The Undeserving Poor

The United States is in such a phase now. When President Lyndon Johnson launched the "War on Poverty" in 1964, the prevailing view was that the poor were victims of circumstances beyond their control. That changed in the 1980s and 1990s. Conservative critiques of the welfare state as a source of debilitating dependency, as well as widespread claims of fraud, eroded support for cash assistance and paved the way for the 1996 overhaul.

Some economists say the effort to incentivize worthiness has created an incoherent system of relief for the poor. Some households get the panoply of means-tested benefits - food stamps, Medicaid, TANF, housing subsidies and tax credits. Others get little or nothing.

"We have a kind of patchwork set of programs," said Robert Moffitt, professor of economics at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, "where some families fall through the cracks, and some other families get more than maybe they would under a better-designed system."

Gov. Daniels agrees the system isn't working. He say it's "well-intentioned" - but has become convoluted with programs "stacked on top of each other for two generations now." Smarter spending, not more spending, is the answer. "The money it wastes is the second-biggest problem," he said in an interview. The first is "the undermining if not destruction of human dignity and the ethic of personal responsibility."

GRAPHIC: Who's worthy of help, and who isn't: Poll


Brandi Burnau, a round-faced 22-year-old with brown eyes, said she has been struggling on her own since she aged out of the foster-care system four years ago. Single and unemployed, Burnau recently had a baby daughter, Ava. Eight months ago she made a hard decision: She gave Ava up for adoption.

At the time, she was working in a warehouse outside Indianapolis stocking shelves, and she burst into tears every time she saw baby books. She left work early a couple of times, she said, and was let go. Having been on the job just three months, she was ineligible for unemployment benefits.

Burnau took to sleeping in her car, in homeless shelters and at the homes of strangers she met at the bus stop. Last month, Burnau was asleep in the car, which bore a sign that read "homeless and desperate." An older woman knocked on the window and gave her food, and invited Burnau to stay at her house for as long as she needs. "We now go to church together," she said. "She's helped me a lot."

Brandi Burnau with a nephew. She gave up her baby for adoption, reducing her eligibility for welfare help. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
Brandi Burnau with a nephew. She gave up her baby for adoption, reducing her eligibility for welfare help. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)

But her future is uncertain, and Burnau is mystified by the incentives the welfare system presented her. A simple financial calculus, she said, would favor keeping Ava. She received $3,000 for living and medical expenses from the adoptive family during pregnancy, the cap under state law.

As a single parent, Burnau said, she could have soon received much more than that in additional welfare benefits: TANF cash aid for mothers, more money in food stamps, free Medicaid coverage and preferential treatment at homeless shelters. Today, she said, she gets $180 a month in food stamps, but no other government aid.

"When you're single, they don't care," she said. "If I had kept my baby, I would have benefited, but I didn't want to be selfish."

Jeremy Toler, 36, is also puzzled by the welfare state, and he used to work for it.

After serving in the army reserves and graduating from Ball State University with an associate's degree, Toler got a state job processing claims in a child-care program for the poor. When the state automated the system, he and the rest of his office were laid off.

safety-nets.pngToler then landed a series of construction jobs, working for the past three years at a local demolition and building company. After two marriages that ended in divorce, he now lives with his girlfriend and the five children they're raising - four from their previous marriages, and one they had together.

In June, he moved to another construction firm, but unhappy there, Toler quit. That was a mistake. Under the federal unemployment insurance system, workers get benefits only if they are laid off, not if they quit. A few weeks later, his girlfriend lost her job.

Since June, Toler said recently, he has applied for dozens of positions without luck. The family lives in a trailer home and gets by on Medicaid, food stamps and donations from local food pantries. Like Case, he also sells plasma twice a week.

Toler has had trouble navigating the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. He believed he and his girlfriend each had to spend a total of 70 to 80 hours a week in resume workshops or actively looking for jobs. He also thought the state provided no childcare. After being told their family would receive $300 per month from TANF, he said, they decided it wasn't worth applying.

State officials said the program, in fact, provides childcare and requires a combined 55 hours a week for a couple. They said a family of seven - like Toler's - can receive up to $522 per month.


His troubles are mounting. This summer, Toler's truck was repossessed. He stopped paying the child support he owes an ex-wife on the child she is raising, and was briefly arrested in October and ordered to appear in court after she reported him. He has also stopped making payments on the $17,000 mortgage on his trailer home and his $1,900 in student loans.

Presented by

Kristina Cooke, David Rohde, and Ryan McNeill

Kristina Cooke is an award-winning investigative reporter at Reuters. David Rohde is a columnist and reporter for Reuters, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and a former reporter for The New York Times. Ryan McNeill is a reporter on the Reuters global data team in New York.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Business

Just In