Welfare shaming isn’t the answer

Published on Monday, 1 September 2014 22:35 - Written by

If the Great Recession taught us anything, it should have taught that we’re all vulnerable — no one industry, no one sector, and no one person is immune to economic hardship. We’re all in this together, and we never know if we might be the next to need a helping hand.

That’s why a new essay in The Federalist magazine misses the mark. It calls for a renewed “stigma” for welfare.

Writer Daniel Payne cites a program in Richmond public schools that would offer free lunch to all students, not just the poor. Richmond schools Superintendent Dana Bedden reportedly said, “I like it for the health and nutrition aspect, but this also removes the stigma of free lunch. Everyone can eat.”

That’s what Payne takes issues with.

“Not to tread too heavily on too many sensitive progressive ideals, but there should be a stigma surrounding government dependency,” Payne writes. “That’s not to say we should adopt a campaign of aggressive public shaming for anyone who goes on the dole, only that we shouldn’t create an atmosphere — especially amongst children — in which ‘free lunch’ is a no-big-deal kind of thing.”

Payne has a point; when accepting a government handout is seen as “normal,” then everyone will do it. The problem is, that ship has sailed. As Forbes magazine pointed out earlier this summer, “52 percent of U.S. households — more than half — now receive benefits from the government.” It’s not just seen as normal, it is the statistical norm.

There’s a better approach. We shouldn’t portray welfare as something shameful; we should portray it (rightly) as something inadequate and limiting. Because by accepting “free stuff,” in Payne’s words, Americans give up a little of their freedom.

Take food stamps, for example. Many American families depend on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for their food. But SNAP (the formal name for food stamps) is nanny statism at its well-meaning worst.

“The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is suggesting major changes to grocery stores to ‘nudge’ Americans to purchase healthier foods when they shop,” the Washington Free Beacon reported. “The agency commissioned an ‘expert panel’ to make recommendations on how to guide the more than 47 million Americans on food stamps into spending their benefits on fruits and vegetables.”

You can eat on government assistance, but you’ll eat what the government wants you to eat. There’s nothing wrong with teaching people to eat healthier. But government rarely just teaches. It coerces.

Or take Social Security Disability Insurance. Many conservatives worried that the SSDI became a substitute for unemployment checks for many discouraged workers during the recession. And if true, that would be bad news for the country’s coffers — but worse news for the disabled.

That’s because life on SSDI is miserable — the average benefit is $1,140, which is barely above the poverty line for a family of four.

“For more than 80 percent of beneficiaries, Disability Insurance is their main source of income,” the Center for American Progress reported.

We needn’t shame welfare recipients; no stigma can be attached to welfare that’s worse than the truth that beneficiaries learn themselves. Government handouts restrict freedom.