All in all--and contrary to the conventional stereotype--the overwhelming consensus among [welfare] recipients was that working in the labor force constitutes an important and essential part of being an adult....
--Mark R. Rank, Living on the Edge: The Realities of Welfare in America
As Mark Rank points out, a major stereotype towards welfare recipients is that they would rather not work. In other words, that recipients have no incentive to work if they recieve welfare benefits. I find this logic appealing because it makes sense. If I didn't have to work I probably wouldn't. And yet the empirical and anecdotal evidence indicates the opposite for welfare recipients. Let's look deeper.
One reason the stereotype is popular goes to a related stereotype of recipients: that they are lazy. (I discussed that in a previous post here.) With this stereotype, we're left with the image of welfare recipients as good old American couch potatoes, getting up only to pull the welfare checks out of the mailbox. That stereotype then interlinks with another: that recipients are dishonest. Here, the view goes, recipients are more likely to go out and sell food stamps for money (this is illegal) or forge AFDC documents than they are to get a job.
Yet the evidence mentioned above indicates that most welfare recipients want to work. Does that mean the stereotypes are wrong--that welfare recipients are not lazy or dishonest? Not necessarily. I hope that at least gives mild pause to those of you who think I type with my left hand.
The old stick or carrot debate understands that a person might take a step in a certain direction because he is pushed or because he is pulled. Welfare recipients may not be drawn to work so much as they are pushed from welfare. At the very least, the possibility must be considered. Indeed, I've repeatedly discussed how miserable an experience welfare appears to be. Rank talks about this in Living on the Edge
, as does David Shipler in The Working Poor
, Loretta Schwartz-Nobel in Growing Up Empty
, and, to a lesser extent, William Julius Wison in The Truly Disadvantaged
. However, to say welfare recipients only work because welfare is a pain in the butt is like saying I don't kill because jail would be pretty miserable.
Another alternative is that people work because they are greedy. Such a theory is seen in some of the interviews in books mentioned above. In other words welfare is fine for those who don't mind never eating out and buying clothes only when absolutely necessary. Authors like Juliet B. Schor in The Overspent American
argue that out culture applies ever-increasing pressure to spend. Even with credit cards and bankruptcy, you eventually have to make money to spend money, and such pressures may explain the appeal of working.
And on the other hand welfare certainly pushes some away. Mark Rank discusses at length the stigma and lack of privacy associated with welfare programs. Guilt, peer pressure, and a decreased sense of worth pressure many to leave welfare as quickly as possible. And some programs require so many disclosures so frequently, that people feel they have no privacy from the state. And those who don't care about the privacy may nonetheless find the constant disclosures and documentation requirements demeaning.
So why are so many people on welfare? Easy question to write; tough question to answer. Sometimes there are not enough jobs. Sometimes people in need of work are not qualified for the jobs available. If a factory closes, 100 nearby available jobs may still leave a person unemployed if he cannot successfully be retrained.
Sometimes employment is not the issue--but rather compensation. Low wages can leave a person in need of supplemental income. The popular book Nickel and Dimed
indicates just how hard it is to survive on minimum wage jobs--or anything low wage at all. Barabra Ehrenreich's findings are only supported by David Shipler in The Working Poor
, and many other authors. The same is true for jobs with inconsistent compensation. (Illegal immigrant) strawberry pickers in Eric Schlosser's Reefer Madness
are not the only manual laborers to find themselves in seasonal work. Welfare benefits are needed to fill the gaps when you don't make enough all the time or don't make enough some of the time.
And then there are all the other potential explanations. I will not go into them here but suggest possibilities like injury and disability. If I fall and find myself on crutches tomorrow, I can still work. I have a desk job and I can have pretty much any injury not associated with my brain and still keep my job (and my paycheck). But Ehrenreich's jobs in Nickel and Dimed, for instance, are far different (and yet ever so common). She couldn't work as a waitress with a broken leg, or clean rooms at the hotel if she was stuck to a bed for two weeks. The differences between white and blue collar jobs are many, but often the many small differences matter a great deal when it comes down to how much you take home each week.
For these, and many other reasons to be discussed later, welfare is necessary for many on a temporary or permanent basis.