Bill Barlow from Duke College Republicans has some serious misconceptions about U.S. poverty. In his most recent blog post, Barlow claims that those receive federal anti-poverty assistance (he includes in this unemployment insurance, food stamps and Medicaid) have been “sucked into a vicious cycle of unemployment and dependency”—they could be working, but would rather suck off of the government teat.
The Bill Barlow plan: “Work stations around the country where those that are truly in need can come and do 30 hours of work a week plus 20 extra hours of work training and filing of job applications. In return, the government will provide the basics of food, housing, and access to medical care.”
Even though I disagree with his depiction of low-income Americans, his plan isn’t actually that crazy. I’m just going to change a few words around….
My plan: “Create new public sector jobs, where people who are unemployed (or who are working for wages too low to be able to afford the basis of food, housing and medical care) can come and work full-time. In return, the government will pay them a salary that is sufficiently high enough to buy the basics of food, housing, and access to medical care”
If you look closely, these two plans are very, very similar.
What’s different is less the actual proposal, and more the assumptions it makes:
Bill Barlow’s assumption: Poor people don’t want to work. They are dependent on the government, and its time we stop that, by taking away all of the lavish benefits we give them, and forcing them to work. They are untrustworthy, so much so that instead of giving them money, which they would probably use to buy drugs or cellphones or fancy jewelry—it’s better to give them a big ration box of apples and a fresh-set of work clothing.
Barlow calls it a “fact” that “many unemployed and low income individuals are perpetually dependent on the government.” Bill Barlow is obviously blissfully ignorant of what actual eligibility requirements are for the programs he discusses.
The reality: Almost nobody who receives federal anti-poverty assistance is an unemployed, able-bodied adult. Long-term adult recipients of federal anti-poverty assistance either: (1) have a serious disability, like blindness, that makes it very difficult for them to find work or (2) are the guardians of children (as it is generally quite difficult to make sure that a 4-year old is fed, without also making sure her mom has enough to eat too).*** Bill Barlow is delusional to say that you can be dependent on the government over the long term, because eligibility for almost all anti-poverty programs expire (even for those with children), after a few years.
- The 1996 welfare law restricted the food stamp (SNAP) eligibility of able-bodied, childless adults. If you fall into this category, you can receive benefits for only three months while out of work in any 36-month period.
- Welfare itself (TANF) is literally only available for families, not for single adults. You cannot be eligible for longer than 60 months. TANF is given out in block grants to the states who administer it as they so choose—states have different types of workforce requirements (that you be seeking employment, receiving job training, etc.)., but promoting work is a central goal of TANF. To remain eligible, a state must ensure that 90% of all two-parent families receiving welfare are participating in work activities, and least 50% of single-parent families are participating in work activities.
- Medicaid is not broadly available to adults, unless they are pregnant, blind, or disabled.
The person described by Barlow—who is dependent on government aid instead of choosing to work—is more fantasy than reality.
I think there are actually a lot of flaws in how anti-poverty programs are structured, and ways we could make them better at solving poverty (I’ll describe some of these in a future post).
But I want to circle back to a fundamental principle where me and the DCR author really agree—
Bill Barlow, you are absolutely right: The government ought to put more people to work in this country! Private sector job growth has been positive every month for over two years, but the public sector is being hammered by layoffs.
This graph from the U.S. News and World Report demonstrates the situation pretty well:
Many unemployed Americans have skills they can use to make our country a better place. If we’re too afraid of “big government” though, we will let these skills go unutilized, and allow these individuals and their families to fall into poverty.
Here in North Carolina, the Republican refusal to extend a 1% sales tax resulted in massive layoffs of teachers, teaching assistants, and other educators statewide.
My suggestion: Let’s reinstate the 1% sales tax, and use that money to create some “work stations.” Work station sounds a little ominous though. Let’s call them…hmm…ooh, let’s call these work stations schools! At these “schools” the government can put all of our unemployed former educators to work educating children.
*** I’m barely touching on unemployment insurance in my post. Obviously, you only get unemployment insurance if you’re an unemployed adult. There is a really fantastic article by Representative Charlie Rangel published yesterday though, that I encourage anyone who doesn’t feel like they have a good grasp on unemployment insurance to read.