March 02, 2007
Our perceptions of poor people are full of stubborn myths. The man who picks up his welfare cheque in a white Cadillac, the teenage mother with a flock of illegitimate children, the loafer who works the system instead of a job – these are the stuff of urban legends.
The reality of poverty is surprisingly different. To begin with, the proportion of single parents on welfare who are under 20 years old is very small – 3 per cent, according to a National Council on Welfare study.
And nearly half of all single parent families on welfare have only one child, with another 31 per cent having only two children.
That couch potato with a weak work ethic? Another myth.
The grim truth is that more than half of all poor people are working. And even bleaker – almost one-third of people on welfare are children. When the proportion of poor people with disabilities is added to this mix, the picture looks quite different.
There is a notable absence of white Cadillacs among the poor as well.
Welfare incomes typically hover at around half the poverty line, not nearly enough money for adequate food or housing, let alone a car.
Perhaps the most persistent of these fallacies is the idea of widespread welfare fraud. In fact, the evidence suggests that the rate of welfare fraud is quite low.
As professors Janet Mosher and Joe Hermer found in a report to the Law Commission of Canada, the number of welfare fraud convictions in Ontario in 2001-02 was roughly equivalent to 0.1 per cent of the combined social assistance caseload.
Even more telling is that these convictions represented only 1 per cent of the allegations about welfare offences. And there were a large number of allegations – 38,452 welfare fraud investigations were conducted that year. The end tally? Ninety-nine per cent of them did not result in convictions.
In other words, a great deal of time and energy is spent looking for welfare fraud, but there doesn't seem to be much to find.
So why are these myths so resilient, despite the evidence to the contrary?
One reason has to do with underlying economic fears in society at large. For many people, concerns about financial insecurity and ending up poor are never far from the surface.
These fears can be handled by assigning certain traits to the poor that make them different from the rest of society. If we think of the poor as lazy and dishonest, then it seems less likely that poverty will happen to us, the hard-working, the responsible.
But these stereotypes are not merely the result of personal fears. They serve a number of other purposes as well. Blaming the poor for their own plight makes it possible to avoid a more searching examination of the social and economic factors that contribute to poverty.
For example, unemployment is an important determinant of poverty. But the unemployment rate is closely linked to broader economic policy decisions.
Increasing interest rates, for instance, usually results in fewer jobs and higher unemployment.
This means that finding a job is like a game of musical chairs for the poor. No matter how motivated an individual person may be, there will always be too few chairs to go around.
Similarly, a low minimum wage, or a lack of affordable housing are public policy choices that have a direct effect on poverty. Stigmatizing the poor allows politicians and policy-makers to ignore responsibility for those decisions.
The myths about poverty often serve other political purposes as well.
Defining the poor as lazy or irresponsible creates popular villains for the rest of us to condemn. It panders to a human weakness to feel superior to someone, and provides a handy target for complaints about tax dollars.
The same is true when those stereotypes are dressed up in the jargon of "welfare dependency," argued as the reason why poor children sometimes end up as poor adults.
The real problem is that poor children have severely limited resources, which often translates into less education and fewer opportunities as they get older. They may indeed end up losing that game of musical chairs, but not because of a particular mindset.
The truth is that, like the rest of us, poor people engage in a wide range of moral conduct and possess a broad array of personal traits and psychological outlooks. And the way to address a complex problem like economic inequality is from a variety of different angles.
Rather than scapegoating the poor, there are a series of practical steps that would have a significant impact on poverty.
Several of these steps have been canvassed in these pages – a higher minimum wage, affordable housing, universal child care, a guaranteed income, and accessible education.
These measures go to some of the most fundamental principles of civil society: ensuring human dignity and a fair shake for everyone, regardless of income.