[Photo – a rendition of Reagan’s “Welfare Queen” myth]
[The following article is an excerpt from my book, Rescuing Religion from Republican Reason”]
Opposite Evil: Freeloading
Nearly all of us have known some freeloaders. Sometimes they’re our family members. Sometimes they’re our co-workers. Sometimes they’re the employees we manage. At home, they do what they can to live off of other members of the household. On the job, they goof off more than they work. They do just what it takes to get by and no more. They’re such poor employees that no employer should have to hire them. They complain so much about their jobs, their employers, and their lives in general that some of us can barely stand to be around them. According to them, nothing bad in their life is ever their fault. And they use the shortcomings of everyone around them, and even society at large, as the perfect excuse not to try. Their incessant negativity chips away at our ability to maintain a sunny disposition.
Some freeloaders feel that society owes them something, usually money. They blame the government, racism, sexism, the education system, their parents, and the business community for creating barriers that keep them down. Indeed some of these barriers exist; others do not. However, these barriers rarely give sufficient cause for someone to abandon all hope and live off of society. Other freeloaders, however, may not have such big chips on their shoulders. They simply game the system for what they can get from it. Either way, freeloading is a simple combination of greed and sloth.
Naturally, any responsible, hard-working person cringes at the thought of freeloaders freeloading off of the tax dollars workers pay. Such freeloading is unjust. The Bible calls for justice. Therefore, many Republican Christians say, “I believe in personal responsibility. People should be held accountable for what they do. Others shouldn’t have to pay for those unwilling to work.” And for support, they’ll point to this sentence in 2 Thessalonians 3:10, “If anyone will not work, neither let him eat.” This verse has become a cornerstone of Republican Christianity. Conservatives interpret it as a biblical mandate to deny assistance to anyone in need.
This, however, is a classic case of how God’s Word can be distorted when we build a belief on a solitary verse without looking at what the entire Bible has to say. Yes, freeloading is a sin. We should do all we can, within reason, to prevent it. On the other hand, I’ve already shared with you passages that require God’s people to share with those in need (such as the mandatory tithe for the poor), especially with those who lack the means (such as land) to provide for themselves. So we know the Bible teaches that not all needy people are freeloaders. Many can do little to improve their situation. Therefore, using verse 3:10 to deny all assistance to the needy is a distortion of the Word of God and is sin. In fact, if we examine the verses leading up to it (verses 6-10), we see that the Apostle Paul, who is visiting the Thessalonian church, works to provide for his own needs while he’s there, so others in the church don’t have to. Apparently, there was enough work available that he could find some, even though he was just passing through. If he could find work, certainly local church members could find it, too. Paul was calling on those who could find work to work rather than freeload. He wasn’t calling on those unable to work to go hungry due to lack of opportunity.
Opposition to sloth and greed of the poor is not only found in New Testament verses like this one; it’s found in the Old Testament as well. Here are some passages that Republican Christians love to quote in the name of personal responsibility:
Exodus 23:2-3, “You shall not follow a multitude in doing evil, nor shall you testify in a dispute so as to turn aside after a multitude in order to pervert justice; nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his dispute.”
This verse opposes lawsuits in which groups of poor people attempt to steal from the wealthy by making false claims. Not all lawsuits are evil, but we may only sue with just cause and honest testimony.
Proverbs 30:15, “The leech has two daughters; ‘Give, give,’ they cry. Three things are never satisfied; four never say, ‘Enough.’” [NRSV]
Proverbs 21:25-26, “The craving of a lazy person is fatal, for lazy hands refuse to labor. All day long the wicked covet, but the righteous give and do not hold back [NRSV].”
Proverbs 21:17, “He who loves pleasure will become a poor man; he who loves wine and oil will not become rich.”
Proverbs 24:30-31, “I passed by the field of the sluggard, and by the vineyard of the man who lacks sense; and behold, it was completely overgrown with thistles, its surface was covered with nettles, and its stone wall was broken down.”
Proverbs 28:19, “He who tills his land will have plenty of food, but he who follows empty pursuits will have poverty in plenty.”
These last two proverbs give us insight into the difference between those who were at fault for their poverty and those who were not. That difference was land. As I stated in prior chapters, approximately 95% of Israelites inherited land on which they could grow food and build houses, so all they had to do was work the land. These passages, as well as all of the Old Testament anti-laziness passages, condemned those who failed to work their land, not those who had no land to work. Likewise, it’s consistent with God’s will to have a system that aids those who lack a means of self-support, like those who lacked land in the Bible. We are not to hold them to the same standards as those who have a means of self-support.
Of course, the way our society is structured, it’s much harder to tell the difference between one group and the other, since most Americans are dependent upon corporations, rather than farmland, for jobs, tenancy, food, and other needs. Some have skills lucrative enough to make it in the corporate system, while others lack them and either earn unlivable wages or none at all when corporations provide fewer jobs than there are workers.
Republicans, in an effort to gain our votes, regularly portray those who receive any government assistance as freeloaders. The embodiment of this rhetoric has been the “welfare queen.” From time to time I’ve heard Republicans say that they “know of” a woman who has ten kids and drives a Cadillac that she bought with her welfare money. Little do most of them know that this story had its beginnings in Ronald Reagan’s 1976 presidential campaign. Reagan described her this way, “She has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting veteran’s benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps, she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000.” Of course, no one has ever identified this woman, and such an elaborate scam can hardly be commonplace among the poor. Few people are smart and daring enough to pull off a fraud scheme, especially those who haven’t figured out how to make a good living in a competitive economy. Nonetheless, this story was so incredulous that it has for decades been Republican folklore intended to make people despise welfare and cling to its opposite – total mercilessness toward the poor.
Conservatives have modern-day welfare fraud stories, too, and some of them actually can be proven. For example, in March of 2014, Fox News paraded a welfare-cheating surfer-dude by the name of Jason Greenslate before viewers on a program entitled, “The Great Food Stamp Binge.” Greenslate lived with various friends and relatives in the wealth-laden town of La Jolla, California and most likely ate their food, too. And then, being unemployed and eligible for food stamps, he spent his $200 per month food stamp allowance on seafood at the grocery store. When Fox News interviewed him about it, he expressed pride in taking advantage of the system and expressed a desire to continue doing so. Eric Bolling of Fox News said on Feb 26,th 2014 that, “He is the representative of literally millions of Americans,” as if all food stamp recipients have wealthy friends whose sofas they can sleep on and whose refrigerators they can raid.
The truth is that most food stamp recipients have friends and family who are no better off than they are. And, even more important, 76% of SNAP (food stamp) households included a child, an elderly person, or a disabled person in 2011. These are people who cannot fend for themselves, not lazy surfer-dudes scamming the system. Also, the average food stamp benefit in 2011 was $133.85 per month per person, so even those who do use the system unnecessarily aren’t reaping major money from the government. Their scandals pale in comparison to the 4 billion dollars per year in government subsidies to rich oil companies that Eric Bolling dismissed as merely “a pittance” when compared to all that the government spends.
Today’s anti-welfare conservatives are also largely unaware that the Republican Party got the welfare reform it wanted (mostly) in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. Thanks to this law, welfare rolls decreased from 12.2 million in 1996 to 4.5 million in 2006, and caseloads decreased by 54 percent. The legislation replaced the old welfare program (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) with TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) which limited lifetime assistance to 60 months, so no one could live off of the system indefinitely. Yet, Republican politicians and pundits never seem to mention it, as though it never happened. Instead, they’ll point out that more people are on food stamps than ever under President Obama, because he expanded the food stamp program as a part of his economic stimulus package. They fail to admit that this expansion was temporary (it ended November 1st, 2013 ), and that an expansion of food stamp payouts should be expected following both a recession and an increase in wealth disparity in which the wages of the working poor buy less and less. Many food stamp recipients are not lazy slugs, but work hard at low-paying jobs that fail to pay for the necessities of life. As working class wages continue to fall in the coming decades, the number of Americans receiving government assistance will grow. We as a nation should not be ashamed that our government assists so many people; we should be ashamed that our economic system leaves so many people in need of assistance.
Welfare opponents, of course, claim that their opposition to welfare is really for the common good. Welfare and other assistance programs, they claim, promote a cradle to grave dependency on the government, taking away motivation to work and keeping the poor stuck in poverty.
So what would happen if they got their way and food stamps were abolished?
Would food stamp abolishment create jobs?
In my credit card processing sales days, I established accounts for numerous small, independent markets in the impoverished areas of Philadelphia. Having access to their processing statements, I saw it was the norm for these markets to get more than half of their business from people who paid with food stamps, sometimes as much as 90 percent of it. If food stamps were abolished, many of these markets would go out of business, and their employees would lose their jobs. So this is how food stamp abolition will destroy jobs. I can think of no way it will create jobs. Conservatives argue that those unable to depend on welfare will look harder for jobs. This accomplishes nothing, because people looking hard for jobs doesn’t create jobs. If there are 160 million workers and 145 million jobs, people looking harder will not create 15 million more jobs. Consumers buying products and services creates jobs. Business owners will not hire workers to service nobody. If food stamp abolition reduces the number of customers spending money in impoverished areas, the number of employees needed to service those customers will also be reduced, as declining revenue from a lack of customers forces employers to cut costs.
If Republican conservative arguments that welfare creates poverty were true, then the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 should have greatly reduced poverty. We should have seen a marked improvement in the American quality of life after its implementation, certainly by 2008, since it cut welfare to such a great extent. Instead, since 1999, median household income has fallen, not risen (this was true even before the Great Recession). This substantial reduction in welfare payouts did nothing to improve the American standard of living. Yet, as long as there are any welfare, unemployment, and disability programs at all, Republicans will argue that reducing and eliminating them will improve life for the average American, despite the lack of evidence to support their claims.
Another point regarding the idea that cradle to grave dependency takes away motivation to work is that, outside of TANF, most other assistance programs help children and the elderly. The elderly, including those in nursing homes receiving Medicaid, are beyond the point where they can work. Their motivation at such a late stage in life is irrelevant. Likewise, children are not yet at the point where they can work. This fact, however, didn’t stop Christian book store owner and Republican Missouri State Representative, Cynthia Davis, from opposing subsidies of summer school lunch programs by stating on June 4th, 2009 that “hunger can be a great motivator.” Perhaps Representative Davis thought that if children go hungry, they will work hard for their food like wealthy children do. Of course, wealthy children don’t work; they have their food given to them. Unlike Representative Davis, the Bible only holds those able to support themselves responsible for doing so. Children and the elderly are not of this group.
All of this is not to say we should encourage dependency on the government. For example, we shouldn’t give the poor so much money that they live better than those who fail to qualify for assistance. This hurts motivation to look for work. However, we should not only discourage low income freeloading, but high income freeloading as well. For example, the banking industry behaved irresponsibly and received government bailouts in the late 1980s and the late 2000s. Oil companies and large farms receive subsidies, and the defense contractors have enriched themselves on tax dollars more than anyone. And let’s not forget that corporate owners couldn’t get so rich if it weren’t for the liability protection they depend on the government for. Apparently, Republicans only oppose dependency on the government when it’s the poor depending on it, not the rich.
-K. Scott Schaeffer