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.


Tradeoffs Between Time and Money

timeormoneyNew Orleans   Two professors reported on the results of a study they made about the choices people made between time and money. They reported that people were happier and more satisfied with their lives when they chose to value time over money. They led into the piece by mentioning that one of the economists – a man – faced the choice analytically over spending time over a weekend with a new baby. He was offered a reasonably lucrative opportunity to conduct two days’ worth of workshops across the country which would have helped pay for the cost of daycare and other associated expenses of a new child, or he could have chosen to spent the time at home with the child. We were sort of left hanging on this one, but given their survey result and his argument, he clearly chose time over money.

All of this seems fine and dandy, but it also stops way short of being about reality. To have any real meaning such a study would have to try to determine what the financial benchmark would be that would realistically allow an individual the luxury to choose. Furthermore, there are two edges to this sword when you grab it, but we’ll get to that.

At the simplest level you have to have money in order to choose time. The professor was making a choice on allocation of his resources, but he started with sufficient resources to allow him to have a choice or at least believe that he had a choice and to believe that the consequences of either decision would not have been fatal or painful or face public scorn. And, in fact his time itself had value, as evidenced by the fact others were willing to pay him to expend it. An interesting question for him, as an economist, might have been what level of payment for these two workshops would have established a tipping point where he chose the work and the money, being able to rationalize that it would allow him to essentially purchase more time in the future.

For marginal workers and lower income families all over the world who lack baseline resources, there simply is no choice. If someone shows them the money, they have to go for it. And, in fact there’s another public risk for lower income individuals and families, especially those that get any kind of public support or resources. This is the other edge of the sword. This is the “welfare Cadillac” problem. A significant part of society wants all lower income individuals and families to never have a choice, but to always choose money, meaning work, because they believe against all evidence that work is always available, that nothing is too menial, and that anyone essentially choosing time is stealing their money and should have no choice. When it has to do with women on welfare with children, the same folks might want their wives to stay at home with their children for the sake of the children as their view of a social good, but want to deny such a choice to anyone receiving public aid.

Admittedly all of this was on my mind recently as I spent more than 30 hours in order to travel in one day from Berlin to Amsterdam to Washington, DC to Toronto and then wend my way through rental car hell and pouring rain to my final destination all as the result of a series of decisions solely based on being forced to choose money and assign zero value to time. The pre-dawn train and flight from Berlin to Amsterdam, is what had allowed visits with many activists, organizers, unions, and parities in Hamburg and Berlin in the first place. The cost of the roundtrip to Amsterdam was at the lowest possible cost to allow a peoples’ party to marshal its resources and the last and cheapest flight to Toronto and the cheapo 24-hour EZ-Rental Car operation was about saving every looney and toony for ACORN Canada.

Are people really happier with time rather than money? Sure, if that have enough money to start with and the right to make a choice in their best view of their interests. How many people are excluded from the right to make such a choice? Without that information, it would seem the conclusions are both irrelevant and trivial.