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Romney vs. Reality: A Social Worker's Perspective

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On Sept. 17, the one-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, instead of hearing about the 99 percent we heard about the 47 percent 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 1980s "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 may be 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.