It has come to light recently that the family of alleged Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev was receiving government assistance. While receiving government aid, Tsarnaev's wife worked anywhere between 70 and 90 hours per week as a home health aide while Tamerlan stayed home to take care of his young child. Donald Trump and others have been eager to jump on this story to criticize the excesses of the welfare system. But what is getting lost in the narrative is that someone who is employed full-time (or more) often still does not earn enough of a salary to support their family. More and more money is needed to cover basic essentials like food and shelter, while less money is available to cover those costs despite being employed full time.
People laughed at former New York City Mayoral Candidate Jimmy McMillan for basing his candidacy on the theme "The Rent is too Damn High." But in every piece of humor is a kernel of truth. The rent is too damn high, not only in New York City, but in many major metropolitan areas throughout the country. A recent study has found that half of all New York City residents are poor or nearly poor. The typical low-income family (one that earns less than twice the federal poverty level, up to $34,000 a year for a family of three) now spends 49% of their income for rent. This leaves less money to spend on food, health care, transportation, and other essentials. Despite working 40 or more hours per week, many families have to turn to government aid to fill the gaps.
People that receive welfare benefits do not just work at menial jobs that do not require a specific education level and a specific skill set. Some people would be shocked to find out that many military families and people with advanced degrees get food stamp benefits. Even before the recession took root, military families used food stamps at more than double the rate of civilian families (25% for military families to 13% for civilian families). Approximately $31 million in food stamp benefits were used in commissaries nationwide.
The percentage of graduate-degree holders who receive government aid more than doubled between 2007 and 2010. In this three-year period, the number of people with master's degrees who received food stamps and other aid doubled, and the number of people with Ph.D.'s who received assistance more than tripled.
Raising the national minimum wage could help, but the conversation should turn to a national living wage for families. A living wage would ensure that working families have enough income to pay for basic necessities like food, shelter and health care. People who work 40 hours or more per week should not have to decide between paying their mortgage and buying groceries that week, regardless of where they live.