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Center for American Progress

Debunking Poverty Myths and Racial Stereotypes

A Better Understanding of Social Benefit Programs

Race baiting has been a focus of debates in various media outlets about programs aiding those whose income is at the pit of that debate. Below are some of the most startling facts that debunk some of the poverty myths and racial stereotypes that surround social benefit programs.

1. President Barack Obama is not a “food stamp president.” According to recent figures, more food stamp recipients were actually added under President George W. Bush than under President Obama. Under President Bush the number of recipients rose by nearly 14.7 million.

2. Blacks are not the primary recipients of assistance through federal benefit programs. 35.7 percent of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, recipients and 43 percent of those on Medicaid—two of the largest public benefit programs—are white.

3. The main reasons why people living in poverty are not employed are illness and inability to find work. Approximately 56 percent of those who did not work in 2010 did not work due to illness, disability, retirement, or an inability to find work.

4. Social Security benefits have saved many senior citizens from poverty. If Social Security were excluded from income, 14 million seniors over the age of 65 would fall into poverty.

5. Many Americans receiving public benefits paid for them. Thirty-nine percent of Americans receive benefits they paid for through payroll taxes taken out of their own paychecks.

6. More white Americans live in poverty than any other group. In 2010 31.6 million white Americans lived in poverty, more than any other racial or ethnic group.

7. Many people of color who receive Social Security benefits do so for survival. Forty-five percent of all black beneficiaries and 58 percent of “other” beneficiaries (those who are neither black nor white) use the program for its survivor and disability benefits, not for its retirement benefits.

8. Social benefit programs like Medicaid really do serve those most vulnerable. Two-thirds of Americans living in poverty are not enrolled in Medicaid because single individuals and childless couples are largely excluded from Medicaid coverage.

9. Many beneficiaries of low-income public benefit programs are elderly, children, or disabled. Among American households receiving food assistance under SNAP, 75 percent have an elderly or disabled person or a child.

10. The federal government does not hand out checks. Only about 10 percent of all federal dollars committed to public benefit programs for low-income Americans are paid in cash, and the majority of cash assistance programs are focused on those who cannot work.

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Sophia Kerby

Sophia Kerby is the Special Assistant for Progress 2050 at American Progress working with the Communications team. She studied in India and South Africa before graduating from the University of Maryland-College Park in 2011 with a B.A. in government and politics. Sophia previously completed internships at the Women’s Campaign Forum, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the U.N. Development Programme. Prior to joining American Progress, Sophia worked on health policy issues domestically and internationally as an intern with Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

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