US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Why we need to reframe our nation's welfare debate

Scott Alessi | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

We've all heard about the problems with government handouts--they keep people poor, perpetuate unemployment, and give "lazy" jobless people a free ride. Republican leaders like Rep. Paul Ryan argue that the Catholic response is to cut spending on government aid programs, to make sure that we "don’t make people dependent on government so that they stay stuck at their station in life."

The best way to refute this stereotype of the lazy, unemployed person living off of the government and taxpayer dollars is with real stories of people receiving welfare. For example, take the case of Melissa Bruninga-Matteau, an adjunct professor with a Ph.D. in history.

Bruninga-Matteau earns a whopping $900 a month after taxes for her teaching job. She lives farther from campus, where housing is cheaper, and spends $750 a month on rent. But the longer drive to work costs her $40 a week in gas. She doesn't receive health care benefits, and she's become dependent on Medicaid and food stamps to get by.

Unfortunately Bruninga-Matteau is not an isolated case. According to the Urban Institute, the number of advanced degree holders relying on government aid is on the rise. From 2007 to 2010, the number of people with master's degrees receiving food stamps or other assistance nearly tripled, going from 101,682 to 293,029. For Ph.D. holders like Bruninga-Matteau, the number jumped from 9,776 to 33,655.

Rhetoric about hard-working Americans being overtaxed so the government can support the "lazy and uneducated" who "don't want to get a job" isn't going to help us out of this crisis. We need to take a long, hard look at why people with jobs, people with an education, and people who are doing their best to support themselves and their families are coming up short.

Continuing to provide welfare assistance isn't enough to solve the problem, nor is drastically cutting that aid and making a bad situation worse. Instead we need to change the entire conversation and start working on ways to reduce the need for welfare among the working poor. Politicians on both sides of the aisle would be well-served to drop the rhetoric and work together toward a viable solution.