Families versus Workers, Morality versus Self-Interest

New Orleans     When Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son, and one of the most prominent evangelists in the country and someone with in-and-out privileges at the White House says the Trump family-separation anti-immigrant policy is “immoral,” you know there’s something truly evil in this mess.  Trump has even expressed reservations about family separation as a policy in the past, but the mad dog anti-immigrants of the administration, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and adviser Stephen Miller, have somehow managed, in the words of conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, to make this “the wickedest thing done by this administration so far.”  There’s no one in America who wants to look at that long list, so you know this ranks as the worst of the worst.

So, we now have 2000 children in what some very sober-minded commentators are calling Nazi-like concentration camps that are converted Walmart supercenters along the border.  The Trumpsters are lying about this being a policy forced on them, but the fig leaf covering this atrocity is the notion that the nuclear option of family separation will act as a deterrent.   We have to ask whether families going through the trauma of fleeing their home countries in fear for their own lives and those of their children can really effectively be deterred under any circumstances.  Trump’s draconian policies in fact might deter some families, but these families are going to go somewhere, and some or many will still rate the odds and come here.  We can look around the world or at our own national experience.  We cannot stop migration.  We can potentially control migration, but the right is wrong to believe immigration can be banned, no matter how evil our policies might become.

Douthat argues that a least-worse policy would be to ramp up E-verify, the program that scrutinizes employers’ workforce in order to root out and deport any undocumented workers.  The irony here is so rich.  The paradox is so painful.  This isn’t going to happen, because in a period of less than 4% unemployment, employers, especially in the service industries are crying for more workers.  Business wants immigrant workers and will continue to demand them.  Neoliberalism loves a mobile and transient workforce but hates the families they leave behind and has no plan or place for the ones that workers bring along.

Reading about the suicide of Anthony Bourdain, I realized I had never read his classic, Kitchen Confidential.  I have now done so, and it’s a wonderful read in addition to being chock full of insights.  Bourdain is being mourned in some quarters as an unabashed advocate for immigrants and their rights, which is all true, but it is also true because he saw his Latin American kitchen staff as his hardest, most faithful, and easiest to manage workers.  The number two lesson he offered at the end of the book was “learn Spanish.”  Bourdain’s commitment, it’s fair to say, was as much business as personal.

Business doesn’t want E-verify.  They want cheaper, harder working, even precarious employees. They also don’t want anything to do with their families.  The United States will be more willing to endure human rights complaints from the United Nation and around the world for the inhumane conditions of our family-separation child-incarceration policies than we will be willing to create problems for businesses.  Case closed, but what a tragedy.

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Welfare, Just the Facts, Ma’am

New Orleans     Trump’s aides in trying to explain the president’s feelings about cutting away more of what is left of the safety net including food stamps and housing subsidies as well as his support for work requirements on those programs and Medicaid say that he calls them all “welfare,” a word that he sees as pejorative.  When the poor are nothing more than politics regardless of the policy, it’s worth remembering the true facts found on the ground.

Recently Professor Fred Brooks of the Georgia State University School of Social Work shared with me the results of a multi-city survey of welfare recipients in Georgia done in conjunction with the department of welfare there trying to understand their program’s impact on recipients.  His summary conclusions are valuable to share in these polarized times when facts are constantly in a fight with ideology.

Brooks summarizes four basic conclusions from his team’s survey:

  • They found most families remained poor even with employment. Although 60 percent of TANF leavers were employed in some fashion, average hourly wages were very modest. Of families with the parent employed, 52 percent remained below the federal poverty level.
  • Poverty rates fell dramatically when all forms of income and safety net benefits, such as food stamps and Section 8 housing vouchers, were counted as income. Calculated this way, the percentage of the Georgia sample in poverty fell from 52 percent to 36 percent.
  • It was common in their survey of people who had left welfare to hear stories of “wage theft.”
  • Debt turned out to be a huge issue.Often politicians refuse to think about this, so quoting from Brooks’ conclusion more fully might be helpful as he writes: “The average participant had $18,709 in debts. This exceeded the average yearly employment income, which was $17,814. Of the sample, 51 percent had an average of $23,276 in student loan debt, though only 8 percent obtained college degrees. Among study participants, 38 percent had medical debt averaging $4,179. This finding is not surprising because 29 percent of the adults in the sample had no health insurance.”

Everything in Brooks’ Georgia survey of recipient and those who had left welfare indicated that the safety net was often the thin line of survival for many.

Welfare is no crutch.  It’s a lifeline.

We need to change “welfare as we know it” in President Clinton’s famous line.  We need widespread expansions of the safety net, increases in wages, accessible and affordable childcare, housing, and other programs if we really want families to be self-sufficient.

That’s the facts whether politicians like hearing them or not.

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