The following portion from the article, Life on welfare isn’t what most people think it is, originally published by The Conversation on June 11, 2020. Written by Tom Mould, author of Overthrowing the Queen: Telling Stories of Welfare in America, available wherever books are sold August 2020.
When Americans talk about people receiving public assistance – food stamps, disability, unemployment payments and other government help – they often have stereotypes and inaccurate perceptions of who those people are and what their lives are like.
Statistics can help clarify the picture by challenging false stereotypes of undeserving people gaming the system, but people’s stories about their own experiences can be more memorable and therefore more effective in changing minds.
As an anthropologist and folklorist seeking to better understand life on public assistance, I have worked with a team of researchers in North Carolina over the past seven years, recording stories people tell about welfare in America. We’ve talked to more than 150 people and recorded over 1,200 stories and found that the stories people tell about aid recipients rarely match up with the stories told by people actually receiving aid.
The danger of short-term solutions
Pat has a story that is representative of many aid recipients. She started working at McDonald’s at age 15 to help her family make ends meet. After graduating high school, she worked in hotels, factories and big-box stores, all in physically demanding jobs.
At 45, she got hurt at work, and now has back problems that have rendered her unable to do the only jobs she has been trained to do.
Theoretically, Pat faced a choice between going to school or a training program, or finding low-wage work – but she didn’t have the luxury of looking at the long-term benefits of learning new skills. She and her family needed money right away.
So, like many aid recipients, she found a series of short-term solutions to that immediate need. But taking one low-paying job after another to put food on the table effectively locked her out of the opportunity to build skills she could have used to work her way out of poverty.
The many causes of poverty
As I explain in my forthcoming book, Overthrowing the Queen: Telling Stories of Welfare in America, the reasons people find themselves needing assistance are numerous and interrelated. Many children born poor remain poor as they grow up and raise their own families, inheriting the financial hardships of the past as continued pressure in the present.
Millions of Americans still can’t get a quality education, jobs that pay a living wage, affordable child care to offset low-wage labor or reliable transportation. But more than anything else, health problems emerged in our interviews as one of the most pervasive causes, and results, of poverty.
Read the full article by IU Press author Tom Mould, Life on welfare isn’t what most people think it is, at TheConversation.com.