The Racism and Rural-Urban Divide Behind Work Requirement Exemptions

New Orleans   Imposing work requirements to punish the poor seems to be spreading like a virus around the country.  It’s an ugly, mean spirited kind of thing, but a closer look at the way state politicians are trying to carve out exemptions to these requirements reveals even more about the self-serving blindness behind the exemptions and the direct racism and parochial bias at work.  Michigan, Kentucky, Ohio, and Virginia are among the states trying to both impose work and carve out exceptions.

Michigan seems among the most blatant.  There white legislators are trying to punish the poor in the cities where minority populations dominate while protecting their own constituents in rural, white areas by exempting anyone living in counties that are suffering from 8.5% statistically recorded unemployment.  I say “statistical” because virtually no expert in labor economics believes that we accurately capture real levels of unemployment.  I don’t want to get on a tangent though, because in Michigan there are no legislators who do not know the dire poverty experienced in many cities like Detroit and Flint, and the extreme level of unemployment in these cities or the fact that the populations are majority minority, yet by making counties the trigger area for the exemption, the work requirements will block access to benefits there.

The Department of Agriculture in dealing with work requirements for food stamps for example classifies smaller geographical areas as “labor surplus” areas in order to provide exemptions.  This is certainly better if policy makers were trying to be fair rather than punitive, but it’s still not good enough.

Why aren’t other factors relevant as qualifications for exemption like access to affordable transportation.  Once again Michigan’s majority Republican legislators are revealing their true selves on this count.  Auto insurance is ridiculously high for residents of the city of Detroit.  On the doors with ACORN’s Home Savers Campaign there we were finding rates that ran $4 to $6000 per year.  When families owned cars, they were often registering them with friends or family who lived outside of the city or riding naked, both of which have risks.

Lawyers and others rightly point out that these kinds of exemptions in Michigan and around the country are inviting civil rights lawsuits by the score.  We better hope they are filed quickly, because people could starve without access to food stamps, die homeless because they are blocked from housing by new requirements proposed by HUD, or fall at the doorways of hospital because work requirements in many states block them from Medicaid.

The America of forced work and denied benefits is a brutish and nasty place.


The Transparent Cynicism of Medicaid Work Requirements

Little Rock    Every spring soon or later I sit down for an annual cup of coffee with Ernie Dumas, former editorial writer for the Arkansas Gazette and currently still an op-ed columnist for the weekly Arkansas Times, but mainly an old friend from “back in the day” where we mark the ways our paths have crossed for decades and continue to do so.  There is an order to our conversations.  First, we usually comment on how “bad” it has become.  Then we talk about how we continue in our various ways to pound our heads against the wall, no matter what we just said in the first instance.

I brought up a squib I had seen in the local paper that morning about the new work requirements that the conservative Republican governor of Arkansas had mandated for Medicaid recipients in the state.  Dumas mentioned that he had just written a piece about just how Catch-22 bizarre these new rules were in the last issue of the Arkansas Times.  He jumped up and found one in the coffeehouse still, and I promised I would read it later.

Lordie!  If anything, Dumas might have soft pedaled how draconian these new, first-in-the-nation Medicaid work requirements really are.  It’s one thing to talk about Scrooging up the requirements and pretending that there are a bunch of scofflaws trying to dodge paying labor in order to be provided by the government.  This is the ideological myth of the “able-bodied” that tries to fog over the fact that the overwhelming majority of Medicaid recipients are children, the infirm or incapacitated, or older people caught in poverty before they qualify for Social Security.  The Arkansas plan is not about being tough and doing a search-and-save mission to find the able-bodied and require them to provide 80 hours per month of some kind of labor or volunteer work in order to maintain qualifications for Medicaid, although ostensibly that’s the actual requirement.  No, the Arkansas plan is clearly only about one thing only:  forcing people off of Medicaid.

Here’s the real story in Dumas’ own words:

“Governor Hutchinson will institute big cuts in medical insurance for poor adults this spring my making Medicaid enrollees get on their laptops every two months and prove they are working at least 80 hours a month….If they can’t do that they lose their health care for the year.  Wait:  They probably don’t have computers or email accounts, would have a clue about how to use them or to build the evidence needed to keep their insurance, and may not live someplace with easy broadband coverage.  The state’s answer:  This will give them the energy to join the digital society.”

According to Public Integrity’s study Arkansas ranked 49th in the country for the lowest level of internet subscriptions and the worst digital divide for the poor in the country.  Even arch conservative Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton and the current head of the FCC have pointed out the deficiencies in internet access particularly in rural Arkansas.

Cynically, Arkansas politicians will go to war on the poor by claiming they are helping them join the modern technological world.  This is a mandate to work coupled with an unfunded mandate to buy a computer and pay for wireless.

This one is easy.  It’s not about rewarding work.  It’s about punishing the poor for their poverty.


Please enjoy Land of Greed by Miss Emily featuring Gord Sinclair & Rob Baker.

Thanks to KABF.