Connecticut's rental assistance program -- UniteCT -- had an RV traveling the state to help people fill out an application to get aid.
Connecticut's rental assistance program -- UniteCT -- had an RV traveling the state to help people fill out an application to get aid. CT Department of Housing Twitter page

For many Americans, welfare is a word that alludes to a weakened work ethic, evokes laziness, and imprudent reliance on the government. For others, it constitutes a more stable society that offers opportunity and strengthens social networks. For my single mother of three, welfare was the only thing that kept us afloat growing up. And today, as an MPA candidate at NYU, welfare allowed me to break the chain of poverty.

With Connecticut’s high taxes and progressive inclination, its welfare system is extensive. One of its newest additions, a rental and utility assistance program called UniteCT, came about amidst the pandemic in order to halt the rising rates of evictions in the state.

Fiorella Beccaglia-Naranjo

While Democrats have fought to expand the program — ultimately winning an $11 million boost in funding from the federal government and voting an additional $1.5 million from state funds — Republicans perceive programs like UniteCT as a cause of social problems rather than a solution.

Created in the 1930s to help destitute widows with children, the welfare system has faced deep criticism. When Congress and the president negotiated welfare reform in 1996, a crucial point of contention was whether government help should remain an entitlement or a subsidy that the poor get solely because of their circumstances.

States today are allowed to determine their own qualifying criteria and may limit access to welfare in various ways, including time restrictions on how long anyone may remain in the system. Nonetheless, the fundamental ethical questions at the heart of the argument continue to be debated. Is society accountable for the poor’s well-being? Are the poor to be held in any way responsible for themselves? If so, how much does it cost the rest of the community?

Indeed, welfare is an investment by society in human beings. But even if most were not able to escape poverty while on welfare, it still deserves a place on our budget for one shocking reason: basic human decency.

Being a young program, UniteCT’s impact has yet to be studied and evaluated, but one fact is undeniable: struggling Connecticut families need those funds. It has distributed $322 million to more than 11,000 landlords on behalf of 50,000 households. In combination with many other state efforts, it has proven to stagnate evictions in Connecticut to keep families afloat.

By the end of March 2022, more than 1,500 evictions had been ordered, making it the highest number of monthly filings since the onset of the pandemic. In addition, more than 50,000 people called the state’s 211 hotline for rental assistance last year. Rising housing costs and inflation have made it impossible for some families to pay their rent, causing them to forsake other necessities such as food to keep a roof over their heads. Welfare is the solution. Money spent and taxes levied become a form of human interaction.

Research shows that rental assistance programs like UniteCT reduce housing instability and homelessness. They play an integral role in lowering socio-economic and racial inequalities and allow households to afford other basic needs. In addition, welfare programs like UniteCT improve health, development, and educational outcomes for children, and adult mental and physical health. Welfare does not decrease people’s motivation to work. Rather, it gives them the opportunity to participate more productively in their society.

For welfare opponents, everyone possesses a right to freedom. In other words, people have a justifiable claim to be left alone. To require individuals to finance the “laziness” of their peers through taxation is to take that freedom away by making them accountable for the well-being of others. However, freedom means nothing if people do not have the ability to exercise it. To do that, they need a minimum level of well-being that is granted only through welfare programs.

So, why should we pay for some people to sit at home and watch their soap operas? First, that is a huge misconception of individuals on welfare, as most are unmarried mothers like mine. The satisfaction of basic needs is of greater importance than the worry that someone, somewhere is leeching off your tax dollars.

The issue is not merely a clash of societal rights but a matter of life and death, malnutrition and nourishment, disease and health, ignorance and education. Welfare helped me out of poverty and allowed me to be able to attend a prestigious institution like NYU. When I graduate, I will give back by helping struggling families like mine. Welfare is the solution.

Fiorella Beccaglia-Naranjo of Stamford attends New York University as a candidate for a master’s degree in public administration.