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.


For the Sake of the Poor, Goodbye and Good Riddance to Speaker Ryan

New Orleans    Yes, there could be worse coming from the Republican side of the aisle if they have the opportunity to pick a replace for Wisconsin’s Paul Ryan as Speaker of the House of Representatives.  Louisiana Congressman and current Majority Whip Steve Scalise is a good example of how much worse the country could be with him in that position.  Not only does he hail from the old white-flight, David Duke district, but he still wears the mark of his relationships with far right and racist groups in the state.  Regardless, if we care about low-and-moderate income families, we have to bid good riddance to Paul Ryan.

Ryan seems like a Boy Scout.  He presented as clean cut, clean living and straight shooting, but his pretend intellectualism and make believe policy expertise was a lot of hooey and phony-baloney voodoo economics.  It should be enough to simply point out that his legacy claim to the recent tax cut giveaway to corporations and the rich is repellent to anyone and everyone committed to equity in the country.  Worse though has been his constant attack on any level of entitlements from Social Security to healthcare to welfare benefits to even food stamps.  He hides behind a claim of financial stability and sustainability for Medicare and Social Security, but his tax cut leadership makes him a hypocrite at best and a charlatan at worse.

His policies claim he wants to get able-bodied people to work, and he can find plenty of support from the wingnuts that write the editorials for The Wall Street Journal, but there’s little more than a mean-spirit behind these pronouncements.  There is already a work requirement of sorts involved in food stamps so the real effort is to extend it to the age of 59 by pretending there are jobs out there for older Americans for the small benefit they receive from food stamps.  Two-thirds of recipients are exempted from work requirements regardless because of their age, the fact that they are children, disabled, or carrying for children under than six years old.  What’s the beef?  Ryan and his gang don’t like the fact that inequity has meant that even as the recession recedes there are still more than 40 million Americans on the program.  Ryan needed to wake up and face reality of the American economic divide in the same way he has now faced the reality of his own future.

Of course, this is only really good news if the work gets done to elect a Congress that more reflects the country and its priorities and therefore protects entitlements and improves the safety net for those who have no choice or opportunity without it.  Ryan has made the project more urgent for his party and for the rest of us in the fight for what kind of country we really are and want to be.