Thursday, July 5, 2012

Rethinking "Welfare Moms"

When you hear about U.S. parents on welfare getting more benefits for having more kids, it's important to keep in mind that this is nothing compared to the massive government subsidy given to all parents.

When people refer to "welfare," they often mean one program out of the several programs classified as welfare: Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or TANF. TANF averages about $300 / month to a single person and about $900 / month to a family of four -- obviously not nearly enough to live on. The extra amount one receives per child is in the neighborhood of $200 / month.

That's $2400 / year. Hardly enough to care for a child.

It's not really free money either: most parents are expected to work, or at least search for it. There's also a lot of time and work -- and transportation costs -- involved in applying and maintaining one's welfare status.

These payments are typically limited to five years.

So again, that's $2400 a year, for a maximum of five years.

Well, the amount state and federal governments pay per child, mostly for education, is just under $9000 / year. Some spend a bit less, but others spend a whole lot more.

That's right: if you've got a kid in public school, the cost of what you're getting in free services dwarfs the extra amount someone on welfare is getting for his or her kid.

You might be getting $9000. The welfare parent might be getting $11400. That's analogous to the difference between an average school district and a slightly wealthier one, or between a fairly rural district and a more urban one.

But don't forget, both parents get that $9000 throughout a child's education, rarely less than 12 years. That $2400 difference is capped at five years and often used for less. Project that out, and everyone's getting $108,000, while the parent on welfare's getting a maximum of $12,000 additional.

Sure, you can still be angry if you want. But if you've got a kid in public school, you're getting a "handout" too -- you're just complaining that an incredibly poor parent is getting slightly more.

Of course, there are other forms of welfare too. It's possible the same family on welfare could be getting food stamps, for example -- a program that gives you a bump of around $100 per child per month. But that's still about $1200 per year, which still pales in comparison with that $9000.

I'm not arguing welfare should be more. I'm just saying that it ought to be put into perspective, and demonizing "welfare moms" doesn't make a lot of sense unless you're also willing to demonize the much more massive amount the state pays for education.

Of course, it feels different, to hear someone's getting food stamps or "welfare," whereas we take public school for granted. One feels free in a way that the other doesn't. But that public school, to which you probably feel entitled and don't think has enough resources, costs a lot more in taxes than any welfare allotments. If you went to public school, you're not a "self-made" pioneer; you actually benefited from a massive social program that dwarfs welfare, so perhaps you shouldn't be the first to point fingers.

And let's not forget that you have to be suffering to qualify for these programs. You don't want to be in that situation, and it's not fun. And when you're poor, a much higher percentage of your income goes to sales taxes and fixed expenses, like food and rent and transportation.

It also might be worth considering that, if welfare isn't given, a lot more children would suffer from things like malnutrition, which has life-long effects... that would end up costing the state a whole lot of money. Also, a little extra money in welfare services is often what helps a family get back on its feet, after a layoff or a medical emergency. The sooner that happens, the sooner the government can stop welfare services and start collecting tax revenue instead -- potentially over decades.

And while we're on the subject of welfare, don't forget that one of the other welfare programs is social security. So when people criticize all welfare, rather than some specific program, they're criticizing social security too.

Finally, while some parents on welfare get more than the above figures, the government also pays out a lot more per child than the $9000 listed above. It's virtually impossible to calculate how many police department hours, fire department hours, and reimbursements to hospitals the average child incurs. How much is the average child's portion of road maintenance or public lighting or agriculture subsidies? Then there are the various tax credits for children, which cost the government dollars. Nothing surpasses educational expenses, but the ways in which we subsidize children are massive and arguably incalculable.

The bottom line is that the state spends a huge amount per child per year, in lots and lots of ways. Welfare programs are only one of those ways and nowhere near the largest.