The American Bear


Against Means Testing | Peter Frase

[…] [M]eans testing of public benefits is little more than a trap set for progressives by those whose ultimate goal is the total destruction of these programs. Universal social rights are politically defensible, while particularist benefits are not. This lesson is, I think, supported by the work of Political Scientist Paul Pierson; as Joshua Tucker explains at the Monkey Cage, Pierson “explained how difficult it would be for governments to consolidate or retrench existing social policy programs, because these policies (pensions being the best example) create their own support coalition that reaches far beyond the left-wing electorate.”

There is, however, an additional reason to support universalistic rather than targeted public programs, and this is a matter of principle rather than politics. The problem with means-tested benefits is not only that they are politically untenable, but that they inevitably put the state in the business of judging the worth and deservingness of applicants–and thus, by extension, judging the way in which they lead their lives. If, for example, welfare benefits are made contingent on performing work of some kind, then the state must decide what counts as a legitimate form of work. Does, for example, a mother’s time spent raising a child count? Does getting a college education count? If it does, are all majors equally acceptable?

The fact that the state must adjudicate these issues–and must do so continually over time, since a person’s status is constantly subject to change–means that benefit recipients are constantly subject to arbitrary bureaucratic domination. Universal benefits, on the other hand, require relatively little meddling in people’s lives: in a country with universal health care, the only consideration for the state is whether or not you are a citizen. One should not, of course, understate the extremely fraught and contentious politics of citizenship itself, which may turn out to be the Achilles’ heel of social democracy in the 21st century. Nevertheless, I regard it as a major step forward if we are arguing over who has the rights of citizenship rather than attempting to judge what makes a person deserving of some particular benefit.  I think that ultimately, means tested benefits tend to make the poor less free and less autonomous than the affluent. This is precisely the opposite of the goal we should be aiming at in thinking about the welfare state, which should be about enhancing human freedom and facilitating human flourishing.

This line of argument is, in a certain sense, in sympathy with critiques of the welfare state that have been offered from libertarian, anarchist, and Foucauldian perspectives. Unfortunately, discussion of these arguments tends to become bogged down in a narrow debate over whether one is “for” or “against” the welfare state. By now, however, we should all understand that there is not one welfare state but many, and that different institutional configurations can have very different implications for people’s lives. Thus my goal as a writer and researcher is to promote a vision of the welfare state that enables individual autonomy and freedom by guaranteeing a basic standard of living as a human right, while simutaneously critiquing the idea that public benefits are special supports provided only to the deserving poor, and only in those instances where the private capitalist marketplace has “failed”. [++]

Utah begins to drug test welfare applicants

Utah began a divisive policy of drug testing welfare applicants Wednesday, but its measured approach underscores how carefully states are navigating the issue amid legal challenges that have blocked proposals elsewhere.

Other states have proposed drug testing every applicant, but in Utah, only those shown through a questionnaire to have a “reasonable likelihood” that they’re using drugs will need to take a drug test. And unlike in other states, applicants in Utah who fail the drug test can continue receiving benefits while seeking treatment.

(Source: sarahlee310)


Evangelical minister Rick Warren has a warped understanding of poverty and self-worth. Warren recently told ABC’s Jake Tapper (h/t theamericanbear):

The only way to get people out of poverty is J-O-B-S. Create jobs. To create wealth, not to subsidize wealth. When you subsidize people, you create the dependency. You — you rob them of dignity.

The evidence supporting the necessity for food assistance is overwhelming and of course sharply clashes with Warren’s ideology. 85 percent of households receiving SNAP benefits live below the poverty line ($22,000/year for a family of four and $11,000/year for an individual). And in case you’re like Warren and incessantly equate all government assistance with joblessness, keep in mind that about half of SNAP beneficiaries with children are employed.

I’m more inclined to believe that a single mother with children to feed is only worrying about the loss of dignity when she struggles to feed her children. Same goes for the 21-year-old mother of two who moved back in with her violent-tempered boyfriend after she lost her welfare check. Same goes for the mother who pays rent by selling groceries she purchased with food stamps and keeps her children fed with help from neighbors and school lunches. Same goes for the 37 percent of SNAP recipients who are elderly and/or disabled.

The only morally ambiguous characters here are those who want to slash programs that benefit low-income individuals, all in the name of “prosperity.”

[Graphs via CBPP]

(Source: pantslessprogressive)

Ending Dependency As We Know It: How Bill Clinton Decreased Freedom | Corey Robin

When Bill Clinton signed welfare reform into law in 1996, many hailed it as a necessary step toward ending the dependency of the poor.  Dependence on the state, that is.  Barack Obama praised the bill during his presidential campaign, and in fact made a point of noting that he had helped cut the welfare rolls when he was in the Illinois state legislature.  Rick Santorum has said it gives the poor “something dependency doesn’t give: hope.”

But as Jason DeParle points out in this must-read piece, thanks to welfare reform and the terrible state of the economy, poor people are doing worse today than they have in years.  Even in this recession, states like Arizona continue to cut the welfare rolls.  So what do poor people do now that they can’t turn to the state?

The poor people who were dropped from cash assistance here, mostly single mothers, talk with surprising openness about the desperate, and sometimes illegal, ways they make ends meet. They have sold food stamps, sold blood, skipped meals, shoplifted, doubled up with friends, scavenged trash bins for bottles and cans and returned to relationships with violent partners — all with children in tow.

Esmeralda Murillo, a 21-year-old mother of two, lost her welfare check, landed in a shelter and then returned to a boyfriend whose violent temper had driven her away. “You don’t know who to turn to,” she said.

The economic effects of welfare reform are obvious and catastrophic.  But welfare reform has also decreased freedom.  That lost government support doesn’t just increase poverty. It actually drives vulnerable people—almost always women—back into the repressive hold of coercive forms of power: in this case, the coercive power of abusive husbands and boyfriends. Welfare reform doesn’t decrease dependency; it increases coercion.


[When] we talk about ending the dependency of the poor, let’s be clear what we’re talking about.  We’re not talking about emancipating the poor or any such thing.  We’re talking about returning them to the repressive hold of their private governors.[++]


“For her book “The Submerged State,” [Suzanne Mettler] asked a scientifically selected sample of 1,400 Americans whether they had ever used a government social program. Only 43 percent copped to having done so. Then she read off 21 social programs, such as Medicare (FFSOMED) and the home-mortgage interest deduction, and asked the same question again: Have you ever used a government social program? This time, 96 percent said yes, in fact, they had.

According to Mettler’s survey, 60 percent of those who benefit from the home-mortgage interest deduction didn’t think they had ever used a government social program. Fifty-three percent of those with student loans didn’t think they had used one. Among Social Security beneficiaries, 44 percent thought themselves unsullied by the touch of government, and among Medicare beneficiaries, 39 percent said the same. Twenty-seven percent of those in public housing answered in the negative, as did 25 percent of those on food stamps.

The implication seemed to be that Americans are hypocrites, or at least woefully uninformed. But in forthcoming research, Mettler and co-author Julianna Koch dig deeper, and find the reality is more complicated.”

Middle-Class Welfare State Is Invisible by Design
Ezra Klein

(via manicchill)

Advocates for unemployed workers suspect that conservatives who would require unemployment recipients to submit to mandatory drug testing have a hidden motive: First, undermine public support for unemployment insurance by associating recipients with drug users. Then, get the public to think about unemployment insurance as just a government handout. Finally, blame the unemployed for their predicament, thus creating a political environment that allows benefits to be slashed. Legislating Under the Influence (via azspot)

(via randomactsofchaos)

The Other Story: De-bunking the Welfare Lie

A few weeks ago, I was listening to a radio program about the current Republican primary candidates. At one point a woman called in complaining that the candidates are not talking enough about welfare reform. She went on to say that she is a single mom working 60 hours a week to pay for a lifestyle her son’s friends get for free, because in their households one or more parents aren’t working, in some cases by choice. When I told my husband about this later, we had a good laugh about the idea that public assistance and welfare benefits pay for “lifestyle.” As a family who has been on multiple kinds of welfare over the last 5 years, from Medicaid to Food Stamps to WIC, we couldn’t help but wonder what we were missing out on. Where were our IKEA stamps?

When I hear an average citizen make the mistake of conflating public benefits with “lifestyle” benefits, I recognize it as a dangerous ignorance arising out of having little or no contact with the welfare system or anyone who is in it. When a current or formerly elected official with experience working for the government says something like Newt Gingrich, who publicly claimed that some people were taking their food stamp money and going on vacation to Hawaii, I recognize this as a dangerous lie.

The political discourse in our media about welfare has skewed the national conversation such that many citizens actually believe that it is both easy to get benefits, and that you can use benefits any which way you want. The reality could not be more different. Getting into the welfare system requires intense levels of documentation (including but not limited to: social security cards for all adults applying; birth certificates for all children in the family; marriage licenses; utility bills; lease agreements; vehicle titles; proofs of income; bank statements for any accounts you hold; documentation of any daycare expenses; documentation of any school expenses; etc). Most public benefits offices are set up to screen people out of the system, rather than in, which means that any applicant must jump through a variety of hoops (including having their application and documentation “lost” and having to start the whole process over again), miss work or school to attend multiple appointments, and then wait a month or more from their application date for their benefits to kick in.

Once benefits are in hand, they can only be used in a specific way. For example, Food Stamp benefits (also known as food assistance, or SNAP) come in the form of an EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) card. It looks like a State ID card, and works like a debit card. The benefits on the card can only be used to buy food. An attempt to buy anything other than food-i.e., beer, cigarettes, or a plane ticket to Hawaii-will be rejected by the card. WIC (Women, Infants, and Children food assistance) is even more specific, because it comes in the form of a series of checks that are handed directly to the cashier. Each check outlines which items can be bought with it, and they come with an accompanying guide that outlines which brands of these items are approved and which are not. A grocery shop with WIC checks can actually take twice as long as a normal shop because the items are so intensely regulated.

So, are frauds perpetrated within this system? Certainly. But in my experience of helping people negotiate these systems, the most frequent fraud perpetrated is this: NOT reporting all of the income a family earns. For example, people who are self-employed may choose to not report all of their income because they know that if they do, the result is being kicked out of the system. The reason these kinds of frauds are committed is very simple: survival. The public benefits system is set up to take into account ONLY the most basic expenses a family will have-rent, utilities, school, and child care-in its evaluation of whether or not a family qualifies to receive benefits. The system does not take into account cost of living variations around the country, or a host of other expenses that the average family either requires or incurs: transportation to/from work/school/daycare; clothes and diapers; student loans and other kinds of debt repayment; phone and internet bills. These are all things that most citizens would agree are necessary for the average family to function in this country. Yet these expenses are not included in an evaluation of whether or not a family needs health or food support.

So if we can recognize that the kind of fraud that usually takes place is under-reporting of money earned, rather than the myth of using food stamps to pay for vacations, then we begin to paint a different story than the one repeated in the national media. This alternative story is that people ARE working, but are unable to report their income for fear of losing their benefits. And fear they should. For we live in an economy where people are penalized and made homeless for not being able to pay back their loans on time, even though this aspect of our collective financial duress is left out of the process of evaluating whether or not people need public assistance. The notion that this system needs reforming in the direction of screening MORE people out of the system is just plain false. And dangerous.

(Source: azspot, via sigma-x)


““I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money,” Santorum begins. “I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money and provide for themselves and their families.”

Santorum did not elaborate on why he singled out blacks who rely on federal assistance. The voters here didn’t seem to care.”

-Rick Santorum  (via brainguts)

That’s funny, because the people who benefit most from welfare programs are white people.

Among the poorest of the poor—single mothers, living below the poverty line with minor children to support 39.7 percent of AFDC clients are Black single mothers and 38.1 percent are White women with children. Food stamp recipients are 37.2 percent Black and 46.2 percent White. Medicaid benefits are paid to 27.5 percent Black recipients compared to 48.5 percent White clients. source

Stan Greenberg Appears to be Confused About the Effects of Conservative Block Grant Schemes | CEPR Blog

In short, Bill Clinton’s record on welfare reform is abyssmal - another “triangulation” failure.

After writing about Elaine Kamarck’s wrongheaded defense of the conservative 1996 Personal Responsibility Act, I remembered pollster Stan Greenberg’s similarly odd claim, made in a widely read New YorkTimes commentary published last July, that “Mr. Clinton’s welfare reform in 1996 required efforts to make work pay and expand child care ….” 

No. It. Didn’t.

Here, however, are some of the things that the 1996 measure signed by President Clinton actually did do: 1) block granted the Social Security Act’s Aid to Families with Dependent Children program; 2) froze federal funding for the block grant—as a result, real federal funding today for the program is more than 25 percent below its 1997 level; 3) made many immigrants who are lawfully in the U.S. ineligible for various health and public benefits that citizens are eligible for; and 4) cut Food Stamp eligiblity and benefits for millions of families.

Among the things the 1996 law didn’t do: 1) increase funding for any program; 2) require states who receive block grant funding to do anything to “make work pay”; 3) require states to do something as minimal as report on how many families they are helping with the vast majority of their block grant funds.

In short, Bill Clinton really f**ked up by taking Dick Morris’ advice and signing the 1996 block grant law. Last time I checked, Bill Clinton isn’t up for re-election in 2012. Thus, it makes little sense for Democratic pollsters and pundits to continue to try to justify his decision to sign conservative legislation that was so bad that even Robert Rubin urged him to veto it. The main effect this kind of misguided block grant boosterism has today is to bolster conservative arguments for new and even more fiscally dangerous block grant schemes, like this House Republican proposal, which would block grant Medicaid and cut its funding in real terms in the same way as has happened with the TANF block grant.

98% of Florida Welfare Applicants Pass Drug Test, Discredit Tea Party Gov


Florida’s new drug-tests-for-welfare-applicants program just yielded its first batch of results: 98 percent passed. It’ll only cost the state $178 million.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who rode his own fortune and the tea party’s adoration to office last year, has stated publicly several times that people on welfare use drugs at a higher rate than the general population. So at Scott’s urging earlier this year, the legislature implemented a policy requiring all temporary cash assistance applicants pass a drug test before getting any help.

The Department of Children and Families says about 2 percent of applicants are failing the test; another 2 percent are not completing the application process, for reasons unspecified, according to the Tampa Tribune.

So where does that $178 million go? Quite a lot goes to Solantic, Gov. Rick Scott’s drug testing company, that is now controlled by a trust under his wife’s name.

(Source: readnfight)