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.