When talking to my conservative friends, an argument we inevitably seem to get into is whether the United States government gives too much to poor people and immigrants. The conservative argument typically follows this pattern: Immigrants come to this country for our generous benefits; and, there are too many poor Americans who are leeching off the system who could otherwise be working. I want examine those claims because I think its important to know the scale of truth behind those ideas. I also want to provide a narrative for who is making these claims and why. So, buckle up you budding scholars.
Claim 1: Immigrants come to the U.S. to access and utilize welfare benefits
To begin with legal immigrants. As of 1996, the federal government barred legal immigrants from accessing major welfare programs (TANF, Medicaid, CHIP) for 5 years after they had been given their immigrant visa. The idea behind this is that the people moving here are expected to participate in the economy by working and contributing to production. Even after immigrants become eligible, they still use entitlements on a vastly reduced level.
The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, points out that their 2016 study of immigrant benefit use showed that adult immigrants use 39% less welfare and entitlement programs as native born Americans. That study also showed that immigrants received 48% fewer social security retirement benefits than native born Americans. This necessarily entails that immigrants are paying into social security via their paycheck withholdings but not realizing their benefits. Given the inversion of the U.S. demographic pyramid, we kind of need all the help we can get with keeping the system solvent.
Claim 2: There are too many poor Americans leeching off the government when they could otherwise be working.
Welfare and benefits for American citizens continues to grow in volume and complexity. According to Federalsafetynet.com, the federal government spend $364bn and $354bn in 2016 and 2017 respectively, on welfare. These figures exclude Medicaid, and comprise around 19% of all federal spending. Let’s take a look at what these totals are composed of:
Nearly three-quarters of people who receive SNAP for instance worked in that month or year which they received benefits. Additionally, two-thirds of SNAP benefits went to children, the elderly, and the disabled anyway, making them work-ineligible. While TANF has experienced a decline in participation however, the labor participation between 2003 and 2013 increased only by 2.2% and is still well below the required figure of 50%. Arguably, that period of time would not be the cleanest period to measure employment, and the rates do not appear to include disability or elderly status. The big picture obviously is more nuanced and complicated than the spending and labor participation of these two programs, but the important point is that nuance should be a part of the conversation, rather than bluntly pointing to “welfare queens” as a reason to cut spending to welfare programs.
There are certainly people who are genuinely lazy and have chosen to leech off the government. Should a singular high-profile example of welfare fraud prevent the government from spending money on subsidized lunches? No, those two things aren’t related, and even if they were, one instance of abuse does not mean the entire system is broken.
A lot of this spending is focused on the well-being of children and students, as well as the elderly and disabled. Clearly, after including Medicaid, the $729 billion figure makes up a significant portion of the budget. Conservatives point to this figure to decry the increasing dependence of the poor on the government. It’s usually at this point that I make it a point to ask: why do you think this is? Why is Medicare spending equal to all other assistance programs? Is it because poor people are lazy or because our health care system is fundamentally flawed? Why, when most people receiving benefits already are working, and their employers telling them to apply for food-stamps, do conservatives continue to question the worthiness of the poor and immigrants? These are people that are living paltry, meagre lives bridled by the yoke of poverty.
And yet the worthiness of the very rich does not seem to be challenged by the conservative right. There are many questions you should ask to determine what your version of “worthiness” are, but having a clear consistent, and fair evaluation of a situation be a useful framework to decide who should receive what? It is here that I strongly depart from conservative thinking. The conservative right should not be asking different questions of the wealthy, or at least be asking questions which are consistent with those they ask of the poor. Why did we allow our banking class to destroy the economy in 2008, receive a tax-payer funded bailout, and require no repercussions? Why do we continue to allow companies to profit off the work done by Americans and then stash those profits overseas? American tax-payers also bailed out the automotive industry; did we receive the time-value of our money for that bailout? We send billions of dollars of aid money to countries which sometimes are downright hostile to our interests.
The issues I’ve just described are incredibly complicated and nuanced, as are the welfare issues. The outcomes to those crises and policies however, have tended to benefit the very wealthy. If you are a conservative person who is concerned about where their tax money is being spent then I challenge you this: The scrutiny you apply to means-tested assistance programs should be applied evenly to all those who reap benefit from the federal government. The same questions you ask TANF recipients, you should also ask of large corporations like Amazon who receive public subsidy: How did you come to this situation? What were the choices you made? Do you have children to care for? How much have you received in the past? Is the assistance temporary or permanent?
If you ask Amazon those questions and receive more “worthy” answers than a TANF recipient, I am eager to hear from you.