A Bit of a Rant About People Who Rant About “Welfare”

I am all for letting people have their own opinions.

I better be, especially since I have a lot of them myself. And I’m also all for letting people express their opinions, because I’m pretty sure I’d explode if I couldn’t express mine once in a while.

But here’s the thing.

I don’t pretend I know about everything. In fact, I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know much at all.

The recent debate over the national debt?  While I have an opinion about how our “leaders” behaved, I certainly never thought I had the answer. That’s because math, finance and anything to do with numbers was never my thing. Same with legal issues. While I can give a small amount of advice to nonprofits about issues they should consider, I would certainly never try to pretend I actually understand the legalities involved.  And when it comes to anything medical, technical or mechanical? Forget it. I can’t contribute anything.

But I do know a thing about social services and about issues facing people in poverty.  Which is why my blood starts boiling when I hear people ranting about the “welfare” system, the” lazy people who use it”  and how people who “get welfare” should be drug tested.   I’m pretty sure I’ve seen these topics come up on Facebook at least once a week for the past couple years.

I sometimes wonder if  people who make these comments really understand the issues at all.  Or if they realize that some of  “those people” might be people they sit next to in church, or who care for their children or who are members of the PTA.   I also wonder if they’ve ever considered that any of us, through some series of unfortunate circumstances, could have been – or still could  become-one of “those people.”

I’m not going to use this space to elaborate  on the  multitude of  reasons, some of them societal, that people end up “on welfare.”  What I really want to do is set  people straight about what “welfare” actually is.  However,   I do spend a lot of time at our local Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR), often called the “welfare office,” and I highly recommend that everyone spend some time there.  It’s very enlightening.

It’s also not a happy place to be.

First, the waiting room is always crammed full of people who are down on their luck.  Secondly, because people often have to wait all day just to see a worker, many arrive before 7:30 in the morning so they don’t have to come back the next day and wait again. And third, there is no specific profile for people who need assistance. When I’ve seen people I know  in the waiting room, I’m generally surprised and they are they are generally embarrassed.

With that said, I’ll be the first to admit that there will always be people who want something for nothing. And there are always be people who try to work the system. But,  in my experience, about  90% of the people seeking assistance are honest and have simply fallen on hard times.   Those people “driving cars nicer than yours?” That car might be the last asset they are holding on to after losing everything else, including a good paying job. They may have gone through their savings and  exhausted  all help from relatives only to  be in a place they never imagined.  That woman with three young kids? She may have just escaped a domestic violence situation in which the controlling husband or boyfriend didn’t allow her to work. Now that she’s finally left him, she’s left with nothing.  And then there are those people who’ve never had any support or resources their entire life.

Based on what I know, I wouldn’t say these individuals  are taking the easy way out.  But a lot of people seem to think that.   I recently had a friend call  and ask me what to tell a family member who told her son, “There’s no reason you should go to college or worry about getting a job.  You can just go to the welfare office and the taxpayers will support you. You’ll get a free place to live, a free car and a free phone.”   The family member wasn’t actually encouraging this. They were simply complaining about how their tax dollars are supporting people who can live a good life without working.

Not true.

Just for the record, there is no actual assistance called welfare any more.  What used to be called welfare is now Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or TANF.  TANF is a federal program and is only available for families with children.  Single people or childless couples cannot receive TANF, because the purpose of it is not to help people live comfortably but rather to ensure that the children in those families have their basic needs met.  It also intended help recipients  become more employable. If you actually look at  how  much money TANF recipients receive,  I  can’t imagine how you think they can live comfortably.

Also, TANF recipients don’t get something for nothing. Anyone who receives TANF must participate in some kind of job training and work activity. If they can’t find a job, they have to volunteer. If they don’t participate in these activities, they are sanctioned.

And TANF isn’t a lifetime deal.  A person can only receive a LIFETIME maximum of 60 months of assistance.  And because TANF is a federal program, they can’t get assistance in WV then move to Maryland and start over. The assistance they received in WV is counted toward the 60 months.  Many, many, many TANF recipients  never even reach 60 months, because they are able to get back on their feet months, and sometimes even years, before their benefits run out.

As for the free housing? Free car? Free phone?  First of all, housing is a completely different program than TANF and has its own set of guidelines.  In West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, where the cost of housing is much, much higher than the rest of the state, there is virtually no public housing available. Last I heard, the two-year waiting list was closed because of high demand and limited resources.

There is a non-profit program that provides donated cars to TANF recipients, but the purpose of these vehicles is to provide a way for people to get to the work they are required to do while receiving assistance. There’s not much public transportation in rural West Virginia, and without a car, they can’t get to work.   Also, the availability of these cars if very limited. These are  donated, used cars.  If people don’t donate, there are no cars. The cell phones are provided by a private company, and there are no taxpayer dollars involved.

I’m sure by now, someone who is reading this is thinking, “I know someone who doesn’t have children, and they still got welfare.”  Granted, there are other financial assistance programs out there.  Some  serve people with disabilities, and many disabilities aren’t obvious. Also,  West Virginia has a program called Emergency Assistance that  low-income individuals can receive during a one-month period only once a year.  And when I say low-income, I mean really low-income.   The income eligibility guidelines haven’t changed since the early 1980’s.  Which basically means the limited financial assistance  is like putting a band-aid on a wound that requires surgery.

I also know there are people who feel that churches and charities should be providing the bulk of the charitable support.  I  think that would be great  if only it were actually feasible. But,  it’s not.  I encourage you to 1)take a look at the budgets or nonprofit organizations that serve low-income individuals and families, and 2) review the amount of assistance they can actually provide.  Most only provide a very small amount of assistance and limit assistance to once a year. There are simply more people who are hurting than there are dollars or donations to help. And most organizations have criteria for assistance, just as DHHR does.

Which brings me to the issue of drug testing those who receive “welfare.”  To be honest, I really don’t have a strong opinion when it comes to the issue of civil rights and drug testing.  As I said before, I’m not a lawyer and I would never pretend to be.

But, as my husband is constantly pointing out,  I’m a very practical person.  And drug testing individuals who receive TANF… or Emergency Assistance or whatever people consider welfare… just isn’t practical.  First, DHHR officials report that they just don’t see much evidence of drug use among the economic services or “welfare” clients.  (They do, however, see a lot of evidence of it  with families who are involved with Child Protective Services).  Secondly,  drug testing requires resources: every drug test costs money.  It has to be administered, it has to analyzed, and the reports have to be given to the clients.  I doubt DHHR workers could provide the results because of a conflict of interest.  If  there were a positive test, I’m sure there would also be a complaint that “DHHR told me I tested positive so they wouldn’t have to give me money.”   So  in addition to personnel costs, there might also be legal costs.

I’m not sure  where the money for drug testing would come from.   For those of you who say it could come from the TANF dollars that the  clients would receive if they didn’t test positive? I refer you again to my first point… there’s no evidence indicating that the majority of   individuals who receive economic  assistance use drugs.  I’m just not sure the dollars would be there – even if they could even be used for that purpose.

And, let’s say I’m wrong and a  lot of people did have positive results.  What then? These are low-income individuals to begin with.  Should they just be left to fend for themselves  or would treatment be provided? If  treatment is provided, where would the money for that come from? Treatment services are already very under-funded and have long wait lists.

Finally, since helping individuals develop the skills, knowledge and habits to gain and maintain employment is one of the primary purposes of TANF programs, I don’t understand why we would put up barriers to participating.  Don’t we want to help people improve their situation?

So I  rant. And  I am sure there are those who are going to disagree with everything I say.  Feel  free.  As I said before, I think everyone is required to an opinion.

I just don’t think those opinions should involve blaming or marginalizing any segment of our population. And I don’t understand why people who have more than enough to meet their basic needs– food, housing, clothing, and health care– feel that they are being punished by being asked to help their fellow-man. To me, that’s a privilege.  Besides,  as the saying goes,  you can’t take it with you. But I’m pretty sure good deeds stick with you forever.

About Trina Bartlett

I live in the Eastern Panhandle of WV, with one dog, two cats, a theater kid in high school, a band kid at West Virginia University and a husband who works strange hours. When I'm not working as a director at a nonprofit social service organization or being a mom, I can generally be found riding my bike, walking my dog and stirring things up.

Posted on July 31, 2011, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Trina, this is an excellent article, worthy of Op-Ed in any major paper. I am conflicted on the whole drug testing issue. I agree that there is no money as evidenced by the budgetary condition of the nation and most states. I too am in a position where I see all sorts that you’d never believe need help. I’ve also seen a couple of families, or more usually one of the “adults,” work the systems. I’ve seen one woman who finally escaped this sort of situation where abuse was taking place find out that the husband was doing drugs (I had my unmentionable opinion of him before that detail.) and the legal system STILL failed her. I don’t know if she would’ve found the strength to get help and leave sooner if she’d known. As for the churches and non-profits helping, we do as much as budgets allow and sometimes even beyond that risking the employment of our staff or using personal resources. I could probably have a rant as long as yours detailing the positions that I get put in trying to make sure that our “kids” are taken care of and get what they need. I should probably stop here and go have a cup of coffee and hug my own boy. Again, congrats!
    Angie

    • Thanks Angie. It’s a tough issue because it is so complicated. People want to make it simple, and it just isn’t. And I agree with you.. the bottom line is we want to keep the kids safe and help them thrive.
      T.

  2. Well done.

    I think often that part of the struggle with this is that the people in question here do not have a voice for themselves. I am glad you wrote this, and yet it is not a direct message from TANF recipients. The dialogue or lack thereof stays stuck between the “haves” and makes it too easy to misunderstand the “have nots.”

    Hearing more directly from people who need assistance is part of the solution to cutting down the rants. Direct Action Welfare Group (DAWG) is one vehicle for improving public access to the voices of the people you describe.

    • I agree Elizabeth.. It’s so easy to stereotype when there’s no face to the issue.. I also think a larger audience should hear recipients stories but also how they are treated when they do seek services.

  1. Pingback: Another Excuse for Bigotry « Just So You Know

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