A Better Way: Four Interviews On The Welfare System
Myths surrounding the issue of welfare in our country today are so prevalent that it is difficult for individuals to determine the exact source of their learned misconceptions. Whether it be through the media, family, peers or elsewhere, Americans become indoctrinated with the stereotype of the welfare recipient to a greater degree than any other I can pinpoint. From extensive discussions with others on the subject, as well as from personal experience in addition to the four interviews I did for this paper, I have come to realize that the media plays a huge role in people's misconception of the reasons for welfare dependency and this misinformation is never corrected by readings, such as we have had in this class, nor discussions with welfare recipients themselves. These popular misconceptions create a problem in and of themselves since they are, at least in part, the cause of the stigma's that recipients often feel are associated with their being on welfare. These stigmas can lead to a loss of the feeling of self-worth that is absolutely necessary if one is to cease government dependency and return to the workforce rather than resigning themselves and thereby failing to seek alternatives.
I have done four interviews with Duke students from a variety of backgrounds, two of whom have themselves received welfare assistance, and found some surprising results. Though four interviews are certainly not enough to draw any groundbreaking conclusions, there are several themes common to all. First of all, they all identify a common stereotype: an inner-city black woman with several children whose parents were most likely on welfare, too. Secondly, they assert that welfare is a cycle that is very difficult, if not impossible, to break. And finally, they all believe that if one is to be successfully weaned from welfare, the government has a responsibility to educate them about available resources and help them to develop job and other skills that are vital to their success.
I will now describe the contents of each of the interviews, changing names for their privacy. It should be noted that what the interviewees describe as the stereotype is what they believe that most people think is true of welfare recipients, not necessarily what they themselves believe. I began by asking what they perceived as the stereotype and how much they thought that it held true. I proceeded then to ask what they thought led to a person getting on and staying on welfare, followed by how they thought someone might get off of welfare (i.e. personal attributes as well as system requirements). For those whom I believed had misconceptions, I recalled the statistic that welfare and non-welfare mothers have the same number of kids on average, also adding discussion about the difficulty (especially for single mothers) of starting a new life in the workforce when child-care and medical coverage are at risk. I then asked for any general comments if they felt I had left anything out. Finally, I asked if they would propose a new model, or at least some portion of a model, that they thought would be of better use than the current one.
Sarah is a middle class, Caucasian girl who grew up in a small town in Vermont. She is an Economics major with a political science minor and will also have a certificate in health policy. She says that when she considers the stereotype of the welfare recipient, the image that comes to mind is "a lazy baby factory". She claims she has quite a few friends and knows students who attended high school with her who are currently receiving at least some sort of government assistance. The people she knows, however, do not fit the stereotype, she says. Most of them ended up in their situation because they became pregnant in high school and chose to keep their babies, raising them as single mothers. Those who became pregnant and were able to make it usually did because their parents helped them out either financially or with childcare. But she says of her friends and peers "I don't think they need it as much as if you qualify, why not sign up?"
When I asked Sarah what she thought led to someone's remaining on welfare, she drew from what she had learned in her Economics classes. She says that the government actually provides more of an incentive to stay on welfare than to join the workforce, this includes encouraging recipients to have more children. She admits that the problem is neither with individuals nor with the system, rather with a combination of the two. It is a situation of learned helplessness, she says, that people lose self-esteem and with that goes the will it takes to get off. She thinks it takes twice the work to get off of welfare and then get a job than it does to go straight into the workforce. Personally, getting off welfare requires "strength and courage to make the effort." She says gathering one's strength would probably be very difficult because of the shame that goes with welfare. She thinks that a parent might "think that their kid perceives them as worthless." Getting off requires a boost in confidence and the government should make an effort to "rebuild" their selfhood. The government could accomplish this with more money and personnel. People need more personal attention, tailored to their individual needs. If there was "career counseling for direction, people would be inspired to work harder and the alone feeling might be eliminated."
In general, Sarah feels that welfare is "a necessary evil with misguided direction." When I asked her if she was aware that welfare and non-welfare mothers have almost precisely the same number of kids, she was shocked at how that information conflicted with what she believed to be true because of the stereotype. She says especially in this country it is difficult to tell people what they can and can't do, but that those receiving assistance should not be able to have any more children until they get off. When I pointed out the difficulty in attaining appropriate day care when attempting to get off of welfare, she agreed that it would be hard gave this process an economic term. She said daycare, in this instance, is a "zero sum game" in which you end up spending all that you make. Her proposed model is a step-situation. It would gradually wean people off by allowing them to keep medical coverage and some benefits for a period of time after they got their job so that they weren't pushed out of the nest too hastily. Also, she would stress the importance of not allowing children to be harmed by the cut-off.
Kate is an upper middle-class white female who was born and raised in Marshfield, Massachusetts, with the exception of spending four years at a Massachusetts boarding school. She has a double major in Public Policy and French and a minor in political science. She says that she sees the stereotypical welfare recipient as an unemployed, black, inner city mother raised on welfare who doesn't perceive a life off of welfare. She has given up on the job field and is unhappy, but has resigned herself to the lifestyle. This stereotype spends money on extravagant things like "new nikes." Though Kate doesn't know anyone on welfare, she says this is the stereotype and it holds fairly true. Once on welfare, Kate admits, it is probably very difficult. Especially if one has kids, it is much easier and more lucrative to stay on welfare than to get a job, so she thinks that people just figure they may as well stay on. She points to many talk shows she has watched in which recipients say "why work when you can get by easy?" To get off of welfare, Kate says motivation, patience and willingness to start at the bottom are necessary. It also requires making good decisions such as birth control. It would be helpful to know someone who has gotten off welfare before as inspiration and a role model.
As far as identifying problems with the system, Kate admits that she really doesn't know much about it. She imagines that people don't have enough support and that since they have already demonstrated that their decision making abilities are poor, perhaps their decisions should be more guided such as by having vouchers which are designated for different purposes rather than a lump sum. She thinks that it is "weird that people on welfare smoke cigarettes," for instance. A voucher system could hopefully ensure that people wouldn't spend their welfare check buying drugs and ensure that children get proper nutrition. In general, Kate feels that the problems with welfare are many, especially after I pointed out problems with childcare and insurance. She notes the stigma that is associated with recipients and the lack of resources there are to help them get off. Resources that would be useful are job training and some sort of program where women with low paying jobs with no benefits can get medical coverage for themselves and their children. She thinks it would be useful for people to receive a lot of information when they go on welfare so that they might be more aware of their options, programs that pertain to them, and the non-profit/grass-roots organizations that can help them out. It is difficult to make good decisions when you are not properly informed, she notes. They often don't know how to make good financial and nutritional decisions and we can't expect anything to change until something is done about this. By not ameliorating the situation, the government is perpetuating what Kate describes as both a dead-end (on an individual basis) and a cycle in which kids see parents and say "why not?" " Welfare should be short term aid to get back on feet."
E is black male raised in Detroit, Michigan. He is a double major in Sociology and African-American Studies. He and his family received food stamps only for about a year in Detroit when his father was in between jobs. He identifies the stereotype as a black mother with three or more kids and pregnant. He said that this stereotype is perpetuated by the media and that he was surprised by a statistic he found on his own in high school that 65% of people on welfare are white. He went to a predominately white high school. He feels that there are many circumstances which can lead to going on welfare. Among the reasons are lack of job skills, laziness, depression and drug addiction. Also, unfortunate financial situations created by a divorce or business folding could land someone with no other choice. People stay on welfare because they are not educated about their options nor are they taught job skills. Getting off isn't easy because once you get on, and without job skills, it is difficult to find an occupation with enough benefits to support family.
I began to inquire about the particular circumstances that landed his family on welfare and, as stated above, he said that he received food stamps. There was a special store in his neighborhood that sold food stamp food only. He recalls the layer of oil that sat on top of huge tubs of peanut butter which he had to stir into it to make the peanut butter soft enough to spread. He said that he was not ashamed of being on welfare probably because so many of his family members were on it as well and as a child, he didn't know the difference. He said that he respected his parents for providing for him as well as they could and that he never went hungry, though sometimes he "was envious of the other kids for their toys." Despite the stereotype that welfare recipients are uneducated, both of E's parents went to college. Eventually, after they got off of welfare, E's father was promoted and they moved to New Jersey where his parents have been successful. He is proud of him because of how far they have come considering that his paternal grandfather was a sharecropper and his maternal grandfather was never known to his mother. He said that it has helped "define character to see your parents struggle that way."
E says the government "shouldn't be maintaining and providing,," rather it needs to take responsibility for job training, taking into account the employment needs of the area, making welfare recipients aware of their resources. Their should also be a community place that people can get their GED, go to community college or technical school (or at least a resource that can point them in the right direction). As far as a new model goes, he said there should be required programming for recipients and that he wouldn't necessarily put a time limit on it. Finally, he made the comment "It is not a crutch. Nobody, let me correct that, very few people want to be on welfare. Just because you're on welfare it doesn't mean you're living in luxury, like you're middle class or anything. Welfare is not glamorous."
Willy is a lower class, white male, born in Midland, Michigan, and is a history major here at Duke. He was on welfare for seven years while both of his parents were in prison and he lived with both his grandparents (2 yrs.) and his sister (5 yrs.). He defines the stereotype as "trashy, bunch of kids, lazy with excuses for not working." He believes quite a bit that the stereotype holds true because he has seen his sister on and off of welfare for most of her adult life. He says that in the majority of cases people will stay on it because it is easier than working. Though there are exceptions, the majority of recipients have a very low level of education. They realize that the more kids they have, the more money they receive, and with a job you get a flat rate regardless of the number of children you have.
He says that his sister got on welfare because she could. "Why wouldn't you?" he says she must have figured. She had her first child when she was seventeen and unmarried although she eventually married her first child's father and had two more children with him. She is currently off of everything but food-stamps and is working at McDonalds, but Willy's mother reports that she is considering going back on welfare because her kids have no rides home from sports in the afternoon. He recently traveled to see her in Michigan and she gave him $50 of her food-stamps to buy food for the ride home. He resents that she manipulates the system in this way and says that she could get by on her own if she would "just use her head." He points out that she has a computer equipped with America On Line, a brand new Harley Davidson, a cell phone and pager, and cable TV. He hates that someone he perceives as a cheater might make those who are legitimate look bad.
He recalls going to the store when he was young to get food with food-stamps and says "welfare cheese is good." He would mix it with rice and use it to make grilled cheese sandwiches. He says that he could use any number of condiments on bread (including syrup) to make what he called a "wish sandwich" ("as in I wish to hell this was a hamburger"). Despite his resentment toward some of the people he has known to resign themselves to welfare, he admits that to get off of welfare takes "drive, determination, hard work and craftiness." He says that what the system needs is a mediator between welfare and the workforce, "a sort of welfare officer in the same sense of a probation officer." This person would assure that their charge was not using the system and was doing something to help themselves locate a job or better themselves in some way. He doesn't trust the statistics that welfare mothers have the same number of kids as non-welfare mothers, and though he understands that it is difficult to get off, he truly believes in the traditional sense of the American Dream that "where there's a will, there's a way.
Though on the surface, it may appear that these four interviews, as a result of the fact that the interviewees could not really all be placed in any one category (other than Duke Student), are not conclusive, I think a few things are clear. These students opinions on welfare are very strong. Their responses were more focused on what they thought needed to be changed about the system to make things work more smoothly than it was to criticize specific problems and specific programs, which they seemingly do not know much about. This shows, and was especially surprising in Kate's interview since she is a Public Policy major which one would think would know more about welfare, that all these people have to rely on is the stereotype. Certainly, E says that this is not always true, that "welfare is not glamorous," but I would predict that he is definitely in the minority. The fact that interviewees one and two considered the problems of getting off welfare to a lesser degree and all except E were unaware, and somewhat mistrusting of the 'welfare mothers have the same number of children on average as those not on welfare' is evidence that all they have to fall back on is the media portrayl of people on welfare which they have applied to people they know (or, in Kate's case to a bunch of nameless faces). If these four people, seemingly from such different backgrounds, have all been made aware of the same stereotype, then it must come from the media which is common to all. Or, if it didn't come from the media directly to them, but rather through parents and peers, it was then reinforced by the media, I believe.
There is a marked tendency, notable in interviews #1,3, and 4 to take those that they know personally on welfare and apply it to the whole. Especially in interview #4, Willy truly uses the example of his sister to try to prove the point that the majority of welfare recipients are using the system. I believe, however, that even in his interview, which I would consider the most negative of the four, there is evidence of system failure that he has not considered. His sister began welfare dependency at such a young age that it was her financial instruction. I mean hear that, at age seventeen when she was just learning to spend and deal with money independently, she was taught to live month to month, from check to check. Certainly, this is the way many people off welfare live as well, but we will set that idea aside now. So, living month to month has ingrained in her the response of spending money as soon as she makes it rather than saving it for later in some sort of account or investing it somehow. This, I believe is a system error because she has had no financial counseling. Once again, the theme arises of someone on welfare not knowing their options.
This is basically what most of the commentary on change boils down to. All the models in some way or another propose more job education, community resources and individual attention. I believe a combination of the proposed "step-program", allowing people to maintain insurance for a said amount of time after they get a job and Willy's proposed "welfare officer" would be a really great solution to many of the problems they have noted. If the issues are to be resolved surrounding welfare, some of the types of literature we have read in this class needs to make its way into the main stream and into the hands of politicians or strong leaders not necessarily in the political arena. Also, and this goes for this situation and in general, people need to take a more active role in government to which the government would ideally respond. In these four interviews alone, some excellent solutions have been generated. No matter what stance the interviewees took, it is clear that they feel welfare should be a jumping off point, a point where options are enumerated, not eliminated.
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