There is a highly unequal distribution of common decency between most Americans and those who abuse the welfare state. But amid the ongoing hubbub about income and wealth inequality, this disparity of propriety gets short shrift. Forget the monetary cost. It’s the social price tag—and its polarization of politics—that’s killing us.
Let’s be clear, I do not mean to single out Mitt Romney’s infamous “47 percent” of the U.S. population that receives some form of government benefit. Rather, I mean to focus upon those who abuse Uncle Sam’s generosity.
Although waste, fraud, and abuse isn’t breaking the bank, it’s no small line item. According to the U.S. government’s own estimates, 5.2 percent ($98.7 billion) of its social program payments are “improper”—meaning that the payment went to the wrong person, the payment amount was incorrect, there was no documentation justifying a payment, or the beneficiary used the payment on something for which it wasn’t intended.
The social cost, which is far greater, comes in the form of resentment toward beneficiaries from those that bear witness to these excesses. Not only does this resentment create inter-class strife, but also it drives the “giver”/“taker” name-calling polemic that stifles productive conversation about improving these programs.
Think back to the “Obamaphone” controversy, in which a New York City journalist was able to register for three government-paid cell phones in her name under the guise that she was a welfare recipient (she wasn’t). The average American’s response: “I have to work to have a phone! Why do you get one (or three) for free?”
A more broadly witnessed kind of abuse is that which occurs in the checkout line: abuse of the Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) system, which is essentially a debit card loaded with food stamp and public assistance dollars. While improper payments account only for 3.4 percent of the program’s total outlays, whipping out an EBT card for items that are clearly not life necessities draws the ire of all those in the queue and makes for easy headlines that paint the entire program in an unflattering light. The abuses are myriad, from lobster tails to ATM withdrawals inside strip clubs. Some beneficiaries have also sold their EBT dollars through online forums in exchange for cash.
The media doesn’t make this up. As an EMT, I have seen these types of abuses first-hand upon entering the homes of some welfare beneficiaries. They also go hand-in-hand with abuse of the ambulance system, in which beneficiaries of government health programs call for a $600 ambulance ride because they do not want to pay the $6 taxi ride—or in some cases, take a 6 minute walk—to the hospital for a routine doctor visit. The taxpayer, of course, gets the bill. And the EMTs wonder why they have to work nights, holidays, and relentless overtime to pay their bills while some of their patients only need to lean on Uncle Sam.
There is abuse in every entitlement program that exists. These bad apples are the true “takers,” not the genuinely hardworking people who rely on these programs to make ends meet. But it only takes one person to mess it up for everyone else. Each new report of abuse draws another howl of protest calling for drastic welfare cuts—a dangerously simple solution to the nuanced problem of cyclical unemployment and poverty. But then there’s the other side that relentlessly defends the status quo, trivializing the abuse as a small portion of benefits paid and hence refusing to countenance even small reforms—ignoring the dangerous problem of abuse’s social cost. These outraged voices only further divide already polarized politics.
The tragedy is that welfare abuse need not be a point of contention. Americans generally agree upon measures to reform, not eliminate, the welfare system in order to reduce the proportion of improper payments, which run as high as 24 percent depending on the specific program.
In a December 2013 National Journal poll, a 65 percent majority of Americans indicated that they are in favor of legislation to tighten eligibility, increase work requirements, and shorten the time limit for use of federal food stamp benefits. In support of such changes were 79 percent of Republicans, 70 percent of independents, and 45 percent of Democrats. In an earlier Huffington Post/YouGov poll, more than half of respondents indicated that they did not believe food stamps should buy “expensive” food items.
Instituting these reforms and others targeted to address abuse—such as requiring photo ID with use of EBT cards (as only a small handful of states do currently) and restricting barcodes of luxury food items at the point of sale—would go a long way to reduce improper payments, close social fault lines, and bring American political discourse down from polemic yelling matches to reasoned dialogue. Such reforms are simple common sense not because they are low-hanging fruit for deficit reduction, but because they are the right things to do.
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