Conservative politicians have
a talent for telling memorable anecdotes that capture the essence of their beliefs on any particular issue. One of the most
enduring of these came from Ronald Reagan on the subject of welfare. He cited a Chicago "Welfare Queen" who had ripped off
$150,000 from the government, using 80 aliases, 30 addresses, a dozen social security cards, and four fictional dead husbands.
The country was outraged; Reagan dutifully promised to roll back welfare; and ever since, the "Welfare Queen" driving her
"Welfare Cadillac" has become permanently lodged in American political folklore.
Unfortunately, like most great conservative
anecdotes, it wasn't really true. The media searched for this welfare cheat in the hopes of interviewing her, and discovered
that she didn't even exist.
As a bit of class warfare, however, it was brilliant. It diverted public attention from
insider traders in their limousines to Welfare Queens in their Cadillacs, even though the former were stealing thousands of
times more from the American people than the latter. Just one example of the cost of white collar crime would become apparent
a few years later, when President Bush bailed out the Savings & Loans industry with $500 billion of the taxpayer's money
-- enough to fund 20 years of federal AFDC.
Questions of class warfare aside, there is no evidence that there is a
significant problem with welfare cheating. In 1991 less than 5 percent of all welfare benefits went to persons who were not
entitled to them, and this figure includes errors committed by the welfare agency. (1)
Nor are people getting rich
off welfare. The two largest welfare programs are Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and food stamps. In 1992,
the average yearly AFDC family payment was $4,572, and food stamps for a family of three averaged $2,469, for a total of $7,041.
(2) In that year, the poverty level for a mother with two children was $11,186. (3) Thus, these two programs paid only 63
percent of the poverty level, and 74 percent of a minimum wage job. There are other welfare programs, of course, but they
either pay a minuscule fraction of these two programs, or, if larger, are collected by only a small percentage of welfare
recipients. The typical welfare recipient remains among the poorest members of society.