January 31, 2014

Common myths and stereotypes about the poor in Indiana

As Catholics and people of faith, we are called not to judge others but to love them.

And as we continue moving ahead in our mission to help the poor, we are learning there are many myths and stereotypes about people who live in poverty.

Myth: The poor are poor because they choose to be.

Fact: Most people are poor because they have experienced a job loss, a health crisis, reduced wages or the loss of a wage-earner in the family by death, divorce or desertion.

Myth: The poor are lazy. Indiana has a culture of welfare dependency, and many low-income Hoosiers simply need to get a job.

Fact: 73 percent of low-income families in Indiana have at least one adult who is working. The problem lies with an inadequate education, limited job training opportunities or the absence of good paying jobs, especially in rural areas. When you meet someone living in poverty, ask them if they would prefer to be working a good paying job or living on welfare.

Myth: Most of the poor are on welfare, so they aren’t suffering. The government pays them to lie around and have more babies.

Fact: The majority of people living in poverty do not receive welfare benefits. Many do not meet the eligibility requirements, are not aware of benefits available to them or simply do not want them.

Myth: Families on welfare eat better than those of us who work for a living. If they managed their money better, they wouldn’t be poor.

Fact: In Indiana, the maximum food stamp allotment for 2013 was $158 per month. The maximum net income for an individual per month is $958 even to qualify for this benefit. For a poor person, no amount of “good management” can result in sufficient nutritious meals throughout the month on food stamps.

Myth: Those who get on welfare stay on welfare.

Fact: Of those people who receive welfare assistance, more than half stop receiving benefits after a year, 70 percent within two years and 85 percent within four years. For the disabled, mentally handicapped or elderly, they will always need some type of assistance.

Myth: Social mobility is possible by working hard.

Fact: Although working hard is an important element to moving out of poverty, the key element is education. Our current economy requires workers to be more skilled than in the past. Education through high school does not prepare our children for today’s workforce, and many people in poverty cannot afford the costs associated with a college education.

Myth: Illegal immigrants are draining the Indiana economy.

Fact: Only U.S. citizens and those with legal status can apply for welfare benefits.

Myth: Poor people have more babies to get more welfare.

Fact: About $59 per month in cash assistance (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF) is all that welfare recipients receive for additional children and $158 per month in food assistance. The average welfare family is no larger than the average non-recipient Indiana family. Welfare benefits are not a significant incentive for childbearing. Could you raise a child on $217 per month?

Myths are perpetuated through sensationalized stories told by the media that by no means represent the vast majority of those living in poverty.

Even if one is to believe that the poor “get what they deserve,” our Catholic faith requires of us a compassion that mirrors the compassion of Christ, which knows no boundaries.

We aren’t allowed to simply say that the poor have earned their state in life, or that they are no responsibility of ours. The popular saying from a few years ago is appropriate here: “What would Jesus do?” That question gets at the heart of what is required of us.

(Editor’s note: Information provided by the Indiana Coalition on Housing and Homeless Issues, the Indiana Institute for Working Families and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.)


Related story: Gospel mandate calls Catholics to serve our brothers and sisters in need

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