Numerous US media outlets recently uncritically echoed a methodologically flawed report by an anti-immigration organization with ties to white supremacist groups (FAIR.org, 9/4/15). Beyond this serious problem, however, lies a larger and more endemic issue in media: an overarching anti-welfare framing.
News articles like those on a Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) report, which claims 51 percent of US households headed by immigrants receive some kind of welfare benefits, internalize anti-government assistance values, implicitly assuming that receiving welfare is a bad thing.
The impression many Americans hold is that people are on welfare because they are lazy. Corporate media often propagate this myth, failing to acknowledge scientific studies that show that most people on welfare live in working households, and that immigrants on welfare pay 4,500 percent more in taxes than they receive in government assistance.
“Are Immigrants Really Freeloaders? New Study Backs Trump’s Attacks,” CNBC asks (9/3/15). “A new study issued Wednesday by a group that favors tighter controls on immigration concludes that immigrants may be freeloaders after all,” it claims. But the CIS report, as flawed as it may be, does not say immigrants are freeloaders; it says they are welfare recipients.
Why do media use the terms “welfare recipient” and “freeloader” synonymously?
It is coverage like this that leads to disjointed letters to the editor in local publications like AZCentral (9/3/15), averring, “Maybe if the unemployment and the welfare offices told them they have a job and if they don’t take it they will be cut off, they may go to work or starve.”
Citing the debunked report, an Investor’s Business Daily editorial (8/28/15), headlined “US Taxpayers Bear Weight of Anchor Babies,” argues that “anchor babies” should be called “welfare babies” and reads:
CIS found that the presence of a worker in the immigrant home does not make much difference in terms of welfare use. The stereotype of hardworking Hispanic illegals “is simply mistaken.” Even if they work, they tend to go on welfare.
Welfare for immigrants, it claims, is “a massive burden on taxpaying US citizens,” and “illegals who receive it pay little or no income tax to help defray those costs.”
All of this is demonstrably false. And Investor’s Business Daily, like much of the media, is clearly not interested in fact-checking unsubstantiated anti-immigrant myths.
In their reports on the flawed CIS study, USA Today, AOL News, Fox News,CNBC and more did not mention that scholarly studies have found that people on welfare frequently work—sometimes at several jobs. Research conducted by the University of California at Berkeley shows that 73 percent of Americans who receive welfare are members of working families.
“It’s poor-paying jobs, not unemployment, that strains the welfare system,” explained an economics reporter for the Wall Street Journal (4/13/15). “In some industries, about half the workforce relies on welfare,” he adds, including 52 percent of fast-food workers.
The Washington Post (4/14/15) addressed this common misconception as well:
We assume, at our most skeptical, that poor people need help above all because they haven’t tried to help themselves — they haven’t bothered to find work.
The reality, though, is that a tremendous share of people who rely on government programs designed for the poor in fact work — they just don’t make enough at it to cover their basic living expenses.
Far from being freeloaders, “immigrants don’t drain welfare; they fund it,” theNew Republic (9/3/15) wrote. Studies by the American Immigration Council found that immigrants spend 45 times more in taxes than they receive in public benefits and work more than non-immigrants. And a 2013 US Chamber of Commerce report, the New Republic pointed out, found that “more than half of undocumented immigrants have federal and state income, Social Security and Medicare taxes automatically deducted from their paychecks.”
The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), a non-partisan think tank, estimates there were 11.4 million undocumented immigrants in the US as of 2012. Together, they paid almost $12 billion in taxes.
The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy reports that undocumented immigrants pay a higher percent in taxes than the richest 1 percent of Americans.
ITEP found that undocumented immigrants pay 8 percent of their income in taxes. To put things in perspective, the richest 1 percent of Americans pay only 5.4 percent of their income in taxes. In other words, contrary to anti-immigrant myths often propagated by the media, undocumented immigrants—the supposed “job-takers”—pay more in taxes than the richest Americans—the supposed “job-creators.”
Even if the CIS study were true—and, as the aforementioned methodological criticisms indicate, it likely is not—a high number of immigrants on welfare should be seen as an indictment of corporations that exploit immigrants, not of immigrants or of welfare. Immigrant workers often do not have good job opportunities available to them. And undocumented immigrants in particular are frequently forced to work arduous and often dangerous jobs. Because they fear deportation or discrimination, they are pressured into taking jobs in which their legal rights as workers are violated.
Times are hard, economically, not just for immigrants—although immigrants are particularly hard hit—but rather for the vast majority of Americans. US corporate media rarely mention that the inflation-adjusted wages of the bottom 70 percent of American workers either remained stagnant or decreased from 2003 to 2013. Academic research shows it is low wages, not laziness, that cost US taxpayers $152.8 billion each year in public support for working families.
Workers are paid mere pennies by enormous corporations who make millions in profits, but the media often frame the issue as a problem of welfare, not one of exploitation.
If the goal is to get people off of welfare, raising wages, and strengthening and enforcing labor laws so workers exploited by corporations can actually make a living, are the most effective ways to do so. Until then, welfare effectively serves as a subsidy for corporations, allowing them to pay low, unlivable wages with confidence that government will make up for the rest.
Ben Norton is a freelance journalist and writer. His website can be found at BenNorton.com and he tweets at @BenjaminNorton.