(MintPress) – Despite 50 million in poverty, and millions more living in “near poverty” conditions, welfare allocations have not kept up with basic cost of living increases, potentially preventing millions from properly feeding their families. Beyond discussions of the “fiscal cliff” relies an embedded assumption that a culture of dependency keeps generations dependent upon government programs.
Although increasing welfare allocations is a tough sell in state and federal legislatures, government statistics show that essential social programs, broadly defined as “welfare,” have kept millions from entering the ranks of poverty, and could actually give citizens an opportunity to climb the ladder to a middle class existence.
Preventing increases in poverty
Reliance upon programs like Supplemental Nutritional Assistance (SNAP) have increased under President Obama, but have ultimately decreased the number of Americans living in subsistence poverty conditions.
Relatively new measures of poverty, including the Supplemental Poverty Measure, show that refundable tax credits for working families and child tax credits, among other policies, helped lift 8.7 million Americans out of poverty in 2011. The crisis of poverty would clearly be much worse without such programs.
However, state and federal support for programs that can save families from poverty, malnutrition and homelessness have been consistently defunded in an effort to overcome budget shortfalls.
Cost of living increases, welfare remains the same
In many states, welfare is often one of the first programs to be considered for cuts. For many families, especially those headed by a single mother, welfare is a necessary lifeline allowing the impoverished to feed their families.
Republicans have used welfare as a talking point, sometimes erroneously in an effort to tear down the program while attacking the modest support lent by Democrats.
Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) has consistently led the way in right-wing attacks on welfare, labeling President Barack Obama “the welfare President” during previous public addresses. While on the campaign trail during the Republican primaries, Gingrich said he planned “go to the NAACP convention and tell the African-American community why they should demand paychecks instead of food stamps.”
Not only do white Americans draw the plurality of welfare checks, about 34 percent, Gingrich’s support for paychecks does not create jobs, nor does it restore a broken education system capable of giving Americans the skills necessary to succeed in an increasingly globalized economy.
A study based on figures published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that real dollar welfare allocations have declined markedly since 1977-1978 when individuals received $238 per month from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).
Based on the cost of living, the true purchasing power of allocations has declined to just $154 for these respective programs.
Additionally, misnomers abound as most welfare programs actually have a work requirement in order to receive benefits. During the 2012 presidential campaign, Republican challenger Mitt Romney accused Barack Obama of “quietly ending the work requirement, gutting welfare reform.”
The assertion was patently false, as fact-checking services, including CNN, found that Romney’s claim was baseless. In some states, disinvestment in anti-poverty programs has continued despite ample funding.
In Minnesota, for example, welfare grants have remained constant since 1986, when a family of two received just $437 per month. In 2013, that figure has not changed despite massive increases in the cost of living in the 27-year period.
In fact, according to the Consumer Price Index calculator, welfare grants should be double the $437 figure in 1986 in order to keep up with the rise in food, gas and rent, all of which have increased markedly over the nearly three decade span.
The failure to increase welfare allocations commensurate with cost of living increases means that legislators have consistently decided that it is acceptable to relegate whole sections of the population to poverty and homelessness, knowing that modest increases in welfare grants could help families.
In response to the acute crisis, the Welfare Rights Committee of Minnesota has organized an “opening day rally” on Jan. 8 at the Capitol in St. Paul in an effort to draw attention to this issue. The rally is now supported by a dozen area social justice organizations and unions advocating for a more democratic, progressive welfare policy.
Breaking pejorative stereotypes
Increasing funding to important programs is also about breaking from a decades old racist assumption that the black “underclass” is somehow dependent upon welfare, extorting government handouts instead of seeking employment.
The pejorative “welfare queen” stereotype still lingers as a nasty image informing the typically myopic discussions of poverty and welfare in Washington. The term arose during the 1976 presidential campaign in which Ronald Reagan referenced an unidentified “welfare queen” living in Chicago who was supposedly able to extract hundreds of thousands of dollars from the welfare system through fraud.
“She has 80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards and is collecting veteran’s benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000,” said Reagan on the campaign trail.
The insinuation has created a lingering, racialized myth about inner city African-American exploitation of welfare programs. Not only are the myths patently racist, the discussions of a few, isolated cases of welfare fraud have become a distraction from more productive discussions about poverty in the U.S., a problem that has increased in Appalachia, inner cities and in virtually every community regardless of race.
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