The American demonization of public income assistance is both legendary and scientifically demonstrable. Survey research by political scientists has repeatedly shown that strong majorities of Americans favor “aid to the poor” while equally strong majorities disapprove of “welfare.” Powerful ideological encoding teaches generation after generation that “welfare” is a wasteful government giveaway to lazy moochers who ought to find jobs and work for a living. In reality, as a new study from UC Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education finds, 61% of Medicaid recipients are employed, as are 32% of those receiving temporary income assistance. This isn’t entirely a surprise. In 1996, Congress passed and President Clinton signed into law the Personal Responsibility Act, requiring people receiving public assistance to be working or looking for work. What the 1996 law did not provide was any guarantee that real employment opportunities or living wages would be made available.
As working class wages stagnated over the past three decades, more and more of those who found work also needed public assistance to make ends meet. 46% of child care workers, 48% of home care workers, and 52% of fast food workers receive public assistance. Perhaps more surprisingly to those outside of academia (but increasingly unsurprising to those of us on the inside) 25% of part-time college faculty qualify for and receive public assistance.
The Berkeley Labor Center Study correctly points out that this is, in effect, a government subsidy to low-wage employers. We could, of course, raise the minimum wage and strengthen the bargaining power of workers (for example, by prohibiting the hiring of replacement workers during a strike). But it seems easier to continue pretending that “welfare” recipients don’t work and anyone willing to work can make a good life for themselves in America.