Thursday, December 3, 2009

Why is "Welfare" a dirty word?

Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary defines the word “welfare” as a noun as the state of doing well, especially in respect to good fortune, happiness, well-being, or prosperity. “Welfare” is defined as an adjective as: (1) of, relating to, or concerned with welfare and especially with improvement of the welfare of disadvantaged social groups, and (2) receiving public welfare benefits.

Being concerned about improving someone’s welfare, especially a child’s or that of someone who is disabled or elderly would seem to be a good public policy. So why then do our elected officials avoid characterizing any attempt to improve someone’s “good fortune, happiness, well-being, or prosperity” as “welfare”? Why is it that “welfare” is so despised in the context of improving the welfare of disadvantaged social groups?

Is it fear? Fear seems to be behind many attempts to stereotype groups of people. Aren't we stereotyping poor people when we demonize all of them as cheats or undeserving? Do we stereotype poor people so that we can dehumanize and ignore them? Are we afraid of the 6.3 million children living in extreme poverty in the United States?

Is it selfishness? The federal government uses tax dollars to provide a subsidy of $250 billion per year to those employed people still lucky enough to receive employer subsidized health insurance. The federal government also uses an additional $80 billion tax dollars per year to provide subsidies to homeowners who deduct mortgage interest. According to Webster’s, these benefits are “welfare.” These welfare benefits alone, and there are many others, amount to 20 times the welfare subsidy provided to the poorest families among us. Are we afraid that we might have to share?

At some point, it was decided that it was good public policy to provide more than $320 billion per year in welfare benefits to employed people with subsidized health insurance who own homes with mortgages up to $1 million dollars, in order to improve their “good fortune, happiness, well-being, or prosperity.” Wouldn't it also be good public policy to improve the welfare of those less fortunate?

We must acknowledge that “welfare” is not a dirty word, and that it is provided in many forms to many different recipients. We need to refocus our assistance toward the poorest of the poor first.

By Gregg Oakley
Athens County Job and Family Services Deputy Director