Monday, October 7, 2013

What Safety Net?: Part One

I'm afraid I don't have much to add about the shutdown apart from what can be found in any major news outlet this side of the pressurized doors of the rightwing echo chambers.  But since the current shenanigans revolve broadly around the size and scope of the American "safety net" I am inspired to say a few things about this slightly mythological entity.

Ask the right-wing politicians who are currently holding the government hostage whether they are ideologically opposed to the safety net, and most will tell you no.  Most still pay lip service to the idea that there is some minimal level of outright destitution below which it would be inhuman to allow our fellow citizens to fall.  This means that they will usually give token support to government programs which protect "the truly needy," the "really desperate," etc.  (This mysterious and amorphous category, you will find, is always somehow left untouched by any cuts to social programs Republicans may propose.)  As one Republican put it who voted for the recent House Food Stamps Bill (which will carve $40 billion dollars out of SNAP (food stamps) over the next ten years if it passes the Senate)-- "I voted for the bill because it will help better target this assistance to people who really need it, [...] The bill makes much-needed reforms to a program that has allowed waste, fraud and abuse to squander billions in taxpayer dollars. These programs should only be used to provide supplemental nutrition assistance to families in genuine need."  

The most obvious misconception at work here is the belief that-- however good the idea of a social safety net may be in the abstract-- it has expanded in modern American society far beyond the reaches of those universally-beloved "truly needy."  Here's a brief rehash of the conventional wisdom from Rachel Sheffield in the National Review:

"Between FY 2000 and FY 2007, [SNAP] doubled from roughly $20 billion to $40 billion. Between FY 2008 and FY 2012, it doubled once more to about $80 billion.  [...] Food stamps is only one of roughly a dozen welfare programs that provide food assistance. And it’s just one of about 80 means-tested welfare programs that provide cash, food, housing, medical care, and social services to lower-income Americans.  [...] Worse than the spending is the culture of dependence created by policies that grew the rolls well beyond the intended population of needy Americans."

This view is based on a profound misreading of reality.  I do not mean merely that the safety net is not as bloated as these views imply.  I mean that it effectively does not exist in America.  Conservatives will reply that this is belied by the fact that half of the budget every year goes to mandated entitlement spending.  They will throw around the $80 billion SNAP budget as a self-evident indictment of government excess and, like Sheffield above, will mention the smorgasbord of available means-tested programs our government has to offer.  Perhaps they will mention the 47% of Americans who receive transfers of some sort from the government, as one particular ill-fated Republican memorably did.

But these do not a safety net make.  Just because there is a net somewhere below a burning building doesn't mean anyone will land in it.  You also have to ask where it is placed.  Largely regressive entitlement programs like Social Security do not act as a safety net for those who really need it-- the people who weren't paying in to the system for most of their working lives.  Means-tested programs, meanwhile, have to do more than exist to serve their purpose.  They have to enroll everyone who is eligible, they have to expand eligibility to accord with real needs, and they must have offices which are geographically accessible to their target populations.

More fundamentally, any "safety net" worthy of the name has to provide an actual guarantee, rather than a set of contingent benefits set aside for groups which one may belong to or otherwise.  It has to set some minimum standard of living below which you cannot fall so long as you are an American citizen.  This is implicit in the term itself, in the uncontroversial definition I provided at the outset, and even in the way Republicans routinely describe it.  But if this really is our working definition, then the United States does not have a safety net, and never did.  This fact has become only more noticeable over the last two decades, as our country transitioned, following the 1996 welfare reform, to a system of in-kind benefits-- to the exclusion of the older regime of cash benefits for the poor.  This means that poor families may have certain basic needs covered by a welter of different programs-- SNAP, Medicaid, CHIP, rental assistance, etc.-- without ever getting cash in their hands.  They therefore may be forced to subsist without any cash income at all even while some of their specific needs are served by particular programs (usually subject to time limits and other restrictions), which can seem like polishing the brass on the Titanic.  Keep in mind, this only applied to families.  Poor childless adults often have no guarantees whatsoever.  There is no net for them on the other end of that fall.

All of this would suggest that there is a large number of Americans with no intervening barrier between themselves and outright penury-- and that this number has been growing ever since the welfare reform.  And indeed, there is significant evidence that this is the case.  As the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan puts it: "The prevalence of extreme poverty [using the World Bank definition of living on $2 a day or less] rose sharply between 1996 and 2011. This growth has been concentrated among those groups that were most affected by the 1996 welfare reform. Despite the presence of a substantial inkind safety net, a significant number ofhouseholds with children continue to slip through the cracks. And it is unclear how households with no cash income—either from work, government programs, assets, friends, family members, or informal sources—are getting by even if they do manage to claim some form of in-kind benefit."

This point is rarely made-- certainly never by Republicans, and infrequently at best by mainstream liberals who tend to view the 1996 welfare reform as a signature achievement of Clinton-era bipartisanship.  But it would be very obvious to anyone who tried to test the theory by actually joining the ranks of those "truly needy."

My plan here is to inaugurate a series of posts on particular in-kind benefit programs in America—starting with food stamps and moving on to health care programs (Medicaid, CHIP, etc.) and housing assistance.  We will see that these limited programs do not even come close to covering everyone who needs it; and that they rely on Victorian-era stereotypes about who is among the "deserving poor" and who is not-- the former category usually being understood to include working parents and children and not childless adults or unemployed parents.  (While most in-kind benefits rightly provide special coverage to children, by the way, one has to ask how likely it is for children to become enrolled-- or even to hear about-- in-kind benefit schemes for which their parents have never been eligible.)  We will see that a genuine "safety net"- understood to be a minimum guaranteed standard of living for every American-- does not exist.

All of this does not yet address the question of whether the safety net paradigm is the appropriate one.  Right-wingers, libertarians, etc. might argue that guaranteeing safety from extreme destitution is counterproductive-- that it reduces the incentive to work, creates a dependent underclass, and undermines the traditional role of informal social networks, family, community, church, and private charity in mitigating the worst effects of poverty and unemployment.  (I have run together these various objections from the right even though they militate against one another-- if food stamps or welfare payments reduce the incentive to work, after all, then so does private charity.)

Or-- and I include myself here-- you might criticize the safety net approach from the opposite end of the political spectrum.  The safety net, after all, assumes and tolerates a basic level of poverty in any human society.  It waits to catch those who fall into this condition and subjects them to means tests to prove their are sufficiently desperate.  This is a profoundly humiliating and stigmatizing ordeal for those who must pass through it.  The safety net also sets up a resented, and readily-identifiable underclass of beneficiaries who are liable to have their benefits stripped by cynical politicians playing on public hostility.  This class is even likely to face in some circumstances a near-criminalization of poverty itself (think of Dickensian work requirements, "community service" performed in exchange for food stamps, etc.)  

The safety net is billed as conspicuous public charity.  This is not a terrible thing.  Charity is a fine, worthy, and necessary act so long as we live in a world where the only alternative is destitution for some.  Poetic conceits aside, it really is worse to starve than to beg for assistance.  Most people would ultimately rather be given a homily and a few nicks to their pride than spend the night in the streets.  
As the character Dobbs in B. Traven's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre reasons in just such a situation while cadging for pesos on the Mexican streets: "He let the man have the pleasure of preaching, as a small return for his money. 'Well, if I get fifty centavos for listening to a sermon, it may be hard-earned money, but it is cash,' he thought. So he waited."  

But it is also fundamentally and inevitably the case that charity is an unequal social arrangement.  It therefore tends to inspire contempt, resentment, and moral sadism in those who give the charity-- and debilitating self-doubt in those who receive it.  It also empowers the "givers" to place ever more onerous conditions on their financial support (after all-- where would the "takers" be without them?  What right do the "takers" have to demand anything, the ingrates?).  To take another example from literature, there is a scene in The Grapes of Wrath which left a vivid impression on me as a high-schooler in which a character becomes enraged at an attempt to give her charity and observes: "If a body's ever took charity, it makes a burn that don't come out. [... At the Salvation Army] We was hungry-- they made us crawl for our dinner.  They took our dignity [.... W]e don't allow nobody in this camp to build theirself up that-a-way.  We don't allow nobody to give nothing to another person.  They can give it to the camp and the camp can pass it out.  We won't have no charity!"

This is already pointing us to an alternative arrangement more conducive to social health: one in which, as Brian Barry puts it, the goal is poverty prevention rather than poverty relief.  This goal would be achieved through tying cash benefits as much as possible to episodes in the life cycle common to all, or  a majority, of citizens.  It would eliminate poverty as a consequence of goals similar to but distinct from simple poverty reduction: goals such as providing people at the age of 18 with money to spend on higher education, offering universal pensions at retirement age, equipping all new mothers with money for child care, etc.  

Such an approach would actually generate considerable constituencies of political support, unlike the safety net which pits a majority of tax payers against a tiny minority of resented welfare recipients.  As Barry suggests, the consistent resistance of Social Security in the U.S., for instance, to all attempts to reduce its funding from the right (in contrast to the slow withering of all means-tested programs under Republican and Democratic administrations alike) is probably related to the fact that it is an entitlement rather than a means-tested benefit.  The more of the work of poverty prevention that could be conducted on this model, the more citizens would feel that they themselves-- rather than an ill-defined swathe of ungrateful and undeserving poor-- actually have a stake in preserving these programs.  Thus the mutually destructive giver-taker dialectic outlined above could be evaded.

But regardless of the merits of the safety net paradigm, it is no good to pretend it has actually been put into practice in American society-- still less to maintain that it serves populations far beyond its intended scope.  This is profoundly disingenuous.  

If Republicans want to argue that the safety net is a bankrupt ideal they are free to do so.  They are perfectly at liberty to argue that the proper role of government should be cast in the mold of the lukewarm Victorian morality ridiculed by Arthur Hugh Clough in his famous verse: "Thou shalt not kill; but need not strive/ Officiously to keep alive."  

But you cannot say out of one side of your mouth that government should offer guarantees against outright destitution to the "truly needy" and out of the other that the safety net is too wide.  As we will see over the next few weeks, there is no net.  No net, no safety.  No dice.

No comments:

Post a Comment