How a welfare fraud crowd pleaser actually inflicts real damage

Sandy Butler and Holly Schreiber, University of Maine

Originally published in the Bangor Daily News on May 24, 2016.

In the U.S., we have a history of closely examining and judging the behaviors of low-income individuals and families. While all of us benefit from government-funded programs — whether by visiting libraries, driving on highways, attending public schools or receiving Social Security — families who receive assistance through Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or TANF, are often singled out for scrutiny regarding how our tax dollars are spent. But in fact, compared to what our country has spent on war ($598.5 billion in 2015) or corporate welfare (just under $100 billion in 2012), funds directed toward very poor families with children through TANF ($16.8 billion in 2014) are, relatively speaking, small potatoes indeed. In a total federal budget of $3.5 trillion in 2014, TANF spending was less than half of 1 percent. We spent nearly six times as much on corporate welfare and more than 35 times as much on defense.

Nonetheless, TANF families have become a target for politicians and policymakers seeking to exploit public discontent with the economy and tight budgets. Using the age-old strategy of stereotyping, they attempt to create the negative public perception that these very poor women and children are somehow responsible for all our financial woes. This was illustrated in this past legislative session, when legislators overwhelmingly passed the very punitive LD 1097 — referred to as the product ban bill — restricting the use of EBT cards, which contain the monthly cash assistance families receive through the TANF program. At the same time, legislators failed to pass the much more constructive LD 1268 that would have helped families on TANF to overcome barriers to meaningful employment through education, access to real jobs, safe housing and outcome measures that would hold the Department of Health and Human Services accountable for administering TANF in a way that would truly raise families with children out of poverty.

The focus on the supposed “bad behaviors” of these low-income parents — and there is little evidence that such behaviors are pervasive — is the wrong approach and does nothing to address the extreme child poverty rate that has increased in Maine by 50 percent in the past five years. Moreover, the proposed restrictions are also notoriously difficult to enforce. Nonetheless, sanctions will be imposed by this new law and will result in real suffering and even deeper poverty for some of Maine’s most vulnerable children. A family will lose assistance for three months if a parent purchases one of the banned products with an EBT card; the sanction increases to one year with the second offense and to two years for the third.

Furthermore, the product ban bill causes significant damage by perpetuating prejudice against TANF recipients. The banned items — tobacco, alcohol, lottery tickets, porn magazines, tattoos and firearms — reflect timeworn stereotypes that blame poverty on individual behavior instead of social conditions. As historian Michael Katz points out in “The Undeserving Poor,” low-income people are overwhelmingly characterized as lazy, criminal, sexually licentious and prone to addiction. For decades, these depictions have been used to create suspicion about all people on federal aid, not just the (very) small percentage that misuse funds. Although these stereotypes are frequently disproven by empirical evidence, it does little to dislodge entrenched opinions. Over time these attitudes create apathy toward the plight of the needy and build resistance to policies that could benefit people with the lowest incomes. The product ban bill is harmful not only because it cuts aid to families for “bad behaviors” of parents but also because it sanctifies these harmful stereotypes in law.

The bill may seem like a crowd pleaser, in that it addresses a frequently voiced concern about welfare fraud. But legislation such as LD 1097 does not simply meet the public’s demand; it serves to create and perpetuate that demand in the first place. In other words, the public seeks protection from welfare fraud because they believe fraud to be more pervasive than it actually is. LD 1097 trains us to assume the financially needy are inherently untrustworthy and that special provisions are necessary to control their spending.

We applaud three Bangor-area lawmakers — Democratic Reps. Aaron Frey of Bangor, Adam Good of Bangor and Ryan Tipping-Spitz of Orono — who were among the minority who wisely did not cave in to easy biases against the poor to which Americans so frequently fall prey. We hope the upcoming 128th Legislature will be composed of even more people who understand how our deep-seated prejudices against the poor result in punitive and ineffective policy. We need policymakers who will work to pass real welfare reform — reform that provides supports to families so they can escape poverty instead of stereotyping them for being poor.

Sandy Butler is professor of social work and Holly Schreiber is assistant professor of communication at the University of Maine. They are members of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

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