When the topic of social welfare programs come up in my political science classes, the subject usually sparks a heated debate between my students. On one side of the debate are students whose families have benefitted from a program like the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP). On the other hand are students who argue that the programs are bad because they promote laziness.
Students whose families have benefitted from the programs often tell very poignant stories of how events, such as a parent’s job loss or death, triggered a short-term financial crisis for the family and that government benefits were a bridge to overcoming this hardship, usually in less than a year.
One the other hand, students who believe that social welfare programs cause laziness often claim that they “know” someone in their hometown who lives a very easy life and whose sole means of support is government assistance. They will not directly confront their fellow classmates’ claims about the government programs being a temporary solution to exigent circumstances, but they will continuous make reference to a person or people who have been receiving government assistance “since they can remember.”
The class is usually divided about equally with about half the students falling into each camp, especially since 2008 when the Great Recession hit the families Peace targets especially hard. Trying to extend the discussion beyond this polarization, I often will cite the Government Accounting Office (GAO) estimate that programs like SNAP have a relatively low fraud or waste rate–in the case of SNAP, the most recent estimate by the GAO was 4%.
For students who argue that social welfare programs lead to laziness and believe that a majority of recipients are gaming the system, they reject the GAO estimate, instead relying on their previous beliefs about the programs. Having observed this before, I often ask these students follow-up questions about how much they know about the people in their hometowns who are receiving government assistance and what the recipients’ circumstances are. Many of the students ultimately admit that they don’t actually know a specific person who is abusing the system, but insisting that it is “common knowledge” in their respective hometown about people who are taking advantage or defrauding the government programs.
Urban legends are modern folklore, stories told by many generations, that may or may not be true. The study of urban legends has created a cottage industry with scholars and non-scholars alike trying to separate fact from fiction. In politics, the urban legend of the “Welfare Queen,” is a pejorative term used since the early 1960s to refer to people who fraudulently receive government benefits. Ronald Reagan popularized this phrase in the political world in 1976 when he told the story of the south Chicago “welfare queen” who drove a Cadillac.
In politics, the urban legend of people cheating welfare programs continues with today’s young people. Many within this community continue to believe this legend, despite volumes of evidence that suggests that programs like SNAP have relatively little fraud, that almost half the recipients are employed or military veterans or that most receiving benefits are white.
As a college professor who asks students to think critically, it is increasingly frustrating to hear students repeat urban legends that should have died out decades ago. On certain subjects, students will research the issue thoroughly and patiently and often change their mind when presented with overwhelming evidence, even if it contradicts their previously held position. On social welfare programs, however, this is not the case.