What I’m Pondering This Father’s Day: Memoirs by Some Notable Black Authors

June 17, 2017

Last year long about this time, I read a tribute by Walter Moseley to his father Leroy. His dad, Walter says, taught him “to bob and weave in life and art,” which, if understand it, means to agilely protect himself.

The lessons were Leroy’s own stories about growing up poor and oppressed in harshly racist Louisiana, learning to do various sorts of paying work and to protect himself after he fled to New York City — this after his mother died, his father left and the relatives he resorted to wouldn’t care for him.

Leroy wanted to write pulp fiction, but realized that it was impossible for an impoverished man in the Deep South to become any sort of writer then. “Hardly easier now,” Walter interjects.

Leroy headed west and settled in Los Angeles, having realized that more of his draft-age friends died in Houston than in the Second World War. He became a “fiercely loving father, ” prepared all his kids’ meals, but left Walter free to choose whatever he wanted to do when he grew up.

So Walter decided to be an artist –“someone who makes something from nothing.” That, in his case, would be something from the “stuff” of Leroy’s stories — “of pedestrian, tragic life.”

A telling snippet follows. Leroy decides to go to an all-white café. He orders a tuna melt, gets served and exclaims in his later telling, “Man, that tuna melt felt like freedom.”

Then the man next to him drops dead.  “I realized right then and there,” he said, “that, freedom aside, no man, no matter who he is, can escape his death.”

Yet that wasn’t his “ultimate gift,” though the insight surely became part of it. The gift itself, imparted through a wave and smile as he was dying, was “an indomitable spirit and the talent of taking the beauty and refusing the rest.”

It’s nice to reflect again on how Walter learned to “attend to ordinary suffering, to the love that persists in its midst … and the attendant grim humor.”

He wasn’t rejecting anger. Nor lessons like the talk black parents feel they must have with their sons. But what I’ve heard and read suggests that those are more consumed by continuing anger at violence against blacks, though not to the exclusion of helping their kids avoid it.

And in some cases, they’re messages to us, like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s potent book-length letter to his son.

I’m brooding on blacks’ memoirs of their youthful days with their fathers in part because we’re about to celebrate Father’s Day — officially at least. But I’m also working my way through Gregory Williams’ Life on the Color Line.

The line is one Williams discovered — that he looked white and thought he was, partly because his black father passed as Italian until chronic financial, booze-fueled recklessness brought him to seek housing with his unmistakably black mother.

Things go generally from bad to worse, so far as his father is concerned — and ultimately his brother, who rebels against his father’s demands and related, though unexpressed needs, e.g. making sure he’d gotten to the home his mother had exiled him to before passing out in the street.

Greg responds instead by giving his all to qualifying for a college education — and the financial assistance he’d need, of course. We know he succeeded. We know that, in some perplexing manner, his relationship with his father, as processed through this memoir had something to do with it.

We — daughters, as well as sons, on the white side of the line as well as over into the colored—know how life with our fathers (or without) helped shape the way we are today.

I still recall especially fraught and endearing moments with my father, who died many years ago. I convert them into unspoken words — from raw memory to memoir snippets.

No art nourished that way. But probably political leanings, since I recoiled at my father’s bootstrapping conservatism, even when he couldn’t bring himself to vote for Republicans any more.

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One Safety Net Time Limit Down, More Sweeping Limits in View

June 12, 2017

Here in the District of Columbia, the Council has just made history by eliminating the time limit it had imposed on all Temporary Assistance for Needy Families participants. No state has done this, DC Fiscal Policy Institute’s Executive Director notes in an emailed budget wrap-up.

And proudly because DCFPI played a major role in developing and then advocating for a policy that will ensure very poor families some cash assistance, activities that may get them jobs so they no longer need it and child care so they can meet those activity requirement

The Council’s unanimous vote for a policy more protective than what the Mayor originally proposed is maybe the biggest high point of this budget season.

Meanwhile, we see proposed nationwide safety net program limits of a whole other sort — some retreads, but others new inventions, though champions of so-called entitlement reform have been laying the groundwork for a long time.

SNAP Benefits Limits

The law that created TANF also set a time limit on eligibility for SNAP, but only for able-bodied adults without dependents They usually can receive benefits for only three months in any given three years unless they’re working or participating in a work preparation program at least half time.

Generally speaking, however, SNAP benefits have no time limit. People with incomes low enough to qualify can receive them until their incomes break the threshold.

The Trump administration, as you may have read, would shift 25% of SNAP costs to states — $116 billion during the first 10 years. States could reduce the value of the benefits they provide, notwithstanding ample evidence that current benefits don’t cover the costs of a healthful diet.

But they would also have to adopt new restrictions. These collectively seem to save the federal government an additional $77 billion or so. They would, among other things, revise the way the Agriculture Department sets benefit levels.

As things stand now, they’re based on household size. The more members, the larger the benefits, though they’re smaller on a per person basis due to assumed economies of scale.

So, for example, a two-member household can receive as much as $357 a month, while the maximum for a four-person household is $63 less than double that.

On the flip side, a household with only one or two members will receive no less than $16 a month. Most beneficiaries in this group are elderly and/or disabled.

The Trump administration would deny them any minimum benefit. More than 1.9 million people, most of them living alone would have to spend more on food — and perhaps more importantly, lose the incentive to remain enrolled and thus readily eligible for more assistance if needed.

Returning to the household benefits scale, we find an unadjusted per person increase for each member beyond the eighth. The administration would cap benefits at the six-member rate. Larger households would have to feed about 170,000 people who’d now be factored into their benefit.

This flies in the face of several trends. One is a significant increase in multigenerational households, i.e., those with at least two adult generations. The younger of them or even both may have children in the home too.

We also have unrelated families living together — in some cases, one allowing another to double up rather than rely on their community’s homeless services, in others, more permanent arrangements based on shared rent and other household costs.

Why any policymaker should seek to discourage them when they’re obviously beneficial and cost-saving in various ways, e.g., as an alternative to nursing home care, as a source of child care so that a parent can afford to work.

The answer, one infers, is to cut SNAP costs by about $180 million a year — food insecurity and out-and-out hunger increases notwithstanding.

Disability Benefits Limits

The Trump administration also seeks to cut both Social Security programs for people with disabilities.

For Social Security Disability Insurance, its budget would have Congress establish an expert panel to identify ways to keep workers with disabilities out of the program initially and/or get them out later.

It would also test its own strategies. This, one could guess, is because the expert panel might not recommend changes as radical as those the budget counts on to save about $58.7 million during the first 10 years.

It’s nevertheless the case, as I’ve said before, that experts have proposed various return-to-work proposals that could work for SSDI beneficiaries, as well.

What’s altogether other is the benefits limit the administration proposes for Supplemental Security Income — modest monthly benefit for elderly, blind and otherwise disabled people with little, if any other cash income.

Families can receive a benefit for each of their children severely disabled enough to qualify. As with adults, the amount reflects a complex income calculation, but benefits for each child are the same.

The Trump administration would retain the full benefit for one eligible family member, but ratchet benefits down for the rest. This effectively reduces the income that supports all family members — and $9 million in federal safety net spending.

It’s not the first effort to cut SSI funding. The House Republican Study Group tried to get the program block granted in 2012. The House Budget Committee decided to instead adopt the same cost-cutting approach we find in Trump’s budget.

Both have justified it by alleged economies of scale, e.g. the fact that housing for three people doesn’t cost a third more than housing for two.

But we’ve reliable research  showing that even the maximum benefit didn’t cover the extra costs of raising a severely disabled child. Sixty-two percent of families with just one with SSI benefits suffered at least one material hardship.

To borrow from Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell, the folks who’ve shaped Trumponomics and translated it into specifics seem to think “that it doesn’t suck enough to be poor.”

 


Too Quick to Pronounce Trump Budget Dead on Arrival

June 8, 2017

I recently said I was torn between delving into Trump’s proposed budget and picking at less-reported angles because the package was DOA in the Senate.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says no such thing. Some Republicans may balk at some details, but the major thrusts replicate those in budgets the House has passed ever since Republicans gained control in 2010.

These include repeal of the Affordable Care Act (natch), block granting Medicaid and SNAP (the food stamp program) and a range of cuts to non-defense programs that depend on annual appropriations.

We’ve also seen, though CBPP doesn’t mention them, proposals to bar workers without Social Security numbers, i.e., not officially authorized to work for pay, from claiming the refundable Child Tax Credit, even though most of the children who’d benefit are U.S. citizens.

And let’s not forget tax cuts tilted heavily toward very rich people and thriving corporations — revenues the government could otherwise use to shore up programs that serve low-income people’s immediate needs and as both parties are fond of saying, build (or rebuild) the middle class.

What this means is that we could see a joint budget resolution that delivers program-slashing instructions to the committees that initiate definitions of what programs in their area can and can’t do and the maximum agencies can spend on them.

If the House and Senate can then agree on a resolution, the actual spending and/or tax cuts need only a majority vote in the Senate. So Democrats don’t have their usual chance to block bills they object to.

More U.S. Government 101 than perhaps any of you need. What matters more here is legislative strategy — not, one notes, an expertise our President brought to the White House or seems to be learning. But he’s got some high-level officials who have it.

Basically, when House and Senate leaders begin with a proposed budget as extreme as Trump’s, it sets the point from which they move toward the center, which may still be far from a true center that would satisfy, if not altogether please both Republicans and Democrats.

We’re still a long way from a budget for next year. But we’re not that far from the day when Congress must let the Treasury Department borrow more funds so that government can pay what it already owes.

The far-far right House Freedom Caucus says it won’t vote for any debt ceiling increase unless it’s packaged with spending cuts. The “leverage point” one member refers to is more than an idle threat.

The House Republican majority used it six years ago to force agreement on the across-the-board spending cuts and subsequent caps that will automatically kick in again if Congress and the President don’t agree to eliminate them or at least ease their blow.

What’s now called sequestration has already squeezed a range of programs that meet critical needs, including services and supports for low-income people.

Real dollar losses alone leave them with 13% less, CBPP reports. Factor in population growth — a likely measure of increasing needs — and losses rise to 18%.

Only so much blood you can squeeze out of a turnip. And the turnips we’re talking about didn’t have much, if any extra to squeeze.

Best hopes, I suppose, are Congressional Republicans who’ll support their state and/or local economies, e.g., farm state representatives, who know how SNAP increases demand. Also, of course, Democrats.

Their leaders have made very clear that they’ll not support a debt limit increase conditioned on tax cuts for the rich. Beyond that, the scene’s still murky.

Some recent reports suggest that Democrats may put other conditions on the bargaining table, rather than insisting on a “clean bill,” which Trump’s Treasury Secretary wants, but not, it seems, his Office of Management and Budget Director.

As if their boss didn’t generate enough turmoil in enough policy-relevant areas.

I’d like to end with something we progressives can do to push back against threats to even more programs than I’ve cited , e.g. Social Security Disability Insurance.

We surely can make our views known to our elected representatives — unless, of course, if we’re disenfranchised residents of the District of Columbia. We can donate to advocacy organizations, if we can afford to, join their social media campaigns, etc.

Obviously looking here for an antidote against a sense of powerlessness.

Well, I sez to myself, you recall the early days of the Reagan administration — how it tried to roll nearly 90 programs into five maxi-block grants, paired with a 25% funding cut and how much less bad things turned out in the version Congress approved.

Advocacy organizations formed issue-specific and linked coalitions. They, including those I participated in, shared information, developed strategies, lobbied and testified. I’m confident we made a difference.


Medicaid Cut Puts Schools in a Jam, Children With Disabilities and Others Disadvantaged at Risk

June 6, 2017

Our Secretary of Education seems still confused (charitable word) about our equal opportunity in education laws.

She was asked again in a Congressional hearing whether her department would deny federal funds to private schools with students who have vouchers her budget would pay for if they discriminated. And she said again she thinks that’s a choice for states to make.

But the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act is one of three major federal laws prohibiting discrimination in federally-funded education programs. And it’s by far and away the most specific.

Schools must assess children with disabilities and develop plans for each that will meet their unique needs, enable them to learn as much as they possible can of what’s expected of their classmates and in the “least restrictive environment,” i.e., by including them in regular classrooms and other such settings, except in special child-specific circumstances, rather than routinely segregating them.

States get federal grants to help defray their school districts’ costs. But that’s not the only source of funds they use. They tap Medicaid to reimburse them for the costs of screening and providing appropriate health services to their low-income disabled students.

They may also use Medicaid funds for the early and periodic screening, diagnostic and treatment services that the law entitles all enrolled children to. Their parents may not even know their children can get them until the school informs them and perhaps helps them apply.

Needless to say, I hope, the House Republicans and Trump administration plans to convert Medicaid to a block grant or set a per beneficiary reimbursement limit have school officials very worried.

A recent member survey conducted by the American Association of School Administrators tells us why, both in summary form and numerous personal responses.

Once the federal government shifts costs to states by whichever means, they foresee a losing competition with other institutions that rely on Medicaid funds, e.g., hospitals, doctors, other providers like the Federally Qualified Health Centers I wrote about.

States will have the flexibility to choose who’s eligible for their programs, what services they can receive and, as we now learn, time limits perhaps, work requirements, premiums they’ll have to pay or get kicked out of the program.

States may, AASA says, decide that school districts can’t get any Medicaid funds at all. But schools will still have to comply with the IDEA requirements. Where will that money come from?

A top line answer is that schools would lay off health professional staff and others with expertise in educating children with disabilities. Alternatively — or perhaps in addition to — schools would cut back on services for all students in so far as they legally can.

AASA and some members quoted cite mental health services in particular. About one in five children show symptoms indicating needs each year.

Neglect them and children suffer not only anxiety, depression and other effects due to trauma or toxic stress. Their academic performance suffers, setting them on the path to drop out when they’re teens.

Their abilities to control their emotional impulses, plan and manage their activities productively and relate well to others suffer too.

These so-called social and emotional competencies obviously give those that have them advantages in both their personal lives while young and long thereafter — and advantages that make getting and keeping a job every so much more likely.

Seems like a lot I know to pack into a post on only one — and hardly the most consequential — impact of what Trump’s roughly estimated $1.3 trillion cut to Medicaid funding would do — or even the House Republicans’ $839 billion.

But the well-being and futures of school-age children ought to matter to all of us. And as I said, it’s not only children with disabilities those cuts would put at risk, but all their peers.

Most at risk are the other educationally disadvantaged students for whom Title VI of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—now called the Every Child Succeeds Act—aims to make the equal educational opportunity guarantee in the Civil Rights Act a reality.

Trump’s budget would increase ESSA by $1 billion, but channel the extra only to districts that promote parental choice.

It would also siphon off money from high-poverty schools by shifting each student’s share to any publicly-funded school s/he transfers to. And we know that’s not going to be another high-poverty school.


A Slice of the Trump Budget’s Shrunken Pie for the Needs of Low-Income People

May 26, 2017

Well, we finally have the full version of Trump’s proposed budget for upcoming fiscal year. And we’ve all seen and/or heard news reports, op-eds, social media takes and the like.

They generally have one of two focuses — new cuts, both total and by cabinet-level department or cuts to certain specific programs.

These tacks are basically the same as when the administration released its skinny budget preview, except that we now have a shift prompted by a range of cuts to safety net programs that don’t depend on annual appropriations.

I expect to deal with some of both, but for the time being, I’ll stick with a large perspective on a subset of programs intended to serve human needs — the non-defense discretionary programs, i.e., those annually funded as Congress chooses and the President approves, as Presidents generally do.

We have a broad range of these, of course. They include, bur aren’t limited to programs that support:

  • Some healthcare services, mainly for veterans.
  • Sufficient, healthful diets for mothers and their young children, plus food for nonprofits to give low-income people and/or serve as meals.
  • Public education, mainly for low-income children and those with disabilities.
  • Other opportunities to achieve financial self-sufficiency and security.
  • Child care so that parents can participate in such programs and afford paying jobs.
  • Safe, stable housing that leaves enough income to help pay for other needs.

The Coalition on Human Needs chose 185 such programs and tracked their funding from 2010, the year before Congress passed the Budget Control Act, through the budget the federal government’s operating under now.

All but 32 had been cut, either directly or for want of adjustments to keep pace with inflation, it found. Nearly a third had lost at least 25%, even though the Obama administration and wise heads in Congress agreed to temporarily modify the spending caps the BCA imposed.

Seems that Republicans over on the Senate side aim for another bipartisan agreement to suspend or at least modify the caps, lest they have to ax spending below the too-low levels already in force.

What’s sure as dammit, as the Washington Post reports, is that they’ll not try to push through the extraordinarily harsh cuts the Trump administration proposes as-is.

Most of the new news rightly focuses on the billions of cuts to so-called mandatory spending programs — also sometimes called entitlements.

They’re mandatory because the laws that authorize them require the federal government to spend as much as necessary to cover the costs or its share of costs for the benefits of everyone eligible to receive and enrolled to get them.

Truth to tell, I’m torn between delving into these unprecedentedly sweeping proposals to gut the safety net and giving them short shrift because they’re DOA. So I’ll end here with just a few examples of the proposed NDD cuts and consequences.

The Trump budget would deny affordable housing to more than 250,000 of the country’s lowest-income individuals and families who could otherwise have vouchers to cover all but 30% of their income for rent.

At the same time, it would reportedly increase tenants’ rent responsibility to 35% of adjusted income and impose a $50 minimum on those who had no or virtually no countable income at all. Income regardless, tenants would have to pay for their household utilities, which current law folds in with rent.

Public housing, which subsidizes rents at the same rate, would lose another $18 billion — nearly 29% more than it’s lost through this fiscal year. The stock available has been steadily shrinking due to lack of funds for repairs and renovations.

For these, as well as other reasons, we have and foreseeably will have some 550,000 people who’ve become officially homeless or very soon will unless they get some one-time or temporary help with rent.

Some have been homeless for a long time or repeatedly because they need not only an affordable place to live, but services to help them with physical and/or mental disabilities.

The Trump budget, however, would cut the grants local communities receive for shelters, permanent supportive housing for the chronically homeless I’ve just cited and homelessness prevention or when that’s not possible swift support so people can leave shelters for affordable housing.

The budget would terminate the Low Income Housing Energy Assistance Program, another homelessness prevention program — and a lifesaver too, since people, especially the frail and elderly can freeze to death in their homes or die because they depend on medical equipment that uses electricity, as 26% did when the last survey was conducted.

Roughly 6.7 million families would lose the subsidies they need to keep their homes warm if Congress moves from under-funding LIHEAP to excising it from the safety net altogether.

Turning then to those job opportunities. The Trump budget would cut a range of programs that help people prepare for gainful work — adult basic education, including preparation for GED exams, career and technical education programs in high schools and colleges and the diverse programs funded by the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.

The Trump budget would cut WIOA funding by 43%, as compared to 2015 funding, the Center for American Progress reports. Nearly 571,000 workers nationwide — close to half of the total then served — could be left to muddle through with only what has failed to net them a decent paying job or any at all.

Pretty ironic — or one might say hypocritical — for a President who’s made such a big deal about job opportunities and, more recently, about how he’ll change safety net programs so they no longer discourage work.

More as the dust clears or perhaps as I find angles you’re unlikely to see highlighted in the plethora of conventional and social media stories, analyses and overt budget-bashing.

Meanwhile, we do have ways we can support the defensive campaigns that will give Congressional Republican pause.

CAP and fifteen partners, including CHN have launched an initiative called Hands Off—and #HandsOff as a hashtag for those who want to tweet about programs they want protected.

They’ve got a website where we can contribute stories about how the programs have helped us and what would happen to us, our families or others we know if they’re cut. With our permission, they’ll share our stories.

Reporters, as you know, are always looking for the personal lead-in or thread.

The coalition, CAP says, will also ensure that members of Congress learn from the stories how their own constituents would be affected. How then they may vote, as it doesn’t say, but needn’t.

Some members lean toward — or out-and-out support — less federal spending, especially on so-called welfare programs. But getting reelected and preserving their majority will trump the Trump proposals handily.


So Much Wrong With Single Mother Stereotype

May 22, 2017

Posts on single motherhood consistently rank among my weekly top-10 viewed. I’ve published nothing on the issues for quite awhile.

So I’ll take a brief break — and give you one too — from the stream of reports, op-eds, forecasts and the like sparked by turbulence in the White House and fractiousness in the Congress.

Here’s some of what we learn from the aptly-titled Single Mother Guide, fleshed out from other sources and what’s stashed in my own brain.

What Single Mother Commonly Means and What It Should

First off, a bit of clarification. Single mothers, in all the standard data sources, are only unmarried women raising minor-age children. Widows who’ve sole responsibility for grandchildren don’t count. Likewise women not currently married who’ve let adult children move back in with them.

Social conservatives often speak disapprovingly of single mothers as women who gave birth out of wedlock and didn’t then enter into holy matrimony with a male breadwinner.

But somewhat more single mothers are either widowed, separated from their spouses or divorced — roughly 51%, according to the latest Census data. .

This isn’t new, but the percent is shifting toward the never-married. It doesn’t mean that all the never-married mothers had babies, however. Single women may choose to adopt a child, as several of my long-time friends have.

It also doesn’t mean that the never-married mothers have no adult in the house with whom they’re in a quasi-spousal relationship.

Perhaps fewer now that same-sex marriages are legal nationwide. But opposite-sex domestic partnerships so far outstripped them when the Supreme Court ruled the former a Constitutional right that they’re probably stillmore common.

On the other hand, an as-yet unknown number of same-sex marriage partners are officially single mothers because some state laws and/or administrative procedures prohibit or otherwise deter their spouses from adopting.

Recent Single Mother Trends

What’s definitely shifting is the age when single mothers first give birth. The teenage birthrate has hit another record low. Researchers have tried to tease out reasons. The one that seems most certain is more use of contraceptives, especially the maximally-effective long-acting, reversible kinds.

Economist Isabel Sawhill at the Brookings Institution is championing LARCs, having earlier coauthored an oft-cited study that found a very low likelihood of poverty among people who married before becoming parents.

Some of you may recall how some conservatives seized on this as a simple, personally responsible way to avoid poverty.

But Sawhill’s concluded that it’s not a realistic basis for an anti-poverty strategy, given the upward trend in unmarried motherhood. She would instead have us promote “responsible parenthood,” i.e., choosing when to have a baby — and to make the choice easy and cheap.

What Accounts for Single Mother Poverty

We’ve got a debate on solutions to out-of-wedlock births, rooted in ideological differences. What’s beyond debate is the strong link between single motherhood and poverty.

Single-mother families consistently have the highest poverty rate of any household type — currently 28.2%, as compared to 5.4% for married couples. Whether the out-of-wedlock births or the poverty came first is an open question.

Most of our best research suggests both. We see, for example, that out-of-wedlock births are far less common among college graduates than women with at most a high school diploma.

So the former can earn far more by working — and live even better because college graduates tend to marry others even more than they used to.

Pregnancy surely compels some young women to drop out of high school, having no one to care for their child.

They’re then unable to work — at least for enough pay to keep the family out of poverty — because they’re still without the child care and lack the minimal credential so many employers require.

On the other hand, Kathryn Edin, best known as the coauthor of $2 a Day, earlier coauthored a study of poor single mothers. It too was based in part on her actually living in poor neighborhoods and gaining the trust of the people whose experiences and views she sought to understand.

Single mothers she interviewed there wanted children — “somebody to take care of,” as one said. But when they looked at their prospects for a trustworthy, breadwinning husband, they concluded the risks outweighed the potential rewards.

An Altogether Different Explanation

The cause-effect interaction the various studies indicate has commonsense appeal, as well as substantive credibility. But a recently-published study by the St. Louis Federal Reserve Board raises doubts.

It looks at wealth, rather than income. But, of course, the one begets the other and vice versa. The researchers tested various potential causes of wealth differences, including family structure.

When they looked at that factor within specific race/ethnicity groups, rather than across the whole sample, they found little or no correlation. “[T]he bottom line,” a summary concludes,” is that links between family structure and wealth are weak, inconsistent and mostly spurious.”

We need to look instead at factors related directly to race. We know more than enough to know how the legacy of slavery, out-and-out discrimination and less overt forms built into our income-related systems account for a large portion of the black/white wealth gap.

And we do, in fact, see that the percent of children being raised in single-parent families, mostly by mothers is higher for blacks than any other race/ethnicity group the Census Bureau breaks out.

Might they perhaps find a unique shortage of men who’d be suitable marriage material.

Might they also find positive role models in the single black mothers who’ve successfully raised children without the spousal role model some still insist that kids, boys especially need to stay out of trouble, on the path to a paying job, etc.

As I write this, I think of Mom, who raised two fine boys, including my late husband — and of what moms like her will likely face unless Congress basically scraps the proposed budget they’ll get from Trump on strikethrough Tuesday.


A Litmus Test for Safety Net Policies

May 18, 2017

We all, I’m sure, know how people on “welfare,” i.e. receiving virtually any safety net benefit, are often bad-mouthed.

We know too that the process of gaining benefits and keeping them often subjects recipients to requirements and hassles that we’d never imposed on better-off people.

The humiliations and inconveniences deter some eligible people from applying — a feature, not a bug in some state and local systems.

But exclusion from the mainstream has other consequences, say the coauthors of another of the recently-published poverty reduction papers I mentioned the other day.
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We obviously need reforms to reflect current facts—notably, the make-up of the poverty population. But Professors Kathryn Edin, Luke Schaefer and Laura Tach argue that we need something more to make our investments as effective as possible.

They propose a “litmus test” for anti-poverty policies. These, they say, should foster a sense of inclusion. That will not only accord beneficiaries the dignity they deserve, but help motivate them to act in ways that benefit them, their communities and our society as a whole.

They use the refundable Earned Income Tax Credit as a prime example. Not perfect, as they say, because it benefits only lower-income adults with paying jobs—and, as they don’t say, does very little for those who don’t have children living with them.

But their study of how EITC recipients spent their refunds found that they spend them “remarkably responsibly,” e.g,. to pay off debt, buy things that will last and, in their view at least, contribute to upward mobility.

Edin et al. cite two reasons for behaviors generally viewed as responsible. First, the refunds hinge on paying work — a core American value. So when prospective beneficiaries seek to claim it,, they’re treated respectfully, just as better-off filers are.

The second reason is that they can choose how they’ll spend their annual cash infusion, rather than having the choice made for them, as for example, SNAP (the food stamp program) does.

This, the coauthors say, is empowering. That in itself, one infers, contributes to responsible behaviors.

Perhaps, they say, their litmus test should extend to programs that depend on donations. Some I’m familiar with not only treat their clients with respectfully, but offer programs to empower them.

Perhaps you also know some too — and some that would flunk the litmus test. I and your fellow viewers, I think, would welcome personal stories, other examples, etc. posted here as comments.