The Really Blatant Lies About Welfare That People Actually Believe

Rally for DACA
Illegal immigrants don’t qualify for welfare. | John Moore/Getty Images

If you haven’t noticed, politicians lie quite a bit. In some cases, they bend the truth or twist statistics to make an argument. Otherwise, they flat-out lie to take the lead in a race for office, and sometimes it gets them to the White House.

When we’re talking about welfare, the truth is especially hard to find. Part of the problem is that single word “welfare” refers to some or all of the following programs:

  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). This program provides small cash payments to the neediest Americans.
  • Medicaid. It’s health insurance for the poorest Americans, some of whom hold jobs.
  • Child’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). It does what it says.
  • Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP). We used to call this “food stamps.”

Right off the bat, you can see how people would be able to lump many of these programs together and claim a high value for benefits. (Medicaid alone is worth thousands due to America’s out-of-control health care costs.)

Usually, folks have an agenda when they spread lies about these welfare programs. (Currently, some of them are trying to pass a tax plan to finance tax cuts for billionaires.) So you might as well arm yourself with facts. Here are nine of the biggest lies about welfare going around these days.

1. ‘Illegal immigrants take advantage of the system.’

This one falls apart immediately. Illegal immigrants do not qualify for food stamps, TANF, or other cash benefits. Meanwhile, the undocumented do pay Social Security and Medicare taxes out of their paychecks every week, but they will never see those benefits in retirement. Non-citizens qualify for emergency Medicaid following a natural disaster, but otherwise they don’t have access to most welfare programs.

2. ‘People on welfare don’t work.’

Minimum wage protest, minimum wage by state
Most fast-food workers need public assistance. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

No matter how you define welfare (food stamps, Medicaid, CHIP), more than half the people receiving benefits hold jobs. (Those numbers covered years 2009-11 via a study by UC Berkeley Labor Center.) When you look at certain professions, the numbers get really interesting. For example, over 50% of fast-food workers received public assistance. Taken this way, the fight for a $15 minimum wage is a request to stop bailing out corporations who don’t pay their workers.

3. ‘Minorities dominate the welfare rolls.’

Seniors Rally In Support Medicare, Social Programs In Chicago
Despite stereotypes, a majority are actually white. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

Actually, white Americans were by far the largest number receiving benefit from the social safety net. According to census data analyzed by Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 6.2 million whites rose above the poverty line due to welfare in 2014. That number equaled more than twice the number of black and Hispanic Americans who were lifted out of poverty by welfare benefits.

Adjusting for population doesn’t change this story. Whites with no college degree (44%) still outnumbered blacks (43%) as a percentage receiving government assistance. Latinos (28%) came in much lower.

4. ‘They’re buying steak and lobster.’

EBT card
Most of things people on food stamps buy are necessary food items. | Tim Boyle/Getty Images

In a 2016 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, we learned how people are spending their money on SNAP (i.e., food stamps). It turns out they’re not buying extravagant foods like steak and lobster. In fact, their choices are amazingly boring and practical. Among the top 10 SNAP purchases, stuff like milk (No. 2), ground beef (No. 3), and bread (No. 6) dominated the list. 

5. ‘You can live big on welfare.’

People walk past an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) station, more commonly known as Food Stamps, in the GrowNYC Greenmarket in Union Square on September 18, 2013 in New York City. According to a Gallup poll released earlier this month, 20% of American adults struggled to buy enough food at some point in the last year. The rate of hungry people in America has gone relatively unchanged since 2008, suggesting the economic recovery since the 2008 recession may be disproportionately affecting the wealthy. More than 50 of GrowNYC's Greenmarket's now accept EBT; over $800,000 in sales were complete with EBT payment at the Greenmarket's in 2012. GrowNYC is also currently offering a program known as Health Bucks: for ever $5 spent using EBT at a Greenmarket, GrowNYC provides an additional $2, which can be spent specifically on fresh fruits and vegetables. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
You can’t get all that much. | Andrew Burton/Getty Images

The good folks at The Cato Institute, a think tank funded by the Koch brothers, want to you to know welfare recipients are living high on the hog. They even published a study showing how you can get about $50,000 sitting on your butt in some states. If you look at the fine print, you might feel cheated — even lied to, we imagine.

The fact is those big numbers the Kochs’ researchers come up with assume high values to things like health insurance for infants. Sure, the programs have value, but they don’t put money in your pocket. Health insurance doesn’t work that way. Here’s another tidbit: A family of three got about $430 a month in cash benefits in 2015. That’s $107.50 a week, or $15 a day. Sorry, but three people won’t be doing much with that cash.

6. ‘Once people get on welfare, they stay on it for life.’

Bill Clinton Welfare Reform
Cash welfare is a myth. | Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

If we’re talking about TANF, the only program that puts cash in your pocket, you cannot stay on it for life. Because of the welfare reform package Bill Clinton had passed in the 1990s, TANF recipients must find a job within two years. After that point, they won’t qualify for benefits. So cash welfare for life is a myth. The only people who do qualify for government assistance for life are either disabled or elderly. Hopefully, we won’t slap the “moocher” label on them. 

7. ‘Welfare people just do drugs and cash checks.’

Food Recipient welfare
Plenty of people on welfare are children. | John Moore/Getty Images

This one might offend you on several levels, but you’re sure to hear it at the local diner some day. In fact, that thinking led to drug tests for people receiving government assistance. Here’s what they found: Less than 1% of people on welfare tested positive for drugs in six of seven states with the requirement, Think Progress reported after studying the data. (The eighth came in below 9%.)

Compared to the national drug use rate (9.4%), that’s a great ratio. Here’s another big point: Missouri spent $336,297 to get 48 positive drug tests in 39,000 applications for TANF. That’s about 0.6%. So they flushed hundreds of thousands down the drain in order to stop a few dozen people from receiving benefits. Missouri lost money in the process, and spent well over $1 million with its ill-advised drug testing program.

8. ‘These welfare queens drive Cadillacs.’

Government Assistance
Most are just people in desperate need. | John Moore/Getty Images

For someone one welfare to drive a Cadillac, it would have to be a used model and they would have to live in a state with more generous asset allowances. Otherwise, most states have caps of $2,500 on assets. In other words, your property can’t be worth more than a few thousand bucks. Places like Idaho, Nebraska, and North Carolina have thresholds ranging from $3,000 to $9,000, but you’re not owning a BMW from this decade with that value, either.

9. ‘Blue states are great for welfare queens.’

Free Health Clinic
Lots of red states require assistance. | John Moore/Getty Images

Actually, the states with the biggest asset restrictions are the most liberal. For example, people receiving TANF benefits must have assets of less than $2,500 in New York and California. If you want to find people with no limit on assets who still receive government assistance, you’ll encounter them in states like Alabama and Louisiana. Hawaii and Colorado also make the list, but the split is even between blue and red states.

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