The myth of millions of dirty rotten welfare cheats fleecing the public seems, like so many of our nation's ills, to have risen to prominence along with the rise to prominence of Ronald Reagan. In 1976, Reagan made a speech in which he claimed a "welfare queen" from Chicago's South Side had been arrested for welfare fraud:
"She has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve 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."
This woman did not exist. While popular media such as Reader's Digest had been printing sensationalized stories about welfare fraud since the early 1960s, it was Reagan who gendered and racialized the stereotype- and so it persists today, with the alleged frauds almost invariably black mothers (in Europe, substitute any other racial minority).
Like Ronald Reagan, the people who spout this sort of nonsense are no more than mouthy establishment puppets offering incorrect opinions on a subject about which they, obviously, know very little. Such ignorance is a basis of Junk Citizenship, and when confronted with a Junk Citizen, informed, compassionate citizens should be prepared to do factual (verbal) battle with their toxic views.
Ergo, how to respond to someone who claims they personally "know loads of people who are committing welfare fraud" in 5 easy steps:
1. Stay calm. Granted, I just called such people "Junk Citizens" and "mouthy establishment puppets". In truth, I do get a bit frustrated with hearing the same old nonsense all of the time, and I do wish people would do their research before trying to join the discourse. But sometimes, people are poorly informed for good reasons (i.e. overwork, lack of resources), yet are still reasonable and intelligent human beings who might be open to an alternative point of view. So stay calm, be patient, don't call them ignorant puppets or junk citizens (it's disrespectful and alienating), and just try to make a few factual counterpoints. Of course, if the dialogue goes absolutely nowhere, you might privately mutter "puppet!" to yourself or denounce Junk Citizenship on your blog that no one reads.
2. The first appeal I like to make to those who know "loads" of welfare cheats is the appeal to compassion and humanity. It goes something like this: The government provides different kinds of welfare to poor people, middle-class people, the super rich, and corporations. So these loads of people you personally know who are committing welfare fraud- are they middle class or poor people (since, despite what the Supreme Court says, corporations are not people, and most of us are not and do not know any of the super rich)? There may be some hemming and hawing at this point and you might have to make the case for middle-class welfare (tax cuts and benefits such as those for home ownership, etc.). But pretty quickly it will emerge that these "loads" of welfare frauds are to be found among the poor.
You might then point out that the largest welfare program (for individuals) in the U.S. is Social Security- a guaranteed minimum income program for the elderly. And that another large client base for welfare programs is children (public education, health insurance programs for poor children, WIC, etc.). Is it poor children and low-income older people who are defrauding the system while living a drug and booze-addled lazy luxury lifestyle? No? (Now you're, most likely, back to the stereotype- it's the mothers of poor children, particularly the black ones).
Now for the appeal to compassion and humanity: Grant them their stereotype: There are going to be *some* welfare cheats out there, even among the poor. Some poor black moms (and white dads and white moms and black dads) might be gaming the system. Any bureaucratized system is open to some level of abuse. Available evidence indicates that the problem of "welfare fraud" is, however, vastly overstated. And it's not like poor people are living anything remotely resembling a luxury lifestyle- really, would you want to have to get by on the meager benefits offered to the poor by the U.S. government (and incidentally, cash benefits have a 5-year lifetime maximum)? Would you like to trade places with any of these masses of fraudsters? Are you seriously begrudging a poor person a trip to McDonald's or a soda?
And even granting the stereotype- if one tries hard enough, they can probably find some poor and lazy parent out there "freeloading", collecting benefits when they could and should be working (some low-income, no-benefit crap job that makes survival, perversely, more difficult)- are we really willing to punish the majority of honest, hard-working poor who desperately need help to survive in an economy and society that threw them overboard thirty years ago?
I, for one, am not. I would much rather support (and pay for) benefits that try to equalize the playing field for the masses of poor (who have suffered enough), even if that means there is some no-good, Escalade-driving, PlayStation-buying, drinking, smoking, drug-taking, soda-swilling, McDonald's-scarfing welfare fraud laughing all the way to the bank on my dime. Even if there are 10 of them. 100 of them. 1,000 of them. 10,000 of them.
3. The appeal to compassion and humanity usually fails. So then I try the appeal for evidence. It goes something like this: Can you please make a list for me of all of the people *you know personally* who are committing welfare fraud, how long they have been doing it, and in what ways? This request inevitably brings people up short. Pressed for examples, they *will* struggle to provide more than one, and to provide much in the way of details at that. You might get something like this: "There's this woman I know with three kids and no job, living in project housing, and I see her every day eating a foot-long with chips and soda AND a cookie in the Subway at Wal-Mart. Why is she spending government money (my money!) treating herself to Subway every day while I go to work every day, with a (virtuous) ham sandwich packed in my lunch bag?"
4. After you've caught someone up short on evidence, you can provide alternative evidence. Like this: You can start by raising some questions about the example they've provided: Do you really see her *every* day? How do you know she's spending money on that lunch? Maybe there is an employee who feels sorry for her, or is her friend, and slips her the food for free (in which case that hard-working employee would actually be the marauding fraud)? Or maybe she provides under-the-table childcare to one of the employees, who buys her lunch in exchange? (Poor people often have networks of informal exchange that enable them to meet needs and scrape by). After you've demonstrated that one has to be a bit more nuanced when judging other people, go for the statistical evidence:
Unfortunately, the government does not systematically collect evidence on welfare fraud, which leaves the practice open to a lot of conjecture and hyperbole (conveniently). But there have been a few studies that quote actual evidence. For example, a 2004 study from the Department of Justice looked at Social Security fraud- that is, fraudulent claims for old age, survivor's, and disability insurance. In 2003, the SSA made payments to approximately 44.6 million claimants through these programs. Between October 2002 and March 2003, the SSA received 51,311 fraud allegations (nearly half of them tip-offs from private citizens, the rest from law enforcement, SSA employees, and other public agencies). Given that October-March is a six-month period, you might want to double all of these numbers. (But still- 100,000 allegations out of 44.6 million cases? Not exactly "loads of people"). Of those 51,311 allegations, the SSA actually opened 9,170 potential fraud cases (so most allegations are bunk), and of those 9,170 cases, only 2,677 led to arrests and indictments, and then only 1,008 of those led to criminal convictions. 1,008 out of 44.6 million (let's double it and say they got another 1,008 for the next six months)- 2,016 fraudsters out of 44.6 million claimants- not exactly an epidemic, is it?
Other evidence indicates that those convicted of welfare fraud aren't always exactly unsympathetic- this study (from Canada, alas) includes the case of a young pregnant woman who was convicted for receiving a student loan and welfare assistance at the same time (previously legal but now illegal under Canada's welfare 'reform').
And even if you troll through Wikipedia or LexisNexis, you will find precious few sensational cases of welfare fraud among the poor (much welfare fraud is actually committed by vendors).
5. Finally, you can give them an alternative definition for welfare fraud. Like this: The real 'welfare queens' are corporations! Even if individual poor people have managed to defraud the welfare system, the cost of their fraud is *absolutely nothing* compared to the welfare fraud of corporations. Corporate welfare runs into untold billions of dollars- tax incentives and breaks, bailouts, etc. The Savings and Loan fraud cleanup cost taxpayers $125 billion. The bank bailout cost us $700 billion dollars- and what a fraud that was. The banks are back to record profits and luxury bonuses, while the latest figures show that 15.6 million Americans remain unemployed, another 9 million are involuntarily working only part time, and yet another 2.5 million have given up hope of finding employment ever again.
Corporate welfare runs into the billions of dollars annually (and costs more than many of the welfare programs for the poor combined). Corporations often receive subsidies and tax breaks (often no taxes for x number of years) to bring their business to American communities in exchange for the promise of decent jobs. These same corporations all too often pull up sticks and move to another town (or country) when the tax breaks run out, or when another community offers a better deal.
The welfare and bailouts given to corporations make these entities the real 'welfare queens' /cheats/frauds/freeloaders of American society. To demonize the poor on welfare is to play foolishly into the hands of a status quo that does not have any of our interests in mind.
It is perfectly reasonable for middle- and working-class Americans to be angry. We have seen our standard of living decline, our wages stagnate, our dependence on credit to survive intensify, and our jobs disappear, while the costs of education, healthcare, food, and housing have gone through the roof. We are all only a tenuous thread above the very poor we demonize, and may all too soon find ourselves in need of a welfare "handout".
But to misdirect this justified anger at the bogeyman of a cheating, lazy, drug-addled poor person shows not only serious deficits of compassion and reason, but allows the real 'welfare queens' to continue truly wasting our money while ransacking our economy, our society, and our lives.