Sunday, April 19, 2015

Again - Why Gov. Brownback's Welfare Decision Is Wrong and Could Rebound On Other Gov't Benefit Recipients

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I know the hard hearts, austerity hawks and "entitlement" haters won't like this, but it is time to return to Sam Brownback's ill -conceived notion for limiting what Kansas food stamp-welfare recipients can purchase.  I am hoping this time around something sticks to their craniums and shows - especially if they are receiving any kind of government largesse- including Social Security or VA benefits, they ought not to be so quick to hurl stones at others living in "glass houses". (Which umbrella covers all who get benefits of ANY kind)

A must -read op-ed here is that by Emily Badger of the Washington Post ('What Kansas Gets Wrong with Welfare Decision').  She comes right out by saying "the logic behind the decision is problematic in at least three really big ways"  after already observing the canard of framing the decision in terms of "protection for the taxpayer who shouldn't be asked to help people who squander gov't money on 'vices'".

This was also exactly the point made by Bill Maher's 'Real Time' guest Michelle Caruso-Cabrera of CNBC on Friday night's  discussion panel. She noted that  exactly the same case could be made concerning Social Security recipients - hence not being able to splurge their benefits on whatever they desired,  including giant burgers and fries  This case would be made, of course, by the same austerity hawks who already believe Social Security to be a "welfare" program and they inhabit both parties but especially the GOP. They include:  former Comptroller David M. Walker, CFR hotshot Richard Haas, the Fix the Debt people, as well as all those who subscribe to Peter G. Peterson's "entitlement" cuts enclave.

This is why - she insisted - it is better to "privatize" Social Security - as Gee Dumbya wanted to do back in 2005, so then taxpayers of the austerity mold would have no comeback. "Social Security beneficiaries would then be able to spend their money on whatever they wanted" she said, "because it would be their own money from their own private accounts". Of course, when Bill pressed her on what would have happened had such private accounts (mainly invested in the stock market) been around in '08 when the market crashed  -she couldn't offer much of a retrospective defense.

But her argument struck me forcefully, because if one considered it carefully, this is exactly the sort of reverse argument the austerity fetishists could summon against any form of gov't benefit. Where it came from or why wouldn't matter to them (as Caruso asserted) you were receiving taxpayer -funded benefits and you ought not be able to blow it on any damned thing you wanted, including pot, booze, porno flicks, or giant Five Guys burgers. The fact the origin of the benefits didn't matter was the major point and showed why the hard hearts supporting Brownback needed to back away- for their own future protection if nothing else!

Anyway, moving on to Emily Badger's other reasons, these include:

1) Economic: There's virtually no evidence that the poor actually spend their money in the rash ways advertised by Brownback.  The poor are actually much more savvy about how they spend their money because they have much less of it - as Gweneth Paltrow learned when she tried the "SNAP Challenge" and gave up after 4 days. (She'd already exceeded the $29/ week  limit.)

2) Moral principle of equivalence:  Similar to the point CNBC's Michelle Caruso made - we "rarely make similar demands of other recipients of government aid", including VA benefits and Social Security.  She observes: "We also don't require Pell Grant recipients to prove they are pursuing a degree that will get them a real job as opposed to say philosophy or English Lit. We don't require wealthy families who cash in on the home interest deduction to prove they're not using their homes as brothels."   In other words, the strings we attach to gov't aid are uniquely for the poor - as if being poor itself is somehow immoral-  requiring criminal monitoring- like for a felon wearing an ankle bracelet.

3) Prejudicial perceptions:  In many ways the lack of application of a moral principle of equivalence (2) arises because Americans who receive other government benefits fail to see they are also in the recipient class. They don't recognize that, like the poor, they are also getting something from the government and hence - at taxpayer expense.  The issue, again, isn't the specific benefit form - whether Medicare, VA benefits, or Social Security - but that ALL come at taxpayer expense.

But this is covered up in two ways: (i) the belief that their benefits are different because they are "special" or "earned" so can't be classed with SNAP or welfare, and (ii) their benefits are always "submerged" (hidden or more concealed) than compared with a SNAP recipient who must actually produce a special card (see image) at the grocer's so is immediately recognized as "on welfare".  Thus, the SNAP card inadvertently becomes a "badge" of shame that enables other gov't beneficiaries to instantly make judgments.

Political scientist Suzanne Mettler, cited by Ms. Badger, calls the judgmental gov't  beneficiaries part of the "submerged benefits state". This means their own benefits are more "out of sight, out of mind". Thus a SNAP card and a welfare check are "incredibly visible ...while tuition tax breaks and Medicare are not".   This submerged state, then,  is evidence of a basic and pervasive double standard.

How to get around it? Various solutions have been proposed including direct deposit of welfare monies  as well as food stamp monies,  into special bank accounts,. The poverty -stricken person then gets a regular debit card that doesn't stand out like some shameful "scarlet letter"  the next time she goes to the supermarket. It's only fair, and it ceases to tar people on account of being in poverty - likely through no fault of their own. (E.g. contracting a chronic disease, or sustaining a severe disability that forces them from the work force.)

Let's also bear in mind the words of author Charles Reich ('Opposing the System', pp. 125-26):

"The claim that government is free to reduce or cut off welfare and other forms of support for people in economic need is totally mistaken. Welfare is not a gift, nor is it, despite frequent assertions, a transfer from those who earn a living to those who are not.  Welfare is rather an obligation from society – and from those who are working- to those who have been deprived of work and the opportunity to earn a living. If we want to speak of transfers, it would be more accurate to say that those with a secure place in the economic system are enjoying a transfer of wealth from those who have been excluded from the economic system. Welfare then is partial compensation for a deprivation of livelihood that allows others to work"

The hard hearts who would deny the poor some minor pleasures, even playing an arcade game or two, buying a lotto ticket (they can dream, can't they?) , a bag of M&Ms  or a swim, need to process that or else possibly admit to being hypocrites in favor of a double moral standard. Because in others' eyes (e.g. austerity hawks), THEY may well be seen as the ones on "welfare"!

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