Ehrenreich Nails Sorry Safety Net

ACORN Citizen Wealth Community Organizing Financial Justice

Barbara_Ehrenreich_2_by_David_Shankbone New Orleans On my current obsessive Citizen Wealth beat in the heart of the current depression, it was bittersweet reading this morning as the unparalleled Barbara Ehrenreich excoriated the current administration and the total fallacies that have now been exposed in lack of support for the suddenly poor or the ongoing destitute.  I’m going to share a couple of her points and recommend highly a visit to her piece:  Op-Ed Contributor:  A Homespun Safety Net

Ehrenreich begins with a stark indictment as she equates the failure of the government’s safety net NOW with the Bush failure in Katrina.

“So far, despite some temporary expansions of food stamps and unemployment benefits by the Obama administration, the recession has done for the government safety net pretty much what Hurricane Katrina did for the Federal Emergency Management Agency: it’s demonstrated that you can be clinging to your roof with the water rising, and no one may come to helicopter you out.”

Take the case of Kristen and Joe Parente, Delaware residents

She nails the fact that the system is designed to frustrate applicants who desperately need the help and essentially criminalize the process.

“Meanwhile they were finding out why some recipients have taken to calling the assistance program “Torture and Abuse of Needy Families.” From the start, the experience has been “humiliating,” Kristen said. The caseworkers “treat you like a bum — they act like every dollar you get is coming out of their own paychecks.”

Nationally, according to Kaaryn Gustafson, an associate professor at the University of Connecticut Law School, “applying for welfare is a lot like being booked by the police.” There may be a mug shot, fingerprinting and long interrogations as to one’s children’s paternity. The ostensible goal is to prevent welfare fraud, but the psychological impact is to turn poverty itself into a kind of crime.”

Hitting the point harder farther along in the piece, she writes:

“It’s no secret that the temporary assistance program was designed to repel potential applicants, and at this it has been stunningly successful. The theory is that government assistance encourages a debilitating “culture of poverty,” marked by laziness, promiscuity and addiction, and curable only by a swift cessation of benefits. In the years immediately after welfare “reform,” about one and a half million people disappeared from the welfare rolls — often because they’d been “sanctioned” for, say, failing to show up for an appointment with a caseworker. Stories of an erratic and punitive bureaucracy get around, so the recession of 2001 produced no uptick in enrollment, nor, until very recently, did the current recession. As Mark Greenberg, a welfare expert at the Georgetown School of Law, put it, the program has been “strikingly unresponsive” to rising need.”

The story on food stamps is a little better, but the criminalization continues:

“People far more readily turn to food stamps, which have seen a 19 percent surge in enrollment since the recession began. But even these can carry a presumption of guilt or criminal intent. Four states — Arizona, California, New York and Texas — require that applicants undergo fingerprinting. Furthermore, under a national program called Operation Talon, food stamp offices share applicants’ personal data with law enforcement agencies, making it hazardous for anyone who might have an outstanding warrant — for failing to show up for a court hearing on an unpaid debt, for example — to apply.”

I loved the fact that Barbara adds a personal note in underscoring not only the experience that many of us, as organizers, have found all our lives in dealing with low income communities around issues like dues, but also the evidence that recent national polling has shown about the greater generosity of poorer families than those that are more wealth.

“I’ve never encountered the kind of “culture of poverty” imagined by the framers of welfare reform, but there is a tradition among the American working class of mutual aid, no questions asked. My father, a former miner, advised me as a child that if I ever needed money to “go to a poor man.” He liked to tell the story of my great-grandfather, John Howes, who worked in the mines long enough to accumulate a small sum with which to purchase a plot of farmland. But as he was driving out of Butte, Mont., in a horse-drawn wagon, he picked up an Indian woman and her child, and their hard-luck story moved him to give her all his money, turn his horse around and go back to the darkness and danger of the mines.”

And of course she underscores her own experience with yet more devastating research from scholars:

“In her classic study of an African-American community in the late ’60s, the anthropologist Carol Stack found rich networks of reciprocal giving and support, and when I worked at low-wage jobs in the 1990s, I was amazed by the generosity of my co-workers, who offered me food, help with my work and even once a place to stay. Such informal networks — and random acts of kindness — put the official welfare state, with its relentless suspicions and grudging outlays, to shame.

BUT there are limits to the generosity of relatives and friends. Tensions can arise, as they did between Kristen and her mother, which is what led the Parentes to move to their current apartment in Wilmington. Sandra Smith, a sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley, finds that poverty itself can deplete entire social networks, leaving no one to turn to. While the affluent suffer from “compassion fatigue,” the poor simply run out of resources.”

And, finally in a tour de force that caught me totally by surprise, but which I have to admit I also completely loved, she had mentioned that the family, the Parentes, were obliged to do community service in exchange for their meager TANF benefits.  It turned out that she was assigned to work for ACORN in Delaware.

“In the meantime, Kristen has discovered a radically different approach to dealing with poverty. The community agency she volunteered at is Acorn (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), the grass-roots organization of low-income people that achieved national notoriety during the 2008 presidential campaign when Republicans attacked it for voter registration fraud (committed by temporary Acorn canvassers and quickly corrected by staff members). Kristen made such a good impression that she was offered a paid job in May, and now, with only a small supplement from the government, she works full time for Acorn, organizing protests against Walgreens for deciding to stop filling Medicaid prescriptions in Delaware, and, in late June, helping turn out thousands of people for a march on Washington to demand universal health insurance.”

The story had an inspiring ending there, as Barbara intended, but being realistic, Ehrenreich also pointed out at the column’s conclusion that despite having found work as an organizer through the crucible of this experience, the family was now fighting eviction with not enough money to find a new place.

Citizen wealth?  Hardly!  This should be a national disgrace, but now a hard year into the recession already, and this is story is still a rarity despite the lives ruined, the hopes dashed, and the personal tragedies piling up all around us.