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American Poverty Myths and Misconceptions
Spending time on Facebook, it is hard to ignore the popular “ecards” that echo the stigma of
people living in poverty or are utilizing the welfare system. Some examples of these “ecards’ read
“Work Harder! People on welfare need you!” and “Wow! You’re on welfare and you still manage to
get your hair done, go out to eat, and go out drinking. Seems legit.”. These sentiments litter
millions of walls, not taking into consideration the truth about poverty in America. Poverty in
America is defined as “a standard of living below the minimum needed for the maintenance of
adequate diet, health, and shelter.” (Eitzen, Zinn, & Smith, 2011). Millions of Americans that live in
poverty and utilize the welfare system are misunderstood and discriminated against due to the
myths and misconceptions regarding poverty and welfare.
When picturing the welfare recipient or one living at the poverty line, many Americans
picture a lazy, unemployed person that sits around in a subsidized apartment watching TV. The
truth is, the working poor make up the majority of the poor in the United States. Many of the heads
of household hold two to three jobs trying to support their family. 10.6 Million poor people worked
in 2010, and 2.6 million of them worked full-time but were still under the poverty threshold.
(Eitzen, Zinn, & Smith, 2011)
The American Dream is laced with the philosophy that if a person works hard enough, any
achievement is possible. This is now a myth. Our forefathers were able to find good paying jobs
without the need for an education or having a specific skill. Now, these jobs are no longer available.
Production jobs are no longer plentiful. These physical labor and production jobs have been sent
overseas where the cost is much less, labor and environmental laws are virtually non-existent. This
has displaced an entire tier of worker. These workers have nowhere to turn except to the low
paying minimum wage jobs to help support their family. However, despite working, these people
remain poor because they hold menial, dead-end jobs that have no benefits and pay the minimum
wage or below. In July 2009 the federal minimum wage was increased to $7.25 an hour. This adds
up to roughly $14,500 (before taxes) for full-time work. This falls $3,000 short of the poverty
threshold for a family of three. (Eitzen, Zinn, & Smith, 2011)
Gone are the days of the welfare queen of the 1980s and 1990s. But, the stigma still
remains. Many Americans picture a welfare mom as a woman who has children for the welfare
check, has subsidized childcare while she shops and gets her hair done. The truth is 62 percent of
never-married moms ages 20-49 with a high school degree or less were working in 2011, according
to an analysis of Current Population Survey data prepared by the Center on Budget and Policy
Priorities. That’s up from 51 percent in 1992 but down from 76 percent in 2000, before the two
recessions hit low skilled workers. (Linn, 2013)
Welfare has not been the same since the mid-1990s when AFDC (Aid to Families with
Dependent Children), was replaced by TANF. The new requirements include that all recipients do
20-30 hours of work related to finding a job, re-education, or community service activities.
However, these numbers cannot be directly related to the “welfare to work” changes of the mid-
1990s. At the same time, the working income tax credit was introduced, along with a booming
economy that had many jobs available for under-educated and non-skilled workers. (Linn, 2013)
The most alarming myth regarding welfare, is that the poor are the largest subsidized
portion of welfare spending. This simply is not true. Corporate welfare drains the largest part of
this subsidy, but is the least talked about or stigmatized by the American public. “Wealthfare”
constitutes three-fourths of the federal outlay for human resources. Examples of this are all
children in public education programs and to most of the elderly through Social Security
Retirement and Medicare. (Eitzen, Zinn, & Smith, 2011)
The largest recipient of corporate welfare is the Department of Agriculture which receives 25.1
Billion in subsidies per year. This would be easier to understand if the majority of the funding goes
to farms owned by individual family farms, but the lions share of this aid goes to large corporate
farms and agribusinesses. The Department of Energy follows, with $17.3 billion worth of corporate
welfare. Much of this subsidy does go to green-energy development, but traditional energy interests
also receive a good share of this subsidy. (Tanner, 2013)
Let us not forget federal agencies like the Export-Import Bank, which provides taxpayer money
to corporations such as Boeing, Halliburton, Mobil, IBM, General Electric, AT&T, Motorola,
Lucent Technologies, FedEx, General Motors, Raytheon, United Technologies, and, in its day,
Enron. And the Small Business Administration, which chooses winners and losers among small
businesses, while also providing a form of corporate welfare to big banks like Wells Fargo,
JPMorgan Chase, and U.S. Bancorp. (Tanner, 2013)
Misconceptions and myths about poverty and welfare in America are deeply engrained in
our culture. Perhaps with the economy changing, it will increase in the understanding of what
constitutes poverty and welfare. The working-poor and the new-poor are real phenomena.
More and more people have a friend, family member, or perhaps themselves experiencing this
and will have a greater understanding about what it is like to be living in poverty. The age of
the welfare queens are over. Most of the poor are working and trying to support their families.
Corporate welfare is the biggest consumer of the welfare in this country. All of these points
need to be re-introduced to the American public in order to change this discriminatory stigma.
Eitzen, D. S., Zinn, M., & Smith, K. E. (2011). Social Problems. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, Inc.
Linn, A. (2013, August 13). www.cnbc.com. Retrieved from CNBC: http://www.cnbc.com/id/100975718
Tanner, M. D. (2013, August 23). Cato Institute Welfare for the Non-poor. Retrieved from www.cato.org: http://www.cato.org/publications/commentary/welfare-non-poor
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