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.
New Orleans I happened to be sitting next to Washington University professor Mark Rank on a post-Katrina panel at Tulane University a decade or so ago. In the intervening years Rank’s research into the real costs of poverty have become the benchmarks for assessment that the current political strategy for dealing with the poor is penny wise and pound foolish. Attention to Rank’s recent work put him on the other end of the microphone recently for a Wade’s World radio interview on our “voice of the people” stations.
Rank and his colleagues looked at the impact of childhood poverty and its short and long-term impacts. Contrary to the conservative ideologues, they found that the cost of such poverty was staggering, not in payouts, but in lost potential and related costs. They were able to crunch the numbers of lost income potential, criminal justice tensions, health care, and other key factors and found that the price tag for our current program of no-prevention-all-punishment is a staggering $1.3 trillion a year equally 5.4% of GDP. Let these figures sink in. By not spending the money on the front end to reduce poverty, nationally we lose that much money by our inaction. In fact, if we were willing to actually try to reduce poverty, the economic benefits would be huge. Rank found that for every single dollar spent to alleviate poverty we would save another seven dollars in national expenditures. Adding a couple of other measures to their study, Rank and his team found that we would save as many as twelve dollars for every single buck we spent preventing poverty.
Yes, that’s the opposite of what we hear in the current drum beating in Congress by the Republican majority that wants to make accessing the social services safety net harder, not easier as Rank proves that it should. They claim they are going to reduce the cost of social and health programs by requiring work. As the Times’ columnist Eduardo Porter pointed out, the economic and historical record of such strategies only proves it is a political and ideological program not a bridge to self-sufficiency. People simply stay poor or get poorer. Porter writes that, “Before welfare reform kicked in [under President Clinton], 68% of poor families got help from the federal entitlement to the poor. By 2016, its replacement served only 23%.” The upshot is that there are four million more poor people than there were.
Looking at Rank’s work it is clear. If we really want self-sufficient families contributing fully to the national economy and easing federal expenditures related to poverty, we need to stop pretending and playing politics with the poor, and start spending the dollars to reduce poverty. Just as we find in the nation’s other wars, the war on the poor is more expensive that solving the problems beforehand.