How to Respond to Implausible Claims about “Welfare”

By Colleen Ross
February 13, 2015

We’ve all heard the claim — at the Thanksgiving dinner table, in the church social hall, at the water cooler, or even in our own email inboxes — that government programs are too generous and are disincentives to work. Last week, we were contacted by a NETWORK friend looking for guidance on how to respond to such an argument. Frustrated with the persistence of this claim and its popularity in our political discourse, I thought a succinct but thorough response may be useful to have on hand.

The first thing to understand is that the basis of this argument and the source of any numbers cited to support it  are in a report published by the Cato Institute, The Work vs. Welfare Trade-Off. Originally written in 1995, the report was updated and re-released last year, prompting another wave of attention to its claims as well as robust criticism of its research methods and conclusions by numerous economists.

If you, like me, have heard about this argument, I hope the response I sent out (below) is helpful to you.

It can be tempting to believe that others are receiving undeserved assistance, but numerous sources have addressed and disproved the data compiled in the two Cato reports published in 1995 and 2013 that many cite as proof that safety-net programs disincentivize work. (1, 2, 3) Furthermore, the vast majority of safety-net entitlements and mandatory programs are not given to people who choose not to work, but instead go to the “elderly, seriously disabled, or members of working households” (4)

Two fundamental errors in the reports are an assumption that families receive all possible forms of assistance simultaneously – and that they are not working. Actually, as pointed out by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a family receiving numerous kinds of assistance is relatively rare, and many eligible families don’t receive any benefits at all. In addition, a significant percentage of families receiving some kinds of assistance include people with jobs who, because of very low wages, fall below the poverty line and thus qualify for help.

We at NETWORK base our analysis on reports from reputable, bipartisan sources as well as the shared lived experiences of our Catholic sisters who work on the ground every day with those at the margins. After more than four decades, what we have found emphatically refutes the narrative that safety-net programs are so generous that they dissuade men and women from entering the workforce, or from working full-time jobs. Sister Simone Campbell’s testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives Budget Committee is a concise summary of NETWORK’s position on this topic. (5)

The United States has the largest economy in the world, yet the most recent report from the Census Bureau found that 45.3 million people were living in poverty last year in our nation. (6) The Children’s Defense Fund recently released a report on the state of child poverty in the United States, studying the situation of the 12.2 million children who fell under the poverty line in 2013, even with federal safety-net programs taken into account. (7) These excessive numbers of our brothers and sisters who are struggling with poverty should be morally impermissible to us living in the wealthiest country in the world. Catholic Social Teaching principles call on us to judge our society by how our most vulnerable fare, and when so many people in our society live below the poverty line we must take action communally to change that.

Safety-net programs are intended as a last resort, social insurance program to care for those who are struggling. Too often, these programs are left to survive on inadequate funding or cut entirely, making it very difficult to serve everyone who needs their vital assistance. This is especially problematic for housing and energy assistance programs.

Finally, the safety-net programs that our government administers are investments in our families, our nation, and our future and have proven effectiveness. The Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit are two such programs that have been found to increase employment rates of parents, reduce child poverty, and have a positive impact on children’s school performance. (8) Similarly, increasing SNAP benefits is one of the most effective strategies for boosting a weak economy, generating about $1.70 in economic activity for each additional dollar invested. (9) Safety-net programs are not disincentives to work; they are positive drivers of the economy and moral investments in our nation’s greatest strength: people.

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