Tag Archives: welfare

Fascinating!

On the original Star Trek series, when Mr. Spock was confronted with a new and unexpected bit of information, he would raise one Vulcan eyebrow and intone “fascinating.”

I don’t have a Vulcan eyebrow, but “fascinating” was my reaction to a 2013 academic paper written by Johannas Haushofer and Jeremy Shapiro, with the not-very-sexy title “Household Response to Income Changes: Evidence from an Unconditional Cash Transfer Program in Kenya.”

Stop yawning, because this is important. And fascinating.

In the U.S., lawmakers (and not just right-wing ones) have long taken a punitive approach to the poor. Even self-labeled “compassionate conservatives” like former President George W. Bush have proposed programs that would “help welfare recipients develop middle-class values.” (Because clearly, if you are poor, you must be morally defective.)  American attitudes toward the needy have their roots in 15th Century English Poor Laws that prohibited “giving alms to the sturdy beggar.”

American social welfare programs built on that model have numerous, demeaning—and costly—restrictions on eligibility. After all, if “we” don’t watch “them,” they’ll cheat us hardworking taxpayers.

Most recently, a number of state legislators have piled on; convinced that any assistance allowing recipient discretion would “obviously’ lead to imprudent choices, they have even passed rules about what welfare recipients can buy at the grocery store with their food stamps.

Imagine what would happen if we simply sent poor people some cash! (Um…perhaps like Social Security…?)

Well, it turns out we don’t have to imagine it; an NGO called “GiveDirectly” has been doing just that in Kenya. GiveDirectly chooses beneficiaries at random; the only criteria is income below poverty level. The organization is rigorously evidence-based, and the paper I came across is one of several independent research projects examining the results.

So what happened?

Recipients spent more on health and education. Alcohol and tobacco expenditures did not increase. The researchers found

no evidence for an increase in tension within households, no significant spillover effects on non-recipient households, and no general equilibrium effects at the village level, with the single exception that we observe an increase in female empowerment at the village level. Together, these findings suggest that simple cash transfers may not have the perverse effects that some policymakers feel they would have, which has led for a clear policy preference for conditional cash transfers or in-kind transfers.

I came across this article because I have recently become aware of psychological studies connecting poverty with a host of deleterious psychological consequences, and I was exploring the literature reporting on those consequences for a book I’m writing. (I had previously understood the link between insecurities of various kinds and social unrest, but I was unaware of this particular line of research.)

As an article in New America Weekly reported, the human brain has specific reactions to any form of scarcity; it seems that cognitive capacity can only be stretched so far. This has been dubbed the “bandwidth tax,” shorthand for the proposition that scarcity inhibits the brain’s ability to focus on multiple tasks. This isn’t a big surprise to anyone who has agonized over whether to use her limited funds to buy baby formula or see the pediatrician.

Interestingly, the levels of stress associated with poverty can be assessed physically; people produce a “stress hormone” called cortisol, levels of which can be measured.

Haushofer and Shapiro measured them.

Transfer recipients experience large increases in psychological well-being, and several types of transfers lead to reductions in levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Apparently, cash transfers to desperately poor people are followed by increased access to education and medical care, and lowered levels of a stress hormone that interferes with good decision-making.

Fascinating.

 

 

When It’s for Me, It Isn’t Welfare–It’s Economic Development

Welfare is an interesting word. Like so many other politically-charged terms, it means rather different things to the different people who use it.

To the self-defined “makers,” welfare is a “handout”–government takes tax dollars that have been paid by responsible, productive folks and gives them to needy people who may be unfortunate but are probably just lazy or unmotivated. These handouts breed dependency, and they’re morally suspect.

Of course, as many observers of government largesse have documented, when you look at the numbers, most of the “takers”–i.e., the recipients of most of the dollars redistributed by government– are corporations. Big ones, that pay their CEOs, other executives and shareholders extremely well.

The “handout” definition

..is what we’ve been trained to believe, largely by politicians who smirk patronizingly at poverty but pay billions of your dollars to corporations…

Welfare is a many-headed dragon, but you won’t comprehend how big corporate welfare is unless you mine the data.

The independent, nonpartisan watchdogs at www.goodjobsfirst.org compiled the data. Those facts detail 453,000 business subsidies handed out by 289,000 state and local governments, and 164,000 freebies from the federal government.

It’s a $70 billion a year pipeline of public money.

The Chicago Tribune has explained corporate welfare better than I ever could:

Illinois has given away $4 billion over the last few decades with little proof the investments actually produced more jobs, more independence in the hands of working people or even benefit to the state at large. That narrative plays well in Indiana, because the Illinois reputation as a wasteful, even corrupt, welfare black hole is enhanced.

Luckily, Indiana isn’t like that.

In fact, Indiana is far worse.

While Illinois was handing over $4.8 billion, Indiana was sweetening the pot with $7.2 billion. Only six states — including giant economic forces New York and Michigan — have spent more local money this way.

Indiana governments are frugal with you, but less so with big-bucks corporations. The state gives away this money as direct cash, indirect subsidies, publicly financed bonds at low or no cost and tax abatements on the theory that average Hoosiers benefit from priming the economic pump.

Here’s how hard you’ve been pumping.

Indiana has dispensed 7,758 of these welfare goodies since 1986, the vast majority since 2009. (Emphasis added)

So who are Indiana’s “takers”?

You have given $703 million to General Motors. Community Health Systems of Tennessee, which owns Porter Regional Hospital and eight other hospitals in Indiana, has gotten $403 million.

Michelin has 308 million of your dollars. Eli Lilly hauled off $200 million. Indianapolis even gave real estate giant Simon Properties $180 million to build a downtown shopping center. Duke Energy took $204 million. Nestle and its Edy’s Ice Cream operation took $199 million in property tax deferments. Honda got $166 million.

These welfare checks are necessary, as the theory supposes, because they guarantee jobs that otherwise would not exist, although no one much tracks the jobs or the provable tax benefit….

Sometimes the sweet deal does not even pretend to produce jobs.

I guess welfare dollars are only morally suspect and socially addictive when poor people use them to feed their children.

 

 

Being Poor Isn’t Probable Cause

The Indiana ACLU has filed a lawsuit on behalf of a disabled, indigent Posey County woman who was denied financial assistance because her disabilities prevented her from taking a drug test required by the Black Township Trustee.

A number of courts around the country have held that conditioning benefits on passage of a drug test violates the United States Constitution. (Before these programs were struck down, the states that imposed such tests also found far fewer abusers than would be expected in the general population. That makes sense, since people having trouble affording food are unlikely to have money for drugs. But hey–we all know that poverty is evidence of moral turpitude…)

The lawsuit against Black Township and Lindsay Suits, the Black Township Trustee, was filed on behalf of Mary Neale, a resident of the township. Neale previously received aid from the trustee only after submitting a urine sample and passing a drug test. Last year, however, Neale’s physical disabilities made submitting the sample impossible, so she was unable to apply for benefits.

The ACLU’s lawsuit points out that the Township Trustee’s “policy of requiring applicants for assistance to take a urine drug screen violates the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Further, the trustee’s failure to accommodate Neale’s disability when she sought to apply for assistance violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

“The Constitution prohibits this type of suspicionless search and seizure,” said Ken Falk, ACLU of Indiana legal director. “It is wrong to condition the receipt of government benefits on the waiver of fundamental rights that protect all of us.”

The Fourth Amendment requires government actors to have probable cause to conduct a search. Probable cause has been defined as “articulable reasons to believe that a given individual has violated the law.”

Someone needs to explain to the growing ranks of eager-beaver “public servants” that neither poverty nor skin color are probable cause.

Would You Like a Side of Humiliation with That?

Do you suppose the Wicked Witch was green because she envied Kansas Governor Sam Brownback’s heartlessness? I mean, she was from Kansas.

Since his election, Brownback has doggedly followed the True Conservative Playbook, not allowing his state’s resulting fiscal crisis to deter him from his ideological certitude. He’s cut taxes for the rich and services for everyone else; he’s signed increasingly draconian anti-abortion bills and bills eliminating even modest restrictions on gun ownership; and he’s been especially enthusiastic about shaming and punishing the people his policies have hurt the most: the poor.

Brownback has steadfastly refused to expand Medicaid, even though the federal government would have paid for that expansion, but evidently just denying poor folks access to health insurance wasn’t mean-spirited enough for Brownback and Kansas lawmakers.

As the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank recently wrote

Last week, the Kansas legislature passed House Bill 2258, punishing the poor by limiting their cash withdrawals of welfare benefits to $25 per day and forbidding them to use their benefits “in any retail liquor store, casino, gaming establishment, jewelry store, tattoo parlor, massage parlor, body piercing parlor, spa, nail salon, lingerie shop, tobacco paraphernalia store, vapor cigarette store, psychic or fortune telling business, bail bond company, video arcade, movie theater, swimming pool, cruise ship, theme park, dog or horse racing facility, pari-mutuel facility, or sexually oriented business . . . or in any business or retail establishment where minors under age 18 are not permitted.”

Because, you know, freedom.

Of course, poor people in Kansas can still use their benefits to buy guns and ammunition…And really, aren’t you tired of running into all those welfare moms on cruise ships?

Jon Stewart summed it up best in a biting Daily Show opening bit (I will SO miss him!)

Remind me–where in that bible they keep thumping does Jesus tell “good Christians” like Brownback to “shame and demean the poor, for they are wretched in the sight of God”??

 

 

Talk is Cheap

When I was growing up, one of my father’s favorite axioms was “If you are going to talk the talk, you’d better walk the walk.”

Which brings me to some recent reports about the extent to which the Koch brothers–who define liberty as the absence of “dependency” on government–benefit from government’s largesse.

It isn’t only the infamous Kochs, of course, and it is a feature of our current political discourse that drives me up the wall.

Wealthy businesspeople and corporate pooh-bahs are entitled to their political ideologies, but they are not entitled to the embarrassing lack of self-awareness that allows them to lecture poor people about the evils of dependency while they themselves are feeding greedily at the public trough.

Charles Koch is an excellent example, although certainly not the only one. He was recently quoted as saying that “prosperity grows where economic freedom is greatest, where government intervention in business affairs is kept to a minimum.” Yet the Kochs “dependency” on government is extensive:about $85 million in federal government contracts mostly from the Department of Defense, not to mention that Koch Industries benefits directly from billions in taxpayer subsidies for oil companies and ethanol production. Koch industries lobbied extensively against the Affordable Care Act, and is even now running an inaccurate ad campaign against it, that hasn’t kept them from applying for business subsidies that the Act provides.

The list goes on. And on. 

The truth is that most –not all, but most–of the privileged and self-satisfied “job creators” who preach self-reliance are perfectly willing to benefit at the public’s expense. I guess its only “welfare” when it goes to the other guy.