By LaKeshia N. Myers
I don’t particularly care for the term “welfare.” While promoting the general welfare of citizens is one of three guiding principles of the United States according to the preamble of the Constitution, the word has garnered a nefarious connotation in American lexicon. The United States Department of Health and Human Services defines welfare dependency as, “The proportion of all individuals in families which receive more than 50 percent of their total annual income from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), food stamps, and/or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits” (U.S. Health & Human Services, 2008).
Since COVID-19 began its viral rampage in the United States, many Americans lost their jobs, and needed to file unemployment insurance claims. Unemployment insurance is a benefit paid for by companies through the Federal Unemployment Insurance Act (FUTA) tax. To aid American workers during the pandemic, the U.S. Congress made provisions for a one-time $1,200 stimulus check, as well as a $600 federal unemployment benefit, this benefit was added to all state unemployment payments received.
As an insurance benefit, unemployment is very different from public assistance, and should not be viewed as the same program. However, American workers collecting unemployment benefits have been disparaged in the news as the July 31 deadline approaches to terminate the federal unemployment supplement. Several Republican politicians have made it clear, that although the pandemic is not yet over, they support ending the $600 add-on. This, in the wake of massive unemployment and a 32.9% shrinkage of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
I am reminded of author Linda Gordon’s article, “Pitied but not Entitled.” In it, Gordon explores the evolution of the American welfare system and the assault on the people of this country who are publicly humiliated for needing help. I couldn’t help but ask the question, how after more than 80 years could “welfare” still not be working to help the children and families that truly need it.
Gordon does an excellent job of explaining how the bureaucratic model was essentially doomed from its start. She states that the basis of case management was not one of a teaching method but rather questions regarding eligibility and stipulations. This bureaucratic model is the same one used today, where questions are used to either disqualify families or aid families in their unique situations and teach parents skills to lessen their dependence on federal aid. This is precisely what is happening now with unemployment insurance; those who have lost jobs due to the pandemic (and its resulting ill-preparation) are being vilified.
Also interesting to me was the “face of welfare” during the 1930s. Aid to Dependent Children (ADC) was crafted as a privilege for “deserving” single mothers – this designation rarely meant women of color. Gordon tells of the ominous “farm rule” that systematically knocked Black women out of eligibility for ADC due to their propensity to be hired for seasonal farm work. The federal governing board for ADC did not take into consideration racial implications, because those being marginalized, simply “did not exist” or did not matter in the grand scheme of the program.
In drawing a comparison to today’s times, politically, social entitlement programs are divisive matters. Recipients are demonized and made to feel as though they are less than human. Because administration of federal funds is left to the state legislatures, many states have imposed invasive policies such as mandatory drug testing, minimum work requirements or special classes that recipients must complete in order to receive aid. Proponents of these rules believe they are needed to detract the number of enrollees and to deter people who are considered cheats. Welfare today is no privilege. The face of welfare that is often seen in the media has also changed. Most times, when welfare is discussed in today’s culture a photo of a Black mother or child is used. This is very odd to me, because according to U.S. Census records, the majority of individuals who utilize the Supplemental Nutrition Aid Program (food stamps) are white (USDA, 2014).
In America, we have a nasty habit of demonizing the poor for needing help – whether traditional public assistance recipients or those who currently need unemployment benefits. I am concerned that the case management techniques have not totally evolved to reform either program into one that actually tries to alleviate dependence on aid. Clearly, individuals are still in need and we have not crafted systems that would compensate people enough so that they do not need assistance. Legislatively, I hope Republicans in Congress see the error of their ways and vote to help American workers by continuing the unemployment add-on; to end this supplement would push our economy further to the brink of total disaster.