Editorial: The reality of ‘welfare’
Important numbers were contained in the Rowan County Department of Social Services’ annual report for 2015-16 — numbers that should help dispel myths about where our tax dollars go when it comes to public assistance.
The local Department of Social Services distributed just over $240 million in benefits and services last year. That’s nearly the same amount of revenue Apple realized selling new apps on New Year’s Day. And $240 million is the value of the shares that Rex Tillerson, former Exxon Mobil Corp. chief executive, plans to relinquish control of if he is confirmed as secretary of state.
Who gets the $240 million in benefits in Rowan County, and how much direct cash do they receive on average?
The common belief — stereotype, even — is that single young women are motivated to bear child after child to receive generous cash benefits through the program traditionally thought of as “welfare,” now called Work First in North Carolina. The program provides monthly payments to low-income families with children. But Work First benefits come with strings attached for parents who receive them, such as work requirements and time limits. And only $554,609 in Work First benefits were distributed in Rowan County last year, less than 1 percent of the $240 million total in DSS benefits and services. The majority of the recipients in Rowan were not the young women of the welfare stereotype. Instead, most recipients were grandparents raising young children. The average monthly payment they received was $174.
Food benefits take up a more substantial portion of overall benefits. In Food and Nutrition Services, once called food stamps, $35.7 million was distributed last year to an average of 11,951 households each month. That accounts for about 15 percent of that $240 million.
The biggest program by far was Medicaid. The health insurance program totaled more than $182 million last year, or three-fourths of all benefits provided through the local social services department. The biggest eligibility category was for the disabled and blind, at $76 million. Families and children came next, at $63 million, followed by aged and Medicaid-qualified at $36 million. And so on.
The government safety net could be considered a drain on taxpayers or a lifeline for the poor and disabled. Either way, the programs also contribute significantly to the local economy. Medicaid, for example, sends dollars to hospitals, medical practices and nursing homes. Food benefits contribute to supermarket revenues. The money does not evaporate.
Ideally, of course, everyone would have a job that pays well, solid health insurance and enough money to put food on the table. But this is reality of our economic condition — neither as bad as some people say nor as good as it could be.