The Poor Need Cash

New Orleans       Other countries are increasingly getting the message:  the poor need cash.  It’s not enough in the lowest income categories to stake a claim on education, training, or jobs, especially low paying jobs inadequate to support families.

Africa’s Tanzania’s welfare scheme is called the Productive Social Safety Net and provides at about $13 per month.  Ethiopia’s program was only in the rural countryside, but has now expanded to the cities as well.  From 2000 to 2015, the countries of sub-Saharan Africa launched an average of 14 new programs per year, up from seven per year between 2001 and 2009.  Brazil saw huge gains with its Bolsa program of cash incentives to the poor.

Admittedly, these programs are meager in comparison with European social service provisions, but even some of the weakest economies in Europe still realize that cash is king for the poor.  Italy is now guaranteeing that its poorest will at least have the equivalent of $10,640 per year by topping off whatever income or benefits up to that and investing almost $9 billion to do so.  Even some policy makers and legislators in the United States are reckoning with the problem of cash for the poor as technology and corporatism try to force customers to handle their point-of-sale costs by eliminating cash.  Cities like Philadelphia and states like New Jersey are concerned that banning paper money amounts to discrimination and are passing laws to prevent cashless stores.

Recently, I have started noticing this more for two reasons.  First, I lost my credit cards going through a TSA line on way to Germany, Albania, Bulgaria, and Ireland recently, and had to depend solely on cash in foreign countries, heightening my awareness.  More seriously, I read a painful and jarring book on my travels, $2.00 a Day:  Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn Edin and Luke Shaefer.  After fifty years of organizing lower income families, the book didn’t tell me anything new as much as it was a vivid reminder at how little some things have changed and even worsened for the very poor during this period, especially after President Clinton’s so-called welfare reform.

One point that was inescapable though was how badly the very poor, living on little or nothing, are desperate for cash and the lengths that they are forced to go in order to obtain it in a period of declining to nonexistent cash welfare benefits.  Edin and Shaefer are truth tellers so there’s no sugar in this coffee.  They compare how much the discount rate is for bartering food stamps for cash in rural areas as opposed to cities.  This is real life, and it hurts.  Yes, it’s illegal to sell food stamps, but it’s a double bind for the very poor, if they have to have cash for utility bills or school clothing, it also means that they have less food with the increased risks.  Their stories of informal labor and “special friends” remind me of my days organizing with welfare rights when the ladies used to talk about the men who “brought them groceries” in exchange for tender favors.  The very poor have to do what has to be done in order to survive.  That’s not a social welfare system but a survival mechanism, and a scandal for the world’s richest country.

Perhaps even more heartbreaking and enraging for me to read was their report that the obstacles to applying for and receiving what is left of cash welfare through the TANF program are now so high in most states that many of the very poor believe that either welfare no longer exists or it is not worth the time and trouble to apply because of the constant rejections.  In the war against the poor that just adds more numbers to the body count.

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