, there is also a strong connection between people’s perception of welfare and the cuts that are currently happening. A huge part of the state’s business is welfare and other programs that help poor people (like Basic Health). If voters were really concerned about maintaining that safety net, we would have seen a very different outcome at the polls in November.

  3. Thanks for replying.

    In general, there’s no doubt that a negative perception of something will affect the budget for it. But I don’t see that you’ve support your claims that:
    1) welfare is substantially viewed negatively
    2) and if it were, that the perception is the major influence in the decline of its budget

    Using WA as an example, as you said, it’s going through a budget crisis. Cuts were made across the board (6.3%). After that, Gregoire is now suggesting further cuts to education and human services, which is not surprising, since educations accounts for roughly 50% of the general fund, and human services accounts for about 36% — together that’s the lion’s share, 86%.

    So, I don’t really agree with you that the blame for the cuts falls on voter negativity — *everything* was cut equally and now the further cuts that are being considered are roughly proportional to the percentage of the budget they account for — i.e. mostly education and human services, with more cuts being suggested for education than human services.

    What makes you say that, in your mind, people’s (negative) perception of welfare are “strongly” affecting its budget? What was the voter outcome that shows that welfare was especially targeted for budget cuts due it’s unpopularity?

    As a note, ironically, it’s the state’s Republicans who are fighting to save subsidized health insurance — Basic Health — by trading chiefly for a 2.5% reduction in all state employee salaries.

  4. Chi, My thoughts: 1) I have consistently encountered negative perceptions of people on welfare all my life. It sounds like you have had different experiences and that we disagree on this one. 2) Over the years, welfare has been dismantled and underfunded because there is no loud public voice against these cuts. To me, this election was one more example of this.

  5. Traci…thanks for a thought provoking read. I have personally seen a lot of negative perceptions when it comes to welfare or any other aid (even unemployment) recipients. People that use food stamps at grocery stores do get looks of sympathy or accusation. I’m not a Washington resident so taking this out of that context I do know a lot of voters who (with otherwise liberal views) will vote for cuts in welfare. Most of their arguments will be ‘this will make them get out and work.’ I’m fortunate enough to be financially stable yet out of a job for almost two years. A person with reasonable connections, a good education, I have had a tough time in this economy to find anything…how will people who lack such resources and are merely struggling for their survival supposed to bring themselves back up again is beyond me! Thank you for your passion…we need people with heart in these fields!

  6. Here is a really classic example of the hateful rhetoric that stigmatizes poor people. The editor of the National Review calls parents whose kids qualify for free and reduced school lunch “criminally negligent”.

  7. @Traci. The issue is not really that we disagree on a matter of opinion. I’ve consistently referred to published facts that appear to contradict your main point, without expressing any postal opinion about it (and I don’t really have one).

    I have quoted numbers from various budgets and actual proposals for budget cuts, which do not bear out the claim that welfare has been singled out for budget cuts (for any reason, negative perceptions or not). Wouldn’t the article be more persuasive if something beyond anecdotal evidence was provided?

    Also, perhaps more importantly, as a WSCADV staffer who has essentially written a “call to action” piece on the organization’s blog that allows only staffers to post, shouldn’t such calls be supported concretely rather than expressed as a matter of opinion and personal experience?

    Or if the article was mainly meant as a matter of personal experience, shouldn’t there be some kind of disclaimer as such, since the blog is ostensibly sanctioned by the WSCADV for their staffers to foster discussion of “violence and relationships” and not as a platform for personal expression on social issues in general?

  8. In the first paragraph, “postal” => personal — the hazards of typing on the iPad without proofreading…

  9. I’m a WSCADV staffer who has been following this chat, and think it’s a great opportunity to clarify what we’re trying to do with this blog. Our ultimate goal is to change how people think about domestic and sexual violence. And to talk about how survivors of abuse are impacted by current events and a range of social issues (like how living in poverty can make it extremely hard to escape abuse). We’re going to try to keep making these connections. I appreciate the attention you’re giving our blog and our staff will continue to have conversations to take your feedback into consideration.

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