Where Are all the Couch Potatoes and Welfare Queens?

There is a major barrier blocking legislators from Tallahassee to Washington, D.C. from doing their job.
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There is a major barrier blocking legislators from Tallahassee to Washington, D.C. from doing their job.

It is the statement that government benefits normally go to "able-bodied" people who would rather game the system and kick back at home, playing Grand Theft Auto, as Rep. Matt Gaetz contends.

His father, the president of the state senate, called them "couch potatoes." Then there is the description of "welfare queens" that has been over-used for decades, conjuring up the image of African-American women going to the welfare office in a Cadillac.

It changes the thought patterns of congressmen in D.C. while they discuss whether to cut food stamps. It colors the conversation in Tallahassee when they are deciding whether to go forward with Medicaid expansion. It even controls policy development when discussing alternatives.

This is not to say that Medicaid and food stamp fraud doesn't exist. Generally, two types of people try to defraud the government -- the deceitful and the desperate.

The desperate are those families just above the maximum requirements of eligibility, who barely make ends meet and fear that any medical emergency will wipe them out.
The greatest amount of fraud, however, comes from health care providers who file false claims for reimbursement. They are just plain deceitful.

But pundits such as Fox News' Bill O'Reilly perpetuate the stereotype of the welfare queen. "What would you prefer? Food stamps or a job?" he asked recently.

To that I say, 'Why not have both?'"

Most food stamp recipients do. In fact, in 2012 more than 47.8 percent of families receiving food stamp were working (the highest ever), and only 13.2 percent were welfare recipients with no working adults, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

The USDA reported that, "76% of SNAP households included a child, an elderly person, or a disabled person. These vulnerable households receive 83% of all SNAP benefits."

Not exactly the "able-bodied" folks our legislators talk about. Here are some other statistics that debunk the welfare queen stereotype. In 2009, 32.2 percent of food stamp recipients were white, versus 22.5 percent of African-American households, and 15.5 percent Hispanics.

Regarding the uninsured, 59 percent are in the category called "adults with no dependents."

That statistic is important because that is the population that the state House cut out of its plan to substitute for the Medicaid expansion, even though they make up the majority of the uninsured that would not get Medicaid without the expansion. Nor would they be eligible for the Insurance Exchange.

The House, along with Gaetz, felt that population was not worthy of Medicaid because they are "able-bodied" folks more interested in getting benefits instead of a job, even though most of them work.

Of our uninsured families, 78 percent have at least one working person in the family and 62 percent have one or more individuals working full time.

As long as our legislators (and the lobbyists and the people they cater to) go to sleep with visions of couch potatoes and welfare queens dancing in their heads, the constituents they are supposed to serve will stay up late worrying about when they will get the help they need and when their vote will count.

This column was originally posted in the new political commentary and news e-magazine, Context Florida.

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