Increase Austerity, and Welfare Becomes More Popular!

New Orleans   Something very surprising, and I think very important, is happening about attitudes about welfare.  Finally!  Unfortunately, it’s happening in the United Kingdom, rather than in the United States, but let’s take the wins where we find them, because there are lessons there that politicians and policy makers need to heed about the limits to the abuse of lower income families.

The biggest takeaway seems simple.  If the government proposes and implements draconian austerity programs that scale back benefits, and worse, attack the benefit recipients, there will come a point when the public reacts and pushes back to support more generous benefits and to oppose further cutbacks.

In the USA, in recent weeks in the middle of the a 10-year economic cycle of success for corporations and the rich, we see current rule proposals that would take four million off of food stamps who are automatically certified since they are on TANF or welfare benefits.  Similarly, it would knock a half-million children off of automatic certification for free or reduced school lunches.  This is just the latest attack in a decades’ long erosion of protections for the poor that was only momentarily relieved in the worst days of the recession under President Obama.

In the UK, there’s a big, fat backfire, as reported in The Economist.  After the conservatives promised $18 billion in cuts to welfare benefits, they rode that to election victory in 2015.  But what they accurately call “the political pinata” isn’t working now.  Polling in Britain indicates that where more than 50% once thought benefits were “too generous,” and now that number has fallen to only a bit above 40% in just two years.  More importantly, 56% now believe that cuts “would damage too many people’s lives.  That’s huge!

Furthermore, the Ronald Reagan lies about “welfare Cadillacs” and other scurrilous attacks on recipients aren’t working in the public square either.  A study of news’ mentions of welfare fraud and abuse in the UK, finds that they have gone from almost 700 annually in 2010 down to less than 200 in 2018.  It’s not working to use the poor as a kickball there, so they’ve had to dial it back and tone it down.  Praise, lord!

It’s not all cheery in old England of course.  The numbers have also dropped because immigration from the European Union has been reduced, and part of the opposition had been to so-called freeloaders from abroad.  The Economist refers to a report by Professor Ben Baumberg Geiger at the University of Kent arguing that these changes are not systemic as much as they are “thermostatic…Once policies become harsher or softer than the level preferred by the public, voters send a signal and the government adjusts the policy ‘temperature’ accordingly.”  They cite the current government slightly increasing the working-age benefit as an example of climate change on this issue.

Sounds like magic, doesn’t it?  Not sure when this wand will wave over the United States or whether or not we have hit the bottom of the thermometer that would move politicians to release their death grip on the necks of poor families, but let’s hope we’re close to point where benefits must rise, so families can survive.

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Please enjoy “Can I Go On” by Sleater-Kinney. Thanks to KABF.

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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.

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