Romney vs. Reality: A Social Worker’s Perspective

By:  Onleilove Alston

On September 17, the one-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street instead of hearing about the 99% we heard about the 47% who according to Mitt Romney:

“will vote for the president no matter what… are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…These are people who pay no income tax.”(Ezra Klein;Washington Post Wonkbook )

As a social worker and faith-rooted community organizer I have to say that this 47 percent is a myth. Due to arbitrary sanctions, agency errors, onerous application requirements, long waits to apply for services, failed communication systems, arduous work requirements  and punishment within the welfare system low-income people are not receiving much needed services (Guilty Until Proven Innocent Report 2012 FPWA). The myth that welfare and government assistance is easy to obtain and maintain has been pervasive since the 1980’s “welfare queen” character was created by President Ronald Reagan.  The welfare queen much like the loch ness monster is seen by a privileged few but no one can actually prove its existence. Now we have a new mythical monster the 47 percent who are an entitled class. The reality is that our entitlement system underserves many needy individuals and families. According to the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies(FPWA) Report Guilty Until Proven Innocent:

“One of the primary functions of the welfare program is to alleviate poverty by providing essential income support to families who qualify  but in 2010 the program only served 27% of families living in poverty, a 41% decrease from 1996 when the program served 68% of families living in need.”

The harsh reality is that many people who are qualified to receive government assistance such as SNAP (Food Stamps) are the working poor who do not apply because they cannot take time off of their low-wage jobs to undergo the long and confusing application process. If someone is able to find out about assistance, endure the confusing and long process of applying and is actually approved then they can look forward to the possibility of receiving a sanction which is a process in which your benefits are called into question for some transgression as petty as missing an appointment because you had to work. “According to the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) from April 2006 to through April 2009, 25% of New York City family cases with at least one adult or minor teen head of household were sanctioned or in the sanction process.” (Guilty Until Proven Innocent). Sanctions usually punish the poorest who most need social services.

Though I use New York as an example these issues are prominent across the country, especially in rural areas were application centers are further away and lines to apply can stretch around the block. This reality is unknown to many who assume that it is easy to apply for assistance programs because unless you are in need or a social service provider you will not see the maze that is the American social service system. Furthermore, there is such shame around needing assistance that many keep silent about the dehumanizing process.  I know firsthand of this dehumanization not only as a social worker but as a person who grew-up poor. I can remember accompanying my mother to appointments for assistance and waiting for hours; the assumption being that poor people’s time is not important.  This approach keeps the poor person in a Catch- 22 because if you want to attend school or work to better yourself you do not have the time to do so because of the countless hours spent waiting for services you desperately need. During the application process you are shuffled with disdain from appointment to appointment by low-paid caseworkers who are usually one paycheck away from being in your position. I remember feeling ashamed and dehumanized by this process, but through the assistance of many people and programs such as grants for college I am now able to stand alongside other poor people to organize for justice.

Unless you have experienced the social services system you may believe the myth that low-income people are entitled, but as the ranks of the poor grow to include the formerly middle-class we have to let go of this myth just as a child has to let go of Santa Claus when they reach a certain age. Though myths maybe comforting to our egos ultimately they stunt our development. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “when I became a man I put away childish things.” If we are going to survive as a country in the face of growing economic uncertainty we have to put away these childish myths of the welfare queen, the 47 percent, pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps and rugged individualism. The fact is from the Homestead Act, to the GI Bill and legacy admissions at top colleges many Americans receive entitlements based on wealth and race privilege. We are all standing on the shoulders of someone who helped us along the way; no one is successful through their hard work alone.

I do not write this to endorse either candidate or to sway your vote but to bring a dose of reality to the way we think about poverty in America. So what does this mean for people of faith? I think that as people of faith we need to prioritize and not demonize the least of these. We cannot “conform to the pattern of this world” (Romans 12:2) which is to disregard the poor.  As people of faith we should weigh every theory or political statement against the word of God; which speaks up for the poor and states that they will be leaders in the rebuilding of our society (Isaiah 61: 1-4).

For more information or to obtain a copy of the FPWA Report Guilty Until Proven Innocent: Sanctions, Agency Error and Financial Punishment within New York State’s Welfare System visit FPWA Policy, Advocacy & Research.

Onleilove Alston, M.Div, MSW was born and raised in East New York, Brooklyn. When she was 10, she felt led to pray and read the Bible though she was not raised in the church. Four years later she walked into a local Baptist Church where she had a life-altering conversion experience that not only saved her soul but her life from the effects of poverty. Currently, she is the Faith Based Organizing Associate at The Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, blogs at Wholeness4Love and tweets @Wholeness4ALL.

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  • Frank

    If you are concerned about “the least of these” there is absolutely no way you can vote for someone who supports abortion.

    • Matti

      Be honest now, do you think that will ever convince someone who isn’t already anti-abortion? Do you really expect people to think “Hmm, I guess Jesus WAS talking about zygotes and fetuses in Matthew 25:45; seems I’ve been wrong about abortion all along!”

      • Frank

        I would expect it to change anyone sensitive to the Holy Spirit. It is impossible to call yourself a Christian and support abortionist anyone who does. Life is precious and if we can’t even protect the most innocent life then how are we ever to protect anything?

        • Rebecca

          I feel the same way about people who call themselves Christians and are not concerned about children going to bed hungry.

    • Rebecca

      Why do you suppose abortions went down under President Clinton?

  • Actually I am extremely pro-life and am about to start working with a collection of Harlem pastors who are pro-life. I am so pro-life that I believe in protecting a child from the womb to the grave and when you support politics that support poverty and racism you create an environment that pressures women to abort. For more information on the connection between racism and abortion check out this documentary: Maafa 21: In order to be pro-life you can’t be pro-systematic racism or pro-poverty because their is a historical connection. In the past certain republican politicians have supported abortion for eugenics purposes (not all but some, watch the documentary to see who). Also I work with a program that organizes Churches to support foster children and a Christian adoption agency so again if you want to be pro-life it takes more than voting for a certain party. Pray and ask who you should vote for based on ALL the facts and study history so you can rightly divine what you should do. I am not saying to support one party or another that is between you, God and the voting booth. Take care.

    • Frank

      If you are prolife you would never vote for a party that has abortion on demand as a platform. You can also serve the poor too.

      • Ted Seeber
        • Frank

          I’ll repeat for you and the misguided writer from the kink you posted:

          If you are prolife you would never vote for a party that has abortion on demand as a platform.

      • Larry G Smith

        We will never stop the killing of unborn but we can educate the poor to prevent getting pregnant. It is better to Light ONE light than to Curse the Darkness. This debate over abortion has been going on since the supreme court gave a woman the right to choose. It only comes to light at election time, then for 4 years you do not care about it. If the courts over turn the Rights of Women, they may well over turn the Right of Men to own GUNs also. Same differene in my book. Get off your butts and get families to talk to their daughters and sons about abortion a girl getting pregnant. I have 2 daughters and never had to worry about them having an abortions.

        • Frank

          We can stop the killing. In fact he GOP is the only party who is doing it. I am talking on the state level where there is great work being done to make abortions harder to get. Great first steps!

  • Ted Seeber

    Wrong 47%. The 47% Romney was talking about were those who do not pay taxes, not those who get welfare.

  • @ Ted I agree that neither party wants abortion to go away (I read your link). I wasn’t just talking about people receiving welfare but all types of benefits such as SNAP (Food Stamps in NYC) which many low-income working people receive or are eligible for or child care vouchers which low and middle income working parents receive or those receiving social security and the various forms of government assistance that exist. Virtually everyone pays taxes even if it’s the almost 10% sales tax that exist in NYC (even undocumented immigrants have to pay this tax when they shop). Watch this documentary to find out why pro-life has not been and will never be on the ballot: Maafa 21: The abortion issue is deeper than democrat or republican it’s tied to race and class. Romney is actually back tracking his statement.

    • Ted Seeber

      I own a copy of Maafa 21. Romney is pretty much a say-anything-to-get-elected candidate, just like Obama. NEITHER is telling the truth on the underclass.

  • Anonymous

    Anyone who thinks that the 47% doesn’t exist has never seen the women collecting welfare while carrying Louis Vuitton bags.

  • Sm

    You have never seen the women collecting welfare while carrying Louis Vuitton bags either. You are just positive they exist in large numbers.