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Context Behind Welfare Fraud

Context Behind Welfare Fraud

March 21, 2016

Decontextualization happens in much larger contexts than when your words or actions are taken out of context, condemning whole classes of individuals.

This is a common practice of those who present water-dumping or electronic benefit transfer card-selling as evidence that welfare fraud is one of the largest crises facing Maine. They hope we will not look for the missing pieces or try to discover the context in which these actions take place.

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Kathryn J. Edin, the Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, has spent decades talking to women on welfare and in low-wage jobs about their incomes, expenditures, hopes and fears. Her books “Making Ends Meet” (1997) and “$2.00 A Day” (2015) are highly insightful.

“Making Ends Meet” came out after President Bill Clinton had fulfilled his campaign promise to end welfare as we know it but before the changes had really kicked in. Its findings belied many popular welfare myths. Her interviewees cycled between welfare and work. They highly valued jobs and the self-reliance they could enable.

“For the large majority of mothers we interviewed, it was access to a living wage and not a pervasive and disabling poverty culture that made working so difficult,” Edin and co-author Laura Lein wrote.

Even with housing vouchers, which were available to very few, and strategies such as doubling up (multiple families living together), Edin’s low-income workers were not able to cover much more than housing costs on their “legitimate” incomes. Additionally, the jobs they were able to land, usually in fast food and retail, provided erratic and unpredictable hours, including shifts for which child care of any sort was difficult to come by. Training programs offered to welfare recipients often gave them the skills to land these low-income, dead-end jobs, not the skills to lift their families out of poverty.

Clinton based welfare reform on the work of David Ellwood, author of the 1988 book “Poor Support.” As a result, an entitlement was changed into a program with a lifetime benefit cap, and policies offered states financial incentives to keep their rolls as low as possible. Ellwood, however, had placed an emphasis on education and training and demanded that government provide adequately paying jobs in areas where there weren’t enough.

“Today, the ‘reformed’ welfare system provides little safety net, and no hand-up,” Alejandra Marchevsky and Jeanne Theoharis wrote earlier this month in The Nation.

“Instead it traps poor mothers into exploitative, poverty-wage jobs and dangerous personal situations, deters them from college, and contributes to the growing trend of poor mothers who can neither find a job nor access public assistance. It is our failed social policy — not simply the recession — that is responsible for crisis-level poverty in the United States.”

Not surprisingly, by the second decade of the 21st century life had grown more dire for this nation’s most vulnerable. In “$2.00 A Day,” we learn that, “in 2011, more than 4 percent of all households with children in the world’s wealthiest nation were living in a poverty so deep that most Americans don’t believe that it even exists in this country.” That same year, 40 percent of mothers leaving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families had no job whatsoever. In 2009, 37 million Americans had no income other than SNAP, formerly known as food stamps.

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A rapidly growing segment of the American homeless population consists of families, many of which contain a working parent.

Many jobs, particularly in the growing service sector, do not offer adequate pay for full-time workers. Full-time jobs, however, are becoming rarer. Workers frequently can predict neither the shifts they will have to work and how many hours they will get.

Imagine you work a poverty wage job and get SNAP. A downturn in your company’s business has resulted in your hours being drastically cut. Selling your benefits card and relying on a food pantry is the only way you can buy your baby’s diapers and keep your electricity from being shut off.

Could you play by the rules? 

Maybe it’s about time that we demand that those who put such an emphasis on welfare cheating look at the bigger picture.

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