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Myth of the Welfare Queen

I HAVE lived in four states in the last nine years: Virginia, New York, Massachusetts, and now Connecticut. They all have one thing in common.In each, I have met people who fervently believe that welfare clients from around the country target states to live in because of the breathtaking size of welfare checks. I've never figured out how people imagine that the poor do this. Maybe low-income people have computers, programmed with up-to-date information on the welfare benefits of every region in the country. Perhaps there is a toll-free number: "Call 1-800-FREE-RIDE about where to move for the fattest welfare checks!" Maybe there is a billboard somewhere, saying, "POOR PEOPLE, MOVE TO (fill in name here)." True believers paint a malevolent picture of hordes of welfare clients who target their state for invasion. The poor bring with them their common-law spouses, 12 children (all with different fathers, of course), rusting automobiles, and hands stretched out for the money granted, no questions asked, by a benevolent state government. If my description is particularly vivid, it's because I can't count the number of times I have heard versions of this ridiculous scenario. They have come from those who should know better, people who have suggested that cutting off all welfare benefits would balance the state budget, cure the common cold, make the lion lie down with the lamb, and most of all, make the rest of us morally superior people feel a lot better. I have two words for this paranoid middle-class fantasy of the parasitic poor: looney tunes. This is broad-brush stereotyping that is every bit as damaging and cruel as racism. The American Public Welfare Association in Washington, which represents state and local human-service administrators, says 70 percent of those receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) are children. The typical welfare family is a mother and two children. Estimates are that about half of all welfare clients spend no more than two years on welfare; two-thirds are on welfare no more than four years. The median benefit is $367 per month for a family of three. That's 42 percent of the federal poverty level. It doesn't sound like the life of Riley to me. And guess what? There's no consistent pattern of clients crossing state lines for benefits, spokesman Richard Ferreria says. However cherished the myth, the data do not support it. In nearly all states, the biggest budget-buster isn't welfare for the poor, but Medicaid benefits that provide health care, particularly for the elderly in nursing homes. More than 50 percent of the Medicaid budget in some states goes to long-term care. The national average is 40 percent. It is not uncommon for Medicaid budgets to dwarf money set aside for AFDC, says Jane Horvath, director of the health policy unit of the American Public Welfare Association. "Medicaid is known in some states as the progr am that ate state budgets," she says. But resentment of welfare remains. In the last 10 years, leaders in Washington have consistently told Americans that any tax increase is bad and amounts to government picking our pockets. Some of us have come to believe that all taxes, no matter how good the purpose, are rip-offs. Combine this twisted belief with these uncertain times. People fear for their jobs and, in this recession, fear that they won't be able to pay their bills as easily. So a fantasy emerges that some enormous, faceless group of people somewhere is getting a free ride off the rest of us, and they're laughing their heads off while we hustle for a living. Welfare is an easy target. A number of states are taking aim at the welfare population to balance their budgets. In Michigan, all "able-bodied" adults were cut from the state welfare rolls a few weeks ago - a move taken by Arkansas, Tennessee, Texas, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Louisiana, and, soon, Maryland. Cutting healthy adults from the welfare rolls sounds absolutely reasonable, and no doubt in some cases it is. But in many other cases, those healthy adults are people whose unemployment benefits have run out and who haven't been able to find another job. They are widows who have never been employed and who have lost their husbands. They are the mentally ill. There is a mean-spiritedness in the debate over budget shortfalls that is increasingly disturbing. We can't build up the state by tearing each other down. Name-calling, scapegoating, and stereotyping are destructive and dehumanizing. It's too high a price to pay.

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