Blink and you might have missed it, but Fox News anchor and host of the first Republican presidential debate Martha MacCallum had a question about "handouts" for South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum: "How do you get Americans who are able [to work] to take the job instead of a handout?"
It wouldn't be a Republican debate without a question suggesting that people living in poverty are lazy.
Graham, for his part, offered a disjointed answer about repealing the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank Act and pushing ahead with the Keystone Pipeline. Santorum, who was a little less robotically focused on his talking points than Graham, went straight to jobs. People need jobs, he said, and he would create them. Problem solved.
A few points for context, since this "culture of dependency" question seems to rear up quite a bit and it's only the beginning of what promises to be a long campaign season:
Most of the jobs being created right now don't pay enough to lift people out of poverty
I've covered this before, so allow me to self-plagiarize a bit: There were nearly 3 million jobs created in 2014—the best year for job growth in more than a decade. But most of those jobs were concentrated in low-wage positions. With the federal minimum wage stalled at $7.25 an hour, millions of working people—and millions of working families—are trapped into poverty no matter how many shifts they pick up.
At the current minimum wage, working full-time will bring in $15,080 annually. In 2013, the Department of Health and Human Services defined poverty for a family of four as living on $23,550 or less. That's nearly $9,000 more than a minimum wage salary.
So "job creation" might sound nice during a debate, but it has yet to provide a meaningful way out of poverty for millions of working families.
The "safety net" isn't that safe
When MacCullum said "handouts," she was talking about social programs that offer food assistance and income support to people struggling with poverty. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) is one of those programs.
Funding for TANF—currently $16.5 billion—hasn't been adjusted in nearly two decades. As the Center for American Progress pointed out in a report on the shortcomings of the program, this means that families receiving TANF are living on far less than they were when the program first started (emphasis added):
[T]he block grant has lost one-third of its value [since it was first established in 1996]. As a result, TANF has grown significantly weaker over time as a tool to protect families against poverty and destitution when they fall on hard times. Just one in three families with children living below the austere federal poverty line are helped by TANF today, compared to more than 8 in 10 in 1996.
Many of the people who rely on social programs like Medicaid are already part of a working household
Nearly three-quarters—73 percent—of the people enrolled in major public support programs are members of working families, according to a study from the Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California.
From the report:
And here's how many workers rely on public assistance broken down by industry:
For many working families, it isn't a choice between a job and support from a program like Medicaid—having both is necessary to survive.