Blog Posts > The “Welfare Dependency” Myth in West Virginia
May 17, 2013

The “Welfare Dependency” Myth in West Virginia

In discussions about poverty in West Virginia and Appalachia, it doesn’t take long before someone blames “welfare dependency” for the plight of West Virginia’s poor and its lack of economic welfare. The idea of West Virginia having a “culture of poverty” is nothing new. In fact, its roots date back to the 1960s.

As Mil Duncan noted in Rural Poverty in America, popular books such as Night Comes to Cumberland (1963), Yesterday’s People (1965), and Stinking Creek (1967) all popularized the myth of “welfare rolls as a way of life” in West Virginia and the “widely held stereotype of lazy, dependent hillbillies who do not share American values about work.” As Duncan notes, these accounts largely ignored the more important social and economic structures that kept so many people from escaping poverty.

According to Duncan, these barriers included the economic volatility of the coal industry and its tight control (over stores, unionization, minsters, doctors, investment)  over the community, the political patronage system and “business” of county welfare systems, and the lack of investment in human and physical infrastructure to diversify local economies. While some of these barriers have lessened over time, the legacy remains in many coal communities.

While many people still believe that the state suffers from “welfare dependency,” the most common form of welfare  – family assistance income or “cash assistance” from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or what was previously known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children –  has shrunk considerably over the past several decades.  In fact, family assistance income as a share of the state’s total income and the number of adults participating in the program is at a historical low.

At its peak in 1962, cash assistance made up only 1.2 percent of the West Virginia’s total personal income. Today, it  makes up only 0.2 percent of personal income – which about the same amount as the national average.

The number of families, children, and adults enrolled in cash assistance programs has also dramatically declined over the last several decades. Much of this decline has to do with the large welfare reforms made in the late 1990s, known as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, that restructured and reduced family assistance.

As the chart below illustrates, the total average monthly caseload in AFDC/TANF peaked in 1993 at 41,294 and fell to 18,022 in 2012. In March 2013, there we only 16,339 families enrolled in the program.

More striking, the number of children and adults participating in the programs has plummeted. In 1992, there were more than 73,000 children and 45,000 adults receiving family assistance compared to just 18,022 and 6,847 in 2012. In March 2013, only 5,823 adults were receiving family income assistance.

To put this in perspective, the share of adults enrolled in family assistance compared to adults in poverty has shrunk considerably over the past three decades. In 1989, there were approximately 188,957 adults between 18 and 64 in poverty in the state and 42,074 receiving family assistance. This is represents approximately 22.3 percent of adults in poverty. Fast forward to 2011 and this number has dropped to less than four percent, with 210,000 working age adults in poverty and only 8,000 working age adults receiving family assistance.

As this analysis makes clear, West Virginia is far less dependent on cash assistance than it was in the past. In fact, West Virginia is virtually no more dependent than the rest of the country on what most consider “welfare.”

Over the next couple of weeks, I will look at other social safety net programs, such as SNAP (food stamps) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI),  and how the increase in enrollment in these programs has more to do with the decline of good-paying jobs and chronic economic recessions than “dependency.” Stay tuned.

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