Paperwork and Bureaucracy as a Weapon Against the Poor

New Orleans   Conservatives always complain about bureaucrats and the vast governmental bureaucracy. It is painful to realize how paperwork and bureaucracy are used as not-so-secret weapons to deny mandated benefits designed to help families and children from eligible, fully qualified families. Success is defined by the ability to put barriers in the way of families already challenged and often desperate in order to deny them benefits that effect the education, health, and nutrition of their children and of course their quality of life. It is a policy weapon that is fully understood and used deliberately.

This isn’t a new problem. ACORN ran effective programs and campaigns designed to achieve what we called, maximum eligible participation. My book Citizen Wealth made the case for the huge difference it would make to low-and-moderate income families if barriers were removed so that families received the full benefits of entitlements even in political and economic environments that were unwilling to improve or expand benefits. The Reagan era crackdown on welfare recipients even before the so-called Clinton “reform” was all about using the bureaucracy to deny welfare and food stamp benefits. The Obama administration’s eliminating barriers in the wake of the Great Recession led to soaring rates of participation in food stamp programs as well as the health and education benefits of expanding benefits during the crisis.

A piece in the New York Times underscored the cynicism of punitive paperwork as public policy. The reporter cited one example after another. Washington State in 2003 required people to reestablish eligibility twice a year rather than annually, and it successfully knocked 40,000 children off of Medicaid in one year. Around the same time Louisiana wanted to increase the number of eligible children covered, “so officials simplified the sign-up process…and enrollment surged, and the number of administrative cancellations fell by 20 percentage points.” Citizenship verification using birth certificates mandated by Congress in 2006 dropped children’s Medicaid coverage until the requirement was eliminated by the Affordable Care Act in 2010. When Wisconsin started using data from other programs to determine Medicaid eligibility, similar to what ACORN’s Service Centers did when enrolling people based on data from EITC and income tax filings, they added 100,000 children in one day. The knife cuts both ways, unfortunately in this political climate it is mainly being used to cut people off.

All of this has the affect of opening and closing the dam, not of catching deadbeats or scofflaws, and politicians and governmental bureaucrats know this like they know their own names. The Trump administration’s signal that it will approve mandatory work requirements proposed by Kentucky already, and likely to be followed by another dozen states, is categorically NOT about making sure that more able-bodied are working – or volunteering – or whatever, but about slimming the rolls, saving money, and starving and killing lower income families and their children.

Making poverty a punishment is a despicable public policy.

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Women’s Voice and Women’s March

#MeToo discussion at year end organizing meeting in New Orleans

New Orleans   Many women hit the streets once again all around the country at the anniversary of the first Women’s March. The theme was more political activism as the new face of resistance with the looming midterm elections providing the focal point. Numbers in local cities seemed to be running at half of last year’s totals, but that was to be expected at this point when resilience is twin to resistance.

One of the more interesting workshops for the Year End/ Year Beginning meeting of our organizers top organizers from ACORN Canada, Local 100, and other operations in New Orleans was how to transfer the recognition and cultural shifts of the #MeToo moment into the meetings of our workplace and community organizations as well as through our media outlets. Some organizers told stories of members complaints of harassment from landlords demanding sex in exchange for repairs and late fees, and questioned whether their organizational response would have been the same now in this climate as it was a couple of years ago when the issue presented. Judy Duncan, the head organizer of ACORN Canada as well as other office directors in Canada, the United States and Local 100 believed that they needed to talk to local leadership, many, if not most, of whom are women about making a place in the agenda of meetings in the coming months so that women had a space to talk about incidents of harassment and abuse and groups could debate and take effective action.

John Cain from KABF and others involved in AM/FM radio programming thought that the stations should ask hosts to raise the issue on their shows and encourage call-in’s, referral, and complaint. Others thought regular public service announcements encouraging women to come forward and giving them voice could be helpful.

Appropriately, there was also discussion about how women’s voice and perspective were integrated into the internal staff and leadership dynamics of organizing as well, especially since organizing has so long been characterized as male dominated field, and despite progress over recent decades, invariably contains vestiges of such a history, tradition, and stereotypes. There was an interesting discussion on whether organizers should counter the devaluation of women’s voice internally by formalizing relationships to break the pattern. Likely addressing everyone as Mr, Mrs, or Ms would not work, but there is a reason that old labor culture embraced addressing co-combatants as Sister and Brother, or comrade as was common in the South African struggle and others, or citizen during and after the French Revolution. Breaking habits in order to signify respect and as markers that we need to deal with each other differently would not be a trivial step forward in breaking old patterns and habits.

Beth Butler, head organizer of ACORN affiliate, A Community Voice, ended the workshop by letting everyone go around the room and indicate what they would do to implement the consensus and to create a different climate for women. The pledges were deep and sincere. We will have to make sure the followup is of a like kind, both here and everywhere else.

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