It’s one of the most familiar tropes of American politics: The “welfare queen” — a pejorative term popularized by Ronald Reagan in his 1976 primary campaign — is supposedly lazy, unemployed and living it up on Uncle Sam’s dime. It also has little factual basis, according to some new research.
Two-thirds of people on needs-based public assistance are either working or have a family member who’s working, a briefing paper published Wednesday by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute states. Additionally, about half of all recipients of public assistance are working full-time.
Indolence and apathy aren’t driving up the welfare rolls, according to the research. Low pay is the more likely culprit.
“As corporations achieve extraordinarily high profit levels and executive pay reaches new heights, it is appropriate to question whether employers are effectively passing off a portion of their societal responsibilities on to taxpayers,” wrote the paper’s author, David Cooper.
Workers in certain industries are disproportionately affected: Nearly half of all workers in the agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting sector receive public help of some kind, benefiting either directly or through a family member from programs like food stamps, Medicaid and housing assistance, among others. That’s also the case for more than a third of those employed in the retail trade sector and the entertainment, recreation, accommodation and food services sectors, according to the EPI study.
Cooper’s paper also suggests that wage raises could relieve the stress on public coffers: Every $1 increase in hourly pay for workers in the bottom three wage deciles reduces their likelihood of receiving public assistance by about 3 percentage points. If employers gave every one of these workers a $1.17 per hour raise, Cooper concluded, it would reduce the number of Americans on government assistance by 1 million.
Walmart, in particular, has come under fire for the large share of its workforce that relies on public assistance. With 1.4 million workers in the United States, it is the nation’s largest private-sector employer. A 2014 report from Americans for Tax Fairness found that Walmart reels in an effective subsidy of $6.2 billion a year from federal aid to its many low-wage workers.
Last year, the Arkansas-based retailer hiked starting pay to $9 an hour, and last month, lifted its wage floor to $10 an hour.