Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Ebenezer Scrooge Effect

This is my latest article through the Yahoo! Contributor Network. Please help by clicking the link and actually finding a way to let Yahoo know you like it.

In the run-up to the 2012 United States national elections, the US economy – especially the federal budget seems to be a major talking point. One of the buzzwords that have developed is the word “entitlement” in reference to Federal Aid programs for the poor, the disabled and the elderly. These programs include, but are not limited to: Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security (both retirement and disability benefits), SNAP (aka Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – formerly known as Food Stamps) and TANF (aka Temporary Aid to Needy Families – formerly Aid to Families with Dependent Children). These programs provide a safety net for millions of United States citizens during the current economic climate. They are also being demonized by labeling them “big government”
What many pundits and politicians are trying to say is that these programs are not necessary, and have weakened the ability of the private and religious sectors in the United States to care for what could be argued to be the most vulnerable members of our society – the elderly, the infirm and children. I could not disagree more strongly with that attitude. The dark side of the American Dream narrative is a propensity to blame the poor for their poverty. It is the illusion and delusion that the United States of America is a meritocracy where everyone is treated fairly and anyone can pull himself up by his bootstraps if he just tries hard enough.

I personally feel that the case for the necessity for these programs was made best by none other than Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the only man to have been elected for more than two presidential terms because of the results he got from the implementing of the New Deal – including the medical programs mentioned above and Social Security. He proposed what has become known as “a Second Bill of Rights” in his State of the Union message delivered on January 11, 1944.

This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty.
As our Nation has grown in size and stature, however—as our industrial economy expanded—these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.
We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. "Necessitous men are not free men." People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.
In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all regardless of station, race, or creed.
Among these are:
The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the Nation;
The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;
The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;
The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;
The right of every family to a decent home;
The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;
The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;
The right to a good education.
All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.
America's own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for our citizens. For unless there is security here at home there cannot be lasting peace in the world
Read more at the American Presidency Project: Franklin D. Roosevelt: State of the Union Message to Congress

This is a far cry from saying that, in effect, that the people who want these things are because of impoverished conditions inherently unworthy of them. That attitude eerily echoes the words of Ebenezer Scrooge in the classic work by Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol where in Stave (chapter) One he states the following:

 “I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned—they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”
“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”
“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

The establishments Scrooge mentions in the above passage are the Workhouses and Debtor’s Prisons which existed at the time. The increasingly difficult requirements that many states have imposed on being able to access the governmental safety net have become in many ways the equivalent of those “establishments” and are seemingly designed to keep eligible people from accessing the services they need. The problem with the “surplus population” as we experience it in the modern day amounts to the same problem as in December 1843 when Dickens initially put these words on paper. Who are they?

The pundits and politicians agree that the Medicare and Social Security programs should be relatively unmolested because they want to keep the votes of our senior citizens. However, those who say that Medicaid, SNAP and TANF are being abused paint a picture of people who do not want to work and earn a living rather than families like that of Scrooge’s clerk Bob Crachit who needed to have two (or more) incomes just to meet basic bills for housing, food, transportation and medical care. They are the ones that the Ghost of Christmas Present refers to when he tells Scrooge:

“Man,” said the Ghost, “if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child. Oh God! to hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!”

To give an example of this in the modern day, let us consider a two-parent family with an 18-month old child. They actively search for work at least five days each week to no avail and are dependent on SNAP benefits (which are solely income-based) to ensure that they and their child are fed. Because they want to keep a roof over their heads, this family decides to apply for TANF, a program which after 1996 under President Clinton has its eligibility requirements determined on the state level which are seemingly designed to deter participation. These requirements include things that would seem harmless on the surface, but are in actuality counter-productive to the stated goals of the program.

In the state that our model family lives in applicants for this program have to participate in “work activities” which is a requirement that on the surface would appear to not be a problem, but in practice can be much harder on a family than they need to be:
The program has a requirement for all applicants to seek employment and be involved in a work activity from the day they apply for benefits. If approved, you must participate in a work-related activity.
The required number of hours per week will be determined by the age of your children and whether or not you are in a two-parent household.
Work activities may include, but are not limited to:
Approved education programs or job skills training;
Volunteer work or community service;
Job readiness and job search;
Full and part-time employment; or
If you are a minor parent, you must attend high school or a GED program and live with your parents or another approved adult.

What this state does NOT tell you on their website is that they can tell you that you must do “Community Service” for roughly 33 hours each week FOR EACH PARENT if you are in a two-parent household with “access to approved childcare”, until the date of your “orientation” – which can be scheduled for almost a full month after your intake appointment. Also, they can tell you that this community service is ideally done during the Monday through Friday workweek and during normal business hours despite the fact that those are also statistically the best times to seek and find employment. They also do not tell you that the benefits amount to less than one-half of minimum wage.
When this happened to the model family, they pointed out to their caseworker that the community service requirement would hamper their ability to find paying work and were told that they could job-hunt in the evenings and on weekends. They were also told that even though the mother in the family has health related issues that would hamper her ability to fulfill the required community service hours unless they could produce documentation within five calendar days – despite having no means to get the required documentation within the time frame due to no medical coverage that there was no way to allow the family access to benefits unless they complied with the requirements – including finding “approved childcare” within that five calendar day window.

The model family, despite their need for aid, was forced to conclude that these requirements were not able to be met by them. In other words, they would “rather die than go there”. Another example of this is illustrated in a recent article written for the Catholic Moral Theology blog entitled “American Scandal & Disgrace: the Criminalization of Poverty” where the example of a family in a different state from my model one is used as illustration:

Using the example of Kirsten (laid off and unable to find work) and Joe Parentes (unable to work due to injury), Ehrenreich exposes the numerous ways TANF is structured to criminalize and dehumanize the poor.
When the Parentes finally got into “the system” and began receiving food stamps and some cash assistance, they discovered why some recipients have taken to calling TANF “Torture and Abuse of Needy Families.” From the start, the TANF experience was “humiliating,” Kristen says. The caseworkers “treat you like a bum. They act like every dollar you get is coming out of their own paychecks.”
The Parentes discovered that they were each expected to apply for 40 jobs a week, although their car was on its last legs and no money was offered for gas, tolls, or babysitting. In addition, Kristen had to drive 35 miles a day to attend “job readiness” classes offered by a private company called Arbor, which, she says, were “frankly a joke.”
Nationally, according to Kaaryn Gustafson of the University of Connecticut Law School, “applying for welfare is a lot like being booked by the police.” There may be a mug shot, fingerprinting, and lengthy interrogations as to one’s children’s true paternity. The ostensible goal is to prevent welfare fraud, but the psychological impact is to turn poverty itself into a kind of crime.

The Parente family, had always imagined that people turned to the government for help only if "they didn't want to work” although they found out differently when he was injured and she was laid off from waiting tables due to the recession.
The experiences of both the family in the article and our model family are far from unique. The ONLY difference that many people experience between SNAP and TANF is that there is a right to food stamps. You go to the office and, if you meet the statutory definition of need, they help you. For TANF (aka welfare), the street-level bureaucrats can, pretty much at their own discretion, just say no.
The safety net that our political Scrooges want to remove exists to prevent conditions from deteriorating to what existed during the Great Depression. In a recent article for Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (2001) writes something very telling “the constant suspicions of drug use and theft that I encountered in low-wage workplaces should have alerted me to the fact that, when you leave the relative safety of the middle class, you might as well have given up your citizenship and taken residence in a hostile nation”

This is NOT the America that our Founding Fathers envisioned, with a citizenry “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” as stated in the Declaration of Independence. It should not be the America we settle for now. Otherwise, we have no idea what horrors OUR collective “Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come” will show us.

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