December 22, 2016

Picking on the poor

This op-ed of mine came out in today's Gazette-Mail. It has a math error I correct at the end. My bad. Forgot to move a decimal point.

In the 1870s, the nation was slammed by one of those periodic depressions that punctuate our economic history. Although largely forgotten today, it was known as “the Long Depression” for its lingering effects. It lasted for 65 consecutive months — longer than the 43-month contraction of the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Around 18,000 businesses failed between 1873 and 1875. Unemployment rose above 8 percent. Millions of Americans were jobless, hungry and homeless. In those days, there was no such thing as unemployment insurance, food assistance programs like SNAP or supports for the elderly like Social Security.

Some might call it a free-market paradise, although those hit by it probably didn’t.

In New York City, thousands of jobless workers, nearly half of them women, turned to one of the only forms of public assistance. They got to sleep in their clothes on hard benches in police station houses. And they had to be out at dawn in search of their next meal.

That’s a big credit to the humanity shown by the NYPD, but there was a catch. The homeless were only allowed to sleep for two nights a month in any one station house. For this reason, they were called “revolvers.”

That sounds like a grim existence, but there were those at the time — who had full bellies, money in their wallets and a roof over their heads — who condemned “the over-generous charity of the city” on the grounds that it “might sap the foundation of that independence of character, and that reliance on one’s own resources.”

It reminds me of the saying of Anatole France that “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

One might hope that over nearly 150 years of bitter experience that that kind of thinking would have been excreted from the body politic. Instead, it’s alive and well and is being promoted in West Virginia by out-of-state groups like the Foundation for Government Accountability, which aims to tighten the screws on poor people, many of whom are presumed to be “fraudsters” living too high on the hog.

Two groups targeted are people receiving TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), which is often referred to as “welfare,” and those receiving SNAP (formerly food stamp) benefits. There are all kinds of wild misconceptions about both.

People tend to vastly overestimate the number of people receiving welfare cash assistance and the level of benefits. But according to the DHHR, in September 2016, there were only 7,678 cases statewide. Of these, most were child-only cases with no adults in the benefit group, most of whom were kids living with a grandparent or other relative and who received no other support.

The number of adult cases (i.e. parents with kids) receiving cash assistance was only 2,698. That’s down from around 35,000 when “welfare reform” went into effect in the 1990s.

I did the math, dividing 2,698 adults getting TANF by the 2015 West Virginia population estimate of 1,844,128. That amounts to way less than 1 percent of the population. To be exact, it’s 0.001463022089573 percent. Not that anybody seems to be counting.

Damn, now that’s a problem.

As for the high-on-the-hog part, the TANF maximum benefit for a family of three is $340 per month. Or $11 and change per day per family. Or less than $4 per person per day. If that’s high, we’re talking about an extremely short hog. If people think it’s fun to live on that, I’d suggest they try it.

Benefits were actually slashed by $100 per month back in 2004, and the cuts have never been restored.

The typical adult receiving TANF is a single female, with two kids and some or all of a high school education, who might be a survivor of domestic violence and who has to comply with some stringent rules to receive temporary benefits and is subject to serious sanctions for failing to meet requirements.

Sounds like a dangerous fraudster to me.

Maybe we should call in an airstrike ...

Then there’s the SNAP population. According to the USDA, “SNAP continues to have one of the lowest fraud rates for federal programs.”

It’s true that the West Virginia caseload is bigger than TANF, more than 350,000 in 2013. But around two-fifths of these were children and one-fifth were elderly or disabled. Around one-fourth are adults living with children.

Many of the adults who receive SNAP benefits work at jobs that pay so little that people have to depend on this kind of help go get by.

Back to the hog. The average household benefit is $255 per month, which comes down to $126 per person or around $1.40 per meal. Try that for a while.

One might think that the best way to address that problem is to improve job quality, but some find it more fun to mess with poor people by making benefits like this harder to get, even though this would take federal money out of the economy that supports agriculture and retail jobs in grocery stores.

One thing that particularly seems to set some people off is the shocking discovery that some benefits might be spent in multiple states, although you might have that in a state where around half of the counties border other states or where, God forbid, people visit family members who live elsewhere or who are serving in the military.

I guess that could be remedied by putting collars on poor people that give shocks when the borders are crossed, kind of like the invisible fences some people use with dogs. Or by bringing back patrols like those used in the South before and after the Civil War to keep certain populations in line.

Or we could decide that we have better, less petty and more honorable things to do than stomp on people who are already down.

I think I’ve made up my mind.

No comments: