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MARCH 7, 2012 9:18AM

Conservatives on welfare

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As a liberal living in a small southern town, I’m exposed to a lot conservative viewpoints. Listening to these views and opinions sometimes makes my blood boil, but it is my personal policy not to argue, or even attempt to debate in social situations. Instead, I listen and struggle to empathize. It is important to me to try and understand why they think like they do because some of them are people I love, or at least like.

Most are against such hot button issues as gay marriage and abortion, but it is becoming clear to me that what really fuels their staunch conservatism is a misunderstanding of government social and welfare programs and the recipients of these programs.

In their minds, there is an overwhelming and growing number of people in this country that are making a career of being “on welfare.” In the average conservative’s opinion(at least the ones I talk to), these people, mostly black, suck from the government tit, while the government fills that tit with the conservatives own blood, in the form of taxes. In this world they see, these welfare recipients do nothing but lay around all day, supporting Obama, doing drugs and watching TV, while tax dollars pay the cable and crack bill.

It is a stereotype reinforced by Reagan’s famous “welfare queens driving Cadillacs” quote and various news programs and pundits. This fantasy that has gotten entrenched in their minds makes them angry every time they see the tiniest bit of taxes taken out of their meager paycheck. They see it going straight to the welfare queen’s gemstone studded purse. If I was deluded into believing this, I would be angry too.

They can not see the reality. While there are many instances of welfare fraud in our country, and plenty of sad folks that have had government social programs as their only means of support for their entire lives, the reality is that many working class U.S. citizens also benefit from government welfare programs in one way or another. As the New York Times pointed out last week, conservatives and those critics of welfare programs oftentimes benefit without realizing it.

Let’s use a real life example of a man from my town. Bill is a wonderful man, active in his church and community and I know him well. If I called Bill in the middle of the night and asked him to help me, I feel sure he would come running. He’s also funny and engaging. I like him a lot.

Bill retired when he was 62 and began receiving Social Security benefits. He comes from a long-lived family and is likely to live to his mid 80s or beyond and will spend 20+ years collecting Social Security. For the time being, he receives his health care (which he describes as excellent) from the VA, having spent four years in the military in the 70s. He has four grown children and numerous grandchildren. They all have vocational educations that were funded by Pell Grants. Even though Bill and his family are all fundamentalist Christians, none of his children are married because of the increased benefits to single mothers via WIC and Earned Income Credit.

When Bill’s children and their young families fall short at the end of the month and can’t pay their electricity bill, they are not helped by their parents or church, but are sent to receive help from a non-profit organization that assists in paying energy bills. This organization is funded by government grants.

Bill’s father died when he was 82, after receiving a $100,000+ triple bypass and valve replacement when he was 79, compliments of Medicare. Bill’s mother is 93 and lives at the local nursing home. Just after Bill’s father died, and a few years before his mother’s health began to deteriorate to where she could no longer take care of herself, Bill put all of her substantial assets in his name. Therefore, when the time came, his mother was eligible for Medicaid to pay for her long term care. She has been there nearly five years.

Yet, Bill is a staunch conservative, Republican and supporter of drastic cuts to all social programs. When last we talked, I asked him what he thought was the biggest problem facing the U.S. today. He answered, “Entitlement programs - Specifically, Obama’s redistribution of wealth.”


Our safety net has problems aplenty and needs serious reform. But this cannot be done simply by budget cuts. Perhaps the first step in reform would be for conservatives to practice what they preach.

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empathy, conservatives, welfare

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Perhaps Democrats could be more clear in educating the public... People laughed at that "Government keep yer hands offen my medicare", but that demonstrated a problem that needs addressing...
I'm from a small, conservative town also, and what you write is all too common. It's also true than any mention of a "tax increase" is immediately taken to mean a tax increase directly on them when, in fact, most proposed increases wouldn't affect them.
Do you live in Lubbock? I think I know Bill - and about 100 people just like him. Sigh, indeed.
this just makes me -- a diehard liberal - want to cut all these programs. bill and his ilk are my version of welfare queens.
It's clear that the first thing that needs to happen is they gotta hear the statistics. The statistics tell us most people are off welfare in two years tops, more often four months. It's usually temporary. The majority are white. (This fact always stuns my classes. Always. They often refuse to believe it.) There are a small number of recipients who skew the numbers by either being on welfare for a long time, but mainly, it's just not like that. As well, it's clear people don't understand what government programs are. They take their Medicare and Medicaid, while cursing those on government dollars. Have you ever sat down with your friend and pointed out that all the programs he uses are these "entitlement" programs? I know. I have relatives and friends with these same views and same cluelessness. It's depressing.
Denial is a powerful force in out society. Bill seems to have an extreme level. Would he understand if anyone calmly pointed out the fallacy in his attitude???
Tell Bill that this liberal in California is sick of coughing up taxes to support his lazy, government check collecting, red state butt. Tell him that I want my $0.22 on every dollar back, and to get off the government teat.

Or, if he wants to continue to collect those benefits that blue states fund, we get to bitch slap him harder than he was ever hit by his drill instructor.
I do think education is the answer but the question is whether the people who need it are open to learning. If their heads have been filled with Fox News & Limbaugh lies for years, they may not be. If they are you can talk not only about individual benefits but social benefits like pure food & drug, clean water & air, disaster relief, roads and highways, public education, etc. There is something else going on here, too. Compared to people of other countries, many Americans seem uniquely obsessed with dividing poor people into two groups, "deserving poor" and the "undeserving poor" and are fanatically obsessed with the fear the latter group will get derive some benefit. As if it were more important to deny assistance to the "undeserving" than to deliver services to the "deserving." I may be wrong, but I don't know of any other country or culture that thinks like that.
Fee, you and Nikki Stern have covered a similar topic today. I'm just going to copy over the comment I made on her blog.

It's always fascinating how so many people can get exercised into lather by the "welfare queens", the sub-prime mortgagors or the unemployed whose job-seeking efforts are wanting. Fair enough to crack down on abusers but they're a pittance compared to the moral hazard of being on the hook for the too-big-to-fail financial institutions. Yet you're looked upon as a crank and probably socialist if the latter is your focus. As for being against handouts, check out the countries with next to no social benefits versus those with more generous ones. Which model delivers a better life?

At best Bill is a hypocritical fool. There is also an "at worst".
jlsathre - why do you assume a conservative would support a tax increase if he only realized it did not affect him. This is exactly what is WRONG with liberal thinking. As long as I don't have to pay for it I should vote for it.

Most likely, no increase in tax will ever affect me the rest of my life. In fact few tax changes , up or down, have ever affected me in any substantial way.

So by your logic I should just vote for any tax that I don't have to pay. No, I vote based on if I think it is a good idea or not. Not because I can get something from someone else.
Tony - Apparently you are not sick of coughing up of .22 on the dollar.
To the OP - Why do liberals constantly lump SS and other social welfare programs into the same label of entitlement. SS is a program that people paid into directly for the purpose of their retirement and health care. No one gets a SS check that did not pay in the minimum requirement.

Welfare, food stamps, etc are not directly paid for and in many cases not even indirectly paid for.

Now as for Bill, you label him as a conservative opposed to a liberal as if those are the only 2 labels in the world to use.
Bill may be a conservative but his is also gaming the system.
So he is a cheat. Simple as that. And why can he be a cheat? Because we allow it.

Why is it so hard to stop this? From what I can tell liberals don't want to and conservatives will catch hell if they try to.

I am sure you may have seen the news today. Some young woman wins $1M in a state lottery. After taking instant cash and taxes she walks away with $500k. Yest she is still getting food stamps. To make it worse, it is the state gov that responsible for both the lottery and the food stamps. But no one in the gov can figure this out unless she actually tells them.

This is why conservatives don't like gov. Gov. is too stupid to be trusted with my taxes.
I sympathize, because many of my very intelligent family members believe these things. In my opinion, things are as bad as they are today because we're encouraged to spend time doing everything other than staying informed, thinking critically, and questioning what we're told. As a result, we regurgitate things we've been told, but don't really understand, and we cast votes for those who pass legislation that is against our best interests. If we want America to turn around, we need to promote accurate information as essential, and emphasize the teaching of tools that enable us to separate credible fact from fiction as a vital public education reform.
Fee, this is a useful and thought-provoking piece. I appreciate and admire your ability and willingness to "listen and struggle to empathize." I am absolutely that is the critical and necessary first step in restoring civil, civic discussion among ourselves and our fellow citizens.
Yes, I've always thought that the difference between liberals and conservatives may come down, more than anything else, to how many abusers of the system we believe there are. I've done enough social work type things - volunteering and such - that I have seen the genuine need for these programs. I wouldn't mind at all if those who were cheating got thrown out, but to systematically investigate these things to accomplish that would take a lot more money, so it's probably not worth it. But you know what? Of the only three incidences I've seen of cheating, all three of them were people who called themselves conservative. I guess the mindset is that they think everybody else does it so they have an excuse to do it too.
I reread this out loud to my husband. I have changed my mind. He is entitled to Social Security, Medicare and his VA benefits. I see no problem with the Pell Grants. Not marrying to get benefits, cheating to get Medicaid and other intentional acts make Bill a big fat liar.
Social services were meant to be safety nets, not a way of life. Social Security was not meant to replace jobs, it was meant to prevent the elderly and the disabled from being indigent. And yes, people outlive the amount of money they contributed. My father was over 101 when he died. Seems to me Bill and his family found a way to use the government for their entire sustenance. That kind of abuse is what rankles most of us.
I would also like to clarify that I am not against such programs as Social Security, VA medical care for veterans or Pell Grants. It is a benefit to society as a whole that Bill's children are educated as nurses, mechanics and EMT's.

I am against the hypocrisy and cluelessness on what these tax dollars are being spent on.
Thank you all for your comments. This is my first attempt at writing about anything remotely political.

Joseph - I included the fact Bill was receiving Social Security because while it is not "welfare," it is the kind of government social program that Bill is against. FDR was called a socialist too.

These labels we give ourselves in the political realm are sometimes confusing. I labeled Bill as a conservative because that is a label he gave himself. Perhaps it is not an apt description.

Sometimes I think I should self-identify as a conservative because I believe in conservation of resources and our environment!
Bill sounds like he's in denial. Odd how he cannot see what benefits he reaps from the so-called "entitlements." Without social security, medicaid and medicare, my mother, among countless others, would be homeless and unable to receive medical treatment.
My mother, the staunch, small-town conservative, has had two knee replacements on Medicare. Yet she sees it as a "we paid in, we'll get our due" from Medicare, not that she's had a great government program. My husband pointed out once that her knee replacements and follow-up care (physical therapy, etc.) likely took everything she and my dad ever contributed to Medicare, and then some.

She didn't like hearing it. At all.

And she doesn't bring it up any more.
Love your story. My southern relatives are loud complainers about lazy welfare cheaters (of course they mean black people) but 'thank God' for their own unemployment benefits -- which seem to have been going on for years! My northern relatives want all gov't programs to end - but all of them work for state-run schools and medical services. I don't quite get what they think they'll do for work if their political dreams come true.

"Consider a single man who earns the average wage throughout his career ($43,100 in 2010 dollars), works every year from age 22 to 64, and then retires at age 65 in 2010. Over his lifetime he has paid $345,000 into the system. But he is likely to get back $72,000 more than that, or $417,000 in Social Security and Medicare payouts, according to recent Urban Institute calculations."

Suppose Bill, like the average male retiree, ends up collecting more in benefits than he paid into the system over his working years. How else would you characterize the extra benefit he receives other than calling it "welfare"?
zombie american: your example doesn't prove "welfare", unless you want to count interest on investments as welfare. The rate of return he got on the money he paid in was certainly not excessive.
Zombie, I'd call it an "entitlement" because Bill paid for it. If the government can't earn more than 2% on Bill's money, than it's not exercising fiduciary responsibility. Heck, just look at long-term Treasury rates. Maybe we should focus on getting better governance rather than on quibbling about what we call things.
Froggy - you provide the perfect example of what is wrong with the SS system. Even someone like me that has paid in the max most for about the last half of my career will get back more that paid in. How can that work?

Your mother and Bill and liberals as well have been told to expect the services. Math does not matter to them because the math was never addressed. In FDRs time people bought in to the promise naively. So they expect the returns as well without thinking about it.

Why cant we just be honest about the math? Because no one wants to. It is easier for the politicians to keep feeding us a illusion. No one wants to just say this is the hard cold math. SS cannot magically pay for your mom or me or you. SO this is how much more taxes we need.

No politician wants to just tell the truth. I would happily pay more taxes if I were to quit being lied to. Just tell me the truth and we can deal with it.
But as Jack Nicholson said, "You (we) can't handle the truth".

Fee - as a fiscal conservative, my reason for not liking SS is that, even though I most likely will get out more than I put in, I would rather just have what I have paid in.
I would have not stolen it from myself.
I feel like you are living my life, or maybe I am living yours. I think I am also friends with Bill. All of my female friends take birth control pills, and two have had abortions, but would never allow the former to be funded or the latter to be permitted, if they had the choice. R
I just wrote a post about the early closing of minds to education. I think that all those posters who suggest that statistics and information are the key are assuming a population that knows how to interpret statistical data, or what the difference between anecdotal and statistical data is. This requires early education, but it also requires a habit of a curious and open mind.
I live in a state that has an urban liberal/rural conservative split, with urban voters generally supporting taxes and government programs, and rural voters generally not supporting them.

The irony is that the rural parts of the state are heavily subsidized by the taxes paid by the urban parts of the state. In particular, the rural roads and schools are largely funded by urban tax dollars, while the rural residents also enjoy the benefits of food stamps, Medicaid, and housing assistance programs.

But then we hear the rural folks crowing about how they have "pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps," not understanding that it is often the urban liberal voters who have paid for those bootstraps.
I don't understand how so many people can be so clueless, so thick, so hypocritical, so just plain - stupid. They'll stubbornly believe what they want to and no amount of facts and figures is going to change their way of thinking. Why don't you ask your friend what he thinks of corporate welfare and entitlement programs? And how much it's costing us?
I've come to believe that the differences between conservatives and liberals boil down to how we view the world.

Liberals think we're all in this together; the strong help the weak and if some people take advantage that sucks, but we shouldn't base broad social policy on those few that game the system.

Conservatives think we're all in this alone. Generosity and kindness are admirable traits when you gift them to the deserving, but you have to look out for yourself and for your family first. If there are failures in the social system that benefit you, take advantage. After all, you paid for them (even if you haven't).

Both viewpoints have their areas of weak vision, but I'd find it difficult to navigate the world if I believed everyone else was out to take what's mine and if I looked at "others" (those different from me) as perpetually suspect.
Outstanding post. One of the facts people aren't aware of is that Clinton ended Welfare. It's was replaced by TANF, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Each State can administer it's own TANF with lower pmts and a lesser time period, but there is a lifetime maximum of 5 years, at the end there are no more payments. Period.

I live in Idaho, our state has a lifetime maximum of 24 months, after that you're on your own. The maximum monthly amount for a family of ANY size is $309. So if your spouse leaves and you have a new baby and 3 kids you can have up to $309/mo for two years. It's not easy to be queen on that amount. I guess you have to turn to a life of crime or something, I don't know.

I can certainly understand the woman in Texas who shot her two children and herself in the food stamp office. I wonder how the Idaho conservatives who lose jobs will deal with living on $309/month. The Republican safety net may not seem as appealing when unemployment checks run out.

Here's a brief paragraph and the link. Read it and weep:

The TAFI Program pays up to a maximum of $309 per month for eligible families - up to the lifetime limit of 24 months. Actual benefit amounts are based on the family's unique household circumstances, such as income and resources."

The wingnuts are perfectly fine with corporate welfare. Just don't help out actual PEOPLE.

And the U.S. military's budget is six times that of the nation with the next-largest military budget (China). Frankly, most of the members of the U.S. military essentially are on welfare -- that is, we, the taxpayers pay for a bloated-beyond-belief military that we don't need, while millions of Americans have substandard or no housing, have substandard or no medical care, certainly cannot afford college, etc. (We need a military, don't get me wrong; but we could more than halve our "defense" spending and be just fine.)

Finally, it has been known for years that the red states get more dollars from the federal government than they put into it, while the blue states get fewer dollars from the federal government than they put into it. The red states, with the exception of Texas, which gets back only 90-something cents for every dollar that it contributes, are all welfare states!
"Bill is a wonderful man and it is my personal policy not to argue, or even attempt to debate in social situations"

Bill is evidently not such a wonderful man and if you were less polite and more plain-spoken, he wouldn't be so ignorant.