Tag Archives: social welfare

The Submerged State

Every once in a while, I read something that sparks an epiphany–usually, it’s the sort of “aha” moment that is followed by “well…DUH. I should have seen that before now.”

I’ve just begun reading a book by Suzanne Mettler titled The Submerged State, and I’ve had just such a moment.

Mettler’s book focuses upon the nature of government social welfare programs in the United States, and the fact that most of them are “submerged”–accomplished through tax credits and other incentives to the private sector, making them effectively invisible to most Americans. As she says, the policies of the submerged state obscure the role of government and exaggerate that of the market, leaving citizens unaware of how power really operates.

Mettler defines the submerged state as the “conglomeration of federal policies that function by providing incentives, subsidies, or payments to private organizations or households to encourage or reimburse them for conducting activities deemed to serve a public purpose.”

Mettler published the book during the waning days of the Obama administration, and she attributes much of the resistance to Obama’s agenda–and the accusations that he was trying to enlarge the role of government– to the widespread lack of understanding of what government already does, how it does it, and who it benefits.

The recipients of the bulk of government’s social benefits (aka “welfare programs”), as she points out, are disproportionately higher income Americans. Take the home mortgage exemption, for one example. Not only do higher-income taxpayers benefit more than those with smaller mortgages and lower incomes, but a significant number of low-income Americans don’t have enough deductions to itemize, and thus must forego the deduction entirely.

Much of my earlier academic research focused on so-called “privatization,” which in the U.S. means “contracting out”–the practice of government delivering services through a for-profit or non-profit surrogate. There are plenty of documented problems with the wholesale adoption of this practice (sometimes it makes sense, but all too often it is more costly and less accountable than doing the government’s business through public employees), but one problem that is rarely noted comes from the inevitable lack of transparency. People receiving government services frequently don’t realize that it is the government that is providing those services.

I’m just at the first chapter of Mettler’s book, so I don’t yet know whether she includes another consequence–one that is particularly corrosive to civic unity. When people don’t recognize that they are receiving benefits from government programs, because those programs are “submerged,” they are prone to look unfavorably at the more public programs that benefit other people.

I’m sure I’m not the only person to notice that the widespread animus toward “welfare” (aka programs to assist the poor) is rarely invoked in discussions about Social Security and Medicare. (And no, those programs are not “insurance” as that term is commonly understood.)The same phenomenon is at work in accusations that the poor don’t pay taxes; to many Americans, “taxes” means income taxes–not the sales taxes, gasoline taxes, property taxes and payroll taxes that everyone must pay and that constitute a significant portion of overall tax collections.

When a burden or benefit is universal, it elicits a different response.

A significant amount of resentment is generated when people think that other people are getting benefits that they don’t get, and that were paid for by “their” tax dollars. If they were aware of the extent to which they themselves are the beneficiaries of taxpayer largesse, it might ameliorate some of that resentment.

I’m looking forward to reading the rest of this book–and wondering why in the world I didn’t see the nefarious consequences of “submerged” programs before this.

 

“Racial Anxiety” And The Social Safety Net

Sometimes, it’s hard to know what aspect of current American political life is most depressing.

Children are taken from their parents at the border. Regulations meant to protect clean air and water are eviscerated. The President’s delusional mental state becomes more obvious–and frightening– each day. Congress does nothing about anything. (Case in point: despite polls showing 90% of Americans want them to protect Net Neutrality, the House refuses even to vote on the issue.) Trump attacks our allies and embraces our enemies….it goes on and on.

Perhaps worst of all, this Administration consistently panders to toxic attitudes that have always been there, but had mostly been banished from polite society. His rhetoric has encouraged the growth of overt racial and religious animus.

Nowhere has that animus been more poisonous than in debates around social welfare programs. The odious “makers versus takers” construct permeates the country’s already punitive approach to social programs, as the Guardian recently reported.

Endless paperwork. Dirty looks on the checkout line whether you are buying Skittles or pricey organic kale. Hours spent in tedious training for non-existent jobs. Urine tests, supervised by creeps. Unclear requirements, mandatory appointments without regard for lack of transportation or childcare, arbitrary deadlines that are undisclosed until you run afoul of them.

And, after all that, the skimpy benefits obtained don’t begin to cover expenses.

These are just a few of the ways the American social safety net aims to deter aid seekers, ensuring that unworthy “takers” don’t get unearned crumbs from the mighty “makers”.

And, as the article goes on to detail, it is about to get worse. Far from moderating efforts by the Administration to cut back most programs for the poor, Republicans in Congress are positively eager to cut the heart out of social programs. Their justifications smack of moral judgment and “deservingness,” and betray a deeply-held conviction that being poor is itself a sign of immorality–or at least prima facie evidence that bad choices must have been made.

In Trump’s America, one of those bad “choices” is having been born black or brown.

A recent study, highlighted by the Washington Post, confirms the racial “anxiety” at the root of efforts to cut social welfare programs.

White Americans are increasingly critical of the country’s social safety net, a new study suggests, thanks in part to a rising tide of racial resentment.

The study, conducted by researchers at two California universities and published Wednesday in the journal Social Forces, finds that opposition to welfare programs has grown among white Americans since 2008, even when controlling for political views and socioeconomic status.

White Americans are more likely to favor welfare cuts when they believe that their status is threatened and that minorities are the main beneficiaries of safety net programs, the study says.

(The irony is that these cuts actually hurt more white Americans, who–despite racist memes about welfare– comprise the majority of Medicaid and food-stamp recipients.)

In the reported study, researchers analyzed 10 years of data on attitudes toward race and welfare. Between 2008 and 2012 in particular, they found a rise in opposition to welfare. That opposition rose among all Americans — but it rose far more sharply among whites. White Americans also began scoring higher on racial resentment scales during that period. (I’m sure the fact that we had a black President was coincidental….not.)

In order to confirm the link between racial attitudes and positions on welfare, the researchers investigated further.

White Americans called for deeper cuts to welfare programs after viewing charts that showed they would become a racial minority within 50 years. They also opposed welfare programs more when they were told that people of color benefit most from them.

I keep telling myself that the re-emergence of these attitudes–attitudes of fear and resentment that largely explain support for this morally reprehensible President–are a temporary reaction. Loss of white privilege is threatening to people who grew up believing it was their due–especially if they don’t have much else going for them, but I keep telling myself this ugly time will pass.

I hope I’m right.

 

 

Calvinism and America’s Crappy Transit

Some years back, I wrote a book titled “God and Country: America in Red and Blue.” I was intrigued (still am) by the various ways in which contemporary policy preferences are rooted in religious ways of looking at the world. I wasn’t focusing on the more obvious connections–we all see the relationship between religious beliefs and opinions about abortion or gay rights or capital punishment, for example. I was interested in the under-appreciated ways that religious perspectives had shaped cultural attitudes and fostered certain approaches to public policy.

As I did my research, I was especially struck by the ways in which early Calvinist theology has shaped American attitudes toward the poor. Ours is a culture with a deeply entrenched, if bastardized, version of Calvinism; a belief that God smiles upon the “elect,” and the poor are poor because they are morally defective. (Accusations that poor folks lack “middle class values” are a modern and none-too-veiled version of that theologically-rooted conviction.)

A recent article at Vox connected that insight to America’s pathetic public transportation.

American buses, subways, and light rail lines consistently have lower ridership levels, fewer service hours, and longer waits between trains than those in virtually every comparably wealthy European and Asian country. At the same time, a much greater percentage of US public transit costs are subsidized by public tax dollars….

Many people try to explain this paradox by pointing to US history and geography: Most of our cities and suburbs were built out after the 1950s, when the car became the dominant mode of transportation. Consequently, we have sprawling, auto-centric metropolises that just can’t be easily served by public transportation.

But there’s a problem with this explanation: Canada. This is also a sprawling country, largely built for the automobile. Canadian cities’ public transit systems, however, look very different.

“Canada just has more public transit,” says transit consultant Jarrett Walker. “Compare, say, Portland to Vancouver, or Salt Lake to Edmonton, or Des Moines to Winnipeg. Culturally and economically, they’re very similar cities, but in each case the Canadian city has two to five times as much transit service per capita, so there’s correspondingly more ridership per capita.”

What, then, accounts for the discrepancy?

Although history and geography are partly to blame, there’s a deeper reason why American public transportation is so terrible. European, Asian, and Canadian cities treat it as a vital public utility. Most American policymakers — and voters — see transit as a social welfare program.

It’s true. American politicians don’t see transit as a quality of life or economic development issue (both of which it certainly is) or even as a vital transportation function; they think of it as another government aid program to help poor people.

And the poor are “undeserving.” After all, according to Calvin, if they were deserving, God would have made sure they had cars.

It All Depends on Your Definition of a Tax….

There was another item in the news this morning about Congressional Republicans’ efforts to “trim” food stamps. The stated reason is to reduce government expenditures without raising taxes.

My husband noted that calling something a “reduction in benefits” doesn’t change the fact that the target of the measure has less money to spend at the grocery. Substantively, the food stamp recipient has been taxed.

This willingness to “reduce benefits” to avoid calling something a tax raises an inconvenient question. Oil companies–which have been massively profitable of late–enjoy generous federal subsidies. If the GOP doesn’t want to tax those they have labeled “job creators,” why not simply reduce their benefits?

Evidently, in the reality occupied by these Congressmen, reducing corporate welfare for big oil is a “tax” to be avoided at all costs, but reducing social welfare for poor children is just budgetary prudence.

I guess it all depends on what your definition of a “tax” is.