In 1970 Guy Drake released the song Welfare Cadillac which became the touchstone for critics of the public assistance program, proof of rampant fraud. In 1976 Ronald Reagan told a hyperbolized falsehood that characterized the average welfare recipient as a black mother with 80 aliases from the south side of Chicago receiving multiple welfare checks and food stamps that she used to buy drugs instead of caring for her brood of illegitimate children.
But let's examine the reality of the program. No one doubts there are frauds in the system just as there are in every organization, but to generalize based on a few examples is a logical fallacy.
Here are some of these "welfare queens" whom I knew personally when I worked in a small grocery store in 1975. One woman with two children was married to a logger. A falling tree broke his neck, leaving him a quadriplegic. She carried her paralyzed husband around in a beat-up station wagon, leaving him naked in the back where the flies would crawl over him because he couldn't swat them away. The state placed the children in foster homes. This tragic figure was beaten down by life and yet she would not desert her husband.
What were her options? Her meager education would not have gotten her a job and if it did, how was she to take care of her husband? But one day, when the state allowed her children a visit, this desperate woman danced with delight that her family was together, albeit for only a couple of days.
The husband of another woman in the store was struck down with a debilitating disease that left him bedridden. She would leave two of her children to care for their dad while she and another child walked three miles to the store where they bought only as many groceries as they could carry.
In 2011, the maximum allowance nationwide average for a single-person household was $200 per month with an average of $101. For any household of eight people or more the allowance is $1,352 per month. To qualify, a family must earn less than $637 per month. Fifty-two percent of food stamp recipients have children, 9 percent are elderly, 42 percent are white, 33 percent are black and 19 percent are Hispanic.
The annual expense is about $75 billion compared to a defense budget of $680 billion in 2010.
The number of people on food stamps has varied since 1969 when 2.8 million enrolled in the program. By 1979, the number had risen to 17.7 million and to 18.2 million by 1999. In 2008 it was 28.2 million, but with the economic downturn the number now is about 45 million.
Should we assume that all these people are crooks who parasitize the benevolence of society? The best estimate of welfare fraud is around 2 percent. In 2011, ABC news reported as many as 17 million children were dealing with food insecurity and going to bed hungry. These children are prone to illness and do poorly in school. Early brain development is impaired by starvation so the cycle of poverty, ignorance and hunger is guaranteed in perpetuity.
In an election year, it is tempting for both sides of the political spectrum to misuse the stories of the poor in campaigns. To that point, I challenge all politicians to live on a food stamp budget for two months. I am pretty sure that people who eat hundred-dollar lunches will not accept that challenge.
Everyone wants to cut waste and reduce deficits. But let's not look for simplistic answers to complicated questions because they best fit our political ideology. The people who want to characterize this as a Christian nation would do well to remember Jesus' admonition in Matthew: "That which you do to the least of these, you do unto me."