Most people on government assistance aren't the lazy degenerates some interest groups would have you believe

In light of a lot of the rhetoric around the recent government shutdown and many of the internet memes and fallacies regarding the Affordable Care Act, government assistance in the form of food stamps, income assistance and other benefits, I felt it was time to address this issue again and talk about the real people that most of these benefits are for.  To drive home a political point or philosophy, many that oppose these benefits do so in terms of numbers and monetary values.  That’s all good and well for mathematicians and accountants and statisticians, but living a live based on textbook and academic economic theories and financial spreadsheets doesn’t take into account the basic issue of humanity and our obligation to help our fellow man.  I would argue that to view humanity in such cold and rigid numbers and dollar signs is a cold display of the lack of compassion for other human beings.  Oftentimes, these arguments only apply to other people, especially strangers or those they do not know.  When it comes to their own self-interests or circle of family and friends, the tone changes to what they are owed and what government is supposed to be doing for them.  The following is a partial reprint of a column I wrote 2  years ago that has been updated.

 “Compassion is not weakness, and concern for the unfortunate is not socialism.”  Hubert H. Humphrey

Politics has a nasty way of bringing out the ugly side of people.  While most will publicly argue that we need to determine a positive course for our future, the reality is that a good portion of that time is spent demonizing a targeted segment of our society.  It can be anything from homosexuals, to the religious right, to socialists, to the wealthy, and even alleged domestic “terrorists”.  This year, we are seeing an ugly swing towards demonizing the poor, specifically the poor who rely, either partially or wholly, on government assistance.  The old image of the “welfare mom”, has made a grand reappearance, this time in the form of the lazy unemployed that supposedly milk the system for food stamps, extended unemployment benefits, etc.  Just as the “welfare mom” was mostly a politically created myth in the 1980s, so is this overgeneralization and profiling of the poor a rhetorical weapon today.

            Without a doubt, there are those that take advantage of the system.  Many of us know of someone, or in most cases know of someone who knows someone, that gets fired through some fault of their own and manages to get unemployment benefits and/or food stamps (or SNAP) and settles on assistance as an easy way of gaining money.  Even though the system of “food stamps” has been replaced with a debit card that can only be used for certain food items, some individuals still find a way to trade those benefits for non-food items like drugs or manage to find a friend that will use the card for themselves in return and give the assistance recipient cash.  These people do exist, but they do not make up the majority of people relying on government assistance.  This abuse by a minority, however, is how many Americans commonly perceive assistance recipients because they are the ones that get media attention and they are the ones that become the poster children of political campaigns.  It is wrong to see news reports of murders committed by black men and come to the conclusion that black men are murderers.  It is just as wrong to see or hear reports of assistance abusers and come to the conclusion that people on government assistance are lazy and feel entitled.

            To contrast the stereotype that we always hear about these persons, I want bring to light a different story in this narrative.  It is the story of a woman who used government assistance at a time of personal need and as a foundation for reclaiming her own life.  I will not identify this woman by her name. I will refer to her as Liz.  Not because she is some exaggerated myth like Ronald Reagan’s welfare mom, but because of my commitment to her privacy and also because she is a representation of how most people use government assistance.  Liz, like many young women, married young and found herself in an abusive marriage.  When Liz finally found the self-confidence and strength to leave this destructive relationship, she fled with her two young children, filed for divorce, and began the difficult task of creating a future for herself.  Without a high school diploma and no work experience, the only real way for her to provide for her children was to seek out government assistance.  During the process of receiving this assistance, she vigorously sought employment and when she found a job, she weaned herself off assistance as she was increasingly able to provide for herself.  During this time, she went back to school and earned her diploma.  With the help of FHA, she bought her first home, giving her and her children a sense of pride.  In the course of two decades, she went from being a “welfare” mom to owning her own successful business and will end her days with a feeling of self-worth and a loving healthy, family.

            The story of Liz is unique, but not exceptional.  Many on government assistance use it as the necessary crutch to survive during difficult times and, as they move forward to a point of self-sufficiency, lay down the crutch and walk on their own.  Our economy has been in recession, some would argue mild depression, for a number of years now.  Employment has been difficult to find and when it is found, it is usually at an unlivable wage.  On September 13, 2011, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 46.2 million people, or 15.1%, were living below the poverty line.  This is the official number, which, like unemployment, usually is lower than the actual number.  That is the highest rate of people considered officially poor in 52 years.  In 2010, it was reported that Medicaid and SNAP benefits were at record highs and that 1 in 6 Americans were receiving some kind of government assistance in the form of SNAP, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, etc.  To say that 1 in 6 Americans are lazy or milking the system is dangerously false.  By demonizing these people with exaggerated stereotypes, we run the risk of losing the only real support system for those that have no other options for survival, other than criminal activity or becoming a burden on extended family members that are already burdened with the effects of a bad economy. 

            We pride ourselves on believing we are a society without a class system.  We are increasingly creating an underclass for a variety of reasons.  To take away the opportunity for all those like Liz, we are not only helping to create that underclass, but also making it permanent.

(James Jackson’s “A different perspective” columns are submitted as an opinion editorial and are not meant to represent an official view of The Sun-Times.  He can be reached at