In English speaking countries campaigns against welfare have often focussed on dole cheats and frauds as a way of stigmatising recipients. Government officials often feed such campaigns.
In 1998, for example, the Australian government released a report claiming that a crackdown on welfare fraud had resulted in $230 million being paid back. However the Australian Council of Social Services, ACOSS, pointed out that much of the overpayment that had been paid back resulted from administrative errors and people wrongly estimating their future incomes for the purpose of family payment. It pointed out that in the year 1996/97 overpayment went up by 24% but underpayment went up by 36% and that fraud accounted for less than 0.5% of welfare spending. ACOSS accused the government of distorting the picture and overemphasising fraud for political reasons.
The Herald’s Paul Cleary pointed out that welfare fraud attracts more auditing than taxation fraud and yet taxation audits result in the need for adjustments in 83 percent of cases audited: “But the government does not put out statements every six months on tax cheats. It seems happy to hound welfare recipients because there are votes in it.”
A similar pattern has occurred in the US. The media plays a role in stigmatising welfare recipients, often as frauds. During the 1960s and 1970s studies found between 5 and 6 percent of people ineligible for their welfare but in each case the majority of mistakes were made by the agencies rather than the recipient and even where recipients had made errors they mostly “could not be construed as intentional fraud”. Prosecutions amounted to less than 1 percent of cases. Yet at the time 71 % of Americans surveyed agreed that “Many people getting welfare are not honest about their need.
In 1992 was an ABC Prime Time Live show on welfare fraud involved interviews with anonymous welfare recipients who told of how they cheated the system. Host Diane Sawyer told the audience that “With so much money up for grabs” welfare fraud could be “even better than robbing a bank”. The Progressive magazine pointed out that Los Angeles had spent more than $2 million on a fingerprinting system in 1991 but only caught 11 people cheating. More taxpayers money was lost through Medicaid fraud by doctors, it claimed, than welfare fraud.
Joe Feagin found in his book on welfare and American beliefs that “one would be hard pressed to find a group of American citizens who have received more hostility and criticism than have welfare clients in the last few decades.” He noted that whilst “sensational and grossly exaggerated stereotypes” of other minority groups, such as black and Jews, had become unacceptable, “this was not the case for welfare recipients”.
Perhaps the most common sort of fraud in most countries, is where welfare recipients do some informal casual ‘off the books’ work to supplement their benefits without reporting it for fear of losing their benefits, particularly benefits such as medical insurance. The same is true in the UK and Ireland, where it is referred to as ‘doing-the-double’. People who find it difficult to survive on benefits supplement them with this sort of casual work which itself is not enough to live on.
Employers are able to pay very low wages for these ‘junk jobs’ because they know that people are also getting welfare payments. The work is usually insecure, low paying, exploitative and sometimes dangerous. It seldom constitutes any real competition to real jobs, which are not available to these people. However such jobs help ends meet for those on welfare.
Ironically the existence of this informal work indicates that those on welfare are not work shy at all but doing what they can to cope with a situation where there are not enough jobs to go around. Yet such coping behaviour is portrayed as criminal. In his 1998 speech on welfare reform, the UK welfare minister, Frank Field stated that the welfare system “promotes fraud and deception, not honesty and hard work.” And a green paper produced by the Department of Social Security, in a considerable departure from the documented style of the rest of the paper, relied on anecdote when it claimed that “One in four people say they know someone who has defrauded the social security system.”
In Canada, the wider community often associates welfare recipients with fraud. But, as in the UK, the US and Australia, overpayments tend to be the result of bureacratic overpayments rather than cheating. However, as elsewhere the media plays up the fraud angle. In 1993 the Alberta Report conjectured that “only a small fraction of such abusers might be apprehended” without providing any evidence for this.
In 1995 Maclean’s magazine reported that Ontario had saved $66 million by cracking down on cheats. Although only 0.4% of 266,000 recipients surveyed had been found guilty of cheating, Maclean’s used anecdotal evidence to spread the guilt to many more recipients. It stated that it had “inadvertently discovered three examples over a three week period” and that “although such cases are rare, almost every Canadian seems to know someone who, in turn, knows someone who is ripping off the system.”