Academic journal article Social Work

Welfare Use as a Life Course Event: Toward a New Understanding of the U.S. Safety Net

Academic journal article Social Work

Welfare Use as a Life Course Event: Toward a New Understanding of the U.S. Safety Net

Article excerpt

Few behaviors are as stigmatized in American society as that of welfare use. Survey research has repeatedly documented the public's considerable animosity regarding means-tested welfare programs and their participants (Gilens, 1999; Horan & Austin, 1974; Kluegel & Smith, 1986; MacLeod, Montero, & Speer, 1999; Tropman, 1998). At the heart of this opposition is the belief that welfare recipients are largely undeserving of such assistance. For example, regarding cash assistance programs for the working age poor people, Gilens wrote (1999):

While no one factor can fully account for the public's opposition to welfare, the most important single component is this widespread belief that most welfare recipients would rather sit home and collect benefits than work hard themselves. In large measure Americans hate welfare because they view it as a program that rewards the undeserving poor. (pp. 2-3)

Accentuating this belief is the pervasive image that those who use welfare are predominately ethnic minority populations, ofter plagued by alcohol or drug problems, have large numbers of children, and remain on the dole for years at a time (Gans, 1995; Quadagno, 1994). For the most part, Americans perceive the use of welfare as something that happens to someone else and atypical of the American experience.

In this article we empirically analyze this assumption through two straightforward research questions--How likely is it that Americans will at some point during their adulthood turn to welfare assistance? In addition, what is the extent of time that Americans use the social safety net? The application of a life table methodology allows us to answer each of these questions.

Such questions appear particularly relevant for social work. The profession has had a long and noteworthy association with government programs for the needy--from daily casework, to administering public assistance programs, to advocating the importance of a safety net in contemporary society. Yet this involvement has often been devalued and marginalized, partially as a result of the perception that welfare and its recipients are simply not a part of the mainstream American experience. An empirical understanding of the fact that most Americans will at some point in their adult lives use a means-tested program is a vital component in breaking this mind-set. As we discuss in the last section, such an understanding can lead to a greater appreciation regarding the wider relevancy of a social safety net, as well as the role of social workers in assisting individuals and families through periods of economic vulnerability.

Current Knowledge of Welfare Participation and Dynamics

To qualify for various means-tested welfare programs, households must fall below certain income levels (for example, to receive food stamps, families must generally be at or below 130 percent of the official poverty line). In addition, public assistance programs do not allow households to hold assets beyond a certain monetary level. In general, these are set quite low. The result is that to receive benefits from a social safety net program, individuals and families must be either below or not far removed from the poverty line, with a minimum accumulation of assets. Income and asset guidelines vary from program to program and, in some cases, from state to state within the jurisdiction of a program.

Welfare in the United States consists of either in-kind assistance or cash. In-kind programs provide specific resources such as food, housing, and medical assistance. Major in-kind programs include food stamps, Medicaid, and housing assistance. Cash programs provide the recipient with a monthly check. These include Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), which replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) in 1996; Supplemental Security Income (SSI); and general assistance. …

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