In early 2015, the Pew Research Center found that, in comparison with countries around the world, 57 percent of Americans polled disagreed with the statement, “Success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control.” The global median was about twenty percentage points lower. With the United States also being higher, at 73 percent, for indicating hard work as a major predictor of “getting ahead in life,” it is understandable how a negative stereotype about Americans who receive government assistance might develop.
Welfare checks are seen as handouts that you don’t have to work for. As American citizens, the idea that if you work hard and give all you have, then you will succeed, has been engrained into our value system since childhood. It goes with the assumption that if you work hard you won’t need a welfare check. And if you need a welfare check, you must not be working hard enough. These values that Americans hold dear also come with the assumption that the system is fair, that you get out what you put in. When faced with the possibility that the system might not be fair, the idea of hard work over all starts to crumble.
Because individualism is highly valued in the United States, the idea that the government is the solution to solving poverty doesn’t sit well with Americans. However, the problems that accompany poverty cannot be ignored. Poverty exists in the United States and it affects the individual, especially children. In 2015, the United States Census Bureau estimated that one in five children were receiving food via the food stamp program. Additionally, the Census Bureau found that approximately 43.1 million Americans were living in poverty in 2015. Maybe the fact that poverty persists in the United States isn’t the question, but rather how to combat poverty is what causes controversy among Americans.
The current welfare system neither solves poverty nor even improves the poverty situation in the country. A lot of criticism can be made about poverty and the people who receive government aid. For the last six months, I have been fortunate enough to work with a program whose goal is to help people step out of poverty through self-reliance. The program helps families and individuals that are below the 150 percent federal poverty guidelines (FPG). To graduate from the program, the families have to reach at least at 200 percent FPG. Growing up in a middle-class home, I never experienced extreme poverty. I did not see the ins and outs of the welfare system and how inadequate it really is. Working with this program I was able to see what these individuals go through to obtain welfare and work to get out of poverty and off of government assistance. It is not an easy task.
The welfare system was initially created to help individuals out during their time of need. It wasn’t meant to be a permanent Band-Aid. Because of massive amounts of red tape and outdated rules and regulations, it has become just the opposite. Instead of being the small push towards self-efficiency that the welfare system was intended to be, it has become a prison where individuals who need assistance are forced into choosing between trying to make it on their own and risking the safety of their family or getting stuck on government assistance and never making any progress. Instead of being a hand up to individuals who may be struggling, it cements people in place.
Cliff effects is a term used to define the disproportionate reduction in benefits in relation to an increase in income. For example, let’s say a single mother who receives childcare benefits from the government gets a $2 raise at her job. Normally, a $2 raise would be celebrated. Unfortunately, because of the way the welfare system is set up, if the mother takes the raise she will lose a disproportionate amount of childcare benefits. Regardless of socioeconomic status, it would be illogical for someone to take the raise and then overall lose money.
Because the welfare system doesn’t use a gradual decline that reduces welfare dollars proportionally as more money is earned, it makes it very difficult for families and individuals to have any sort of upward mobility. These families in poverty are faced with having to jump over these enormous financial hurdles and risk falling even further into poverty, thereby becoming more dependent on the government. Even someone living without the massive amount of stress that comes with living in poverty would struggle to navigate this dilemma.
Families living in poverty and receiving benefits are often stereotyped as lazy or not hard working. From my experience that is not the case at all. The problem is that the government sends an inadequate amount of aid to families. It’s inadequate because it’s based on standards that haven’t been updated in decades. The federal government’s calculation used to determine the poverty line does not take into account inflation, modern housing and food costs, and it does not adjust for cost of living based on region. The poverty line formula was created by an employee of the social security administration in the 1960s.
As the ruts between America’s social classes seem to grow deeper, we as Americans can work on policies that encapsulate the research, experience, and knowledge of how to solve the limitations of the current system while still accomplishing the original goal of working towards the elimination of poverty. And that’s a goal both sides of the aisle can and should work together on.
Brittney Griffith is a member of The American Agenda, a millennial inspired, millennial driven organization. She has a BA from BYU in political science and a minor in civic engagement and leadership.