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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The New Poor Peoples’ Campaign for 2018

New Orleans   Thinking about the new year on the first, fresh day of 2018, let’s make a note to pay close attention to the development of the New Poor Peoples’ Campaign on the 50th anniversary of the old Poor Peoples’ Campaign.

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. led the first Poor Peoples’ Campaign in March 1968 in one of his last efforts before his assassination in Memphis, which will also mark its tragic 50th anniversary in 2018. This time around the Rev. William Barber, well-known for his Moral Monday crusades in North Carolina as head of the NAACP in that state, is one of the co-chairs of this effort. In the same vein, the 2018 edition is also being touted as a moral crusade with a significant religious and church-based appeal.

The details are starting to emerge on the planning. In a nutshell, the campaign plans to kickoff on Mother’s Day in the spring in forty or more cities hoping to mobilize tens of thousands in weekly protests around different themes critical to supporting the advancement of lower income families and culminating in a June march on Washington. Targeting states and cities is a smart adaptation of the first, more DC-centered campaign and its difficult logistics and politics 50 years ago. Much of the impetus behind the new campaign is coming from religious denominations and though grassroots organizations are noted none of them are mentioned on the campaign’s website or in most of the articles thus far.

Tactically, the new campaign is putting civil disobedience at the center of its recruitment. The early website is largely a placeholder, but is clear in asking for supporters whether they are willing to engage in civil disobedience. The campaign is signaling that it is not going to play the numbers-game, but wants to make its mark with the quiet rectitude of arrests.

Will it work? Will people care? Who knows, but besides the strength of the campaigns historical connection and its ability to link current struggles to the old civil rights movement and some of its veterans, including King, the timing may end up important for other reasons. House Speaker Ryan is widely telegraphing his interest in going after entitlements, and that’s a euphemism for targeting the poor, elderly, disabled and powerless. Senate Majority Leader McConnell has said that he doesn’t want to go there in an election year for fear of fueling the resistance with even more fire, but he has also contradicted himself several times. All of which should make them targets and could synchronize with the timing of the campaign making whatever pressure the effort could mobilize critical in withstanding even more draconian cuts to social service programs and the families that benefit.

It’s worth staying tuned and being ready to respond as the details of this version of the Poor Peoples’ Campaign become clearer. Regardless, anything that focuses on the plight of lower income families in America today is a good thing, so these efforts need to be met with good will and encouragement in the new year.

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