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Friday, April 18, 2014

Food Stamps

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Teaching macroeconomics with a group of union stewards and local leaders last month, I had just finished explaining the enormous economic stimulus the combination of “food stamps” and unemployment compensation is providing to our struggling economy. When you include the “macroeconomic multiplier effects” of these “automatic stabilizers,” it was about $260 billion in 2012, and that was enough to create or save some 3 million jobs—“possibly including yours.”

Having taught this subject many times before, I was ready for somebody to complain about having seen a “food stamp” recipient use their SNAP card to buy caviar or lobster at the Jewel. When nobody did, I smirkily recounted my past experience with students anyway, because that experience has caused me to wonder if this widely reported occurrence might be an urban legend. Over the years most students, when questioned, hadn’t seen such an incident themselves but had been told about it. Once I asked, “Do they even sell caviar at the Jewel?”—and nobody knew.

I don’t get how anybody might see a SNAP recipient being a bit extravagant (or even a lot extravagant) as a moral challenge to a policy that creates or saves 3 million jobs.

At break David, a youngish Teamster truck driver, told me about a SNAP recipient he had seen buying steak, which troubled him because “we have to stretch every dollar” buying groceries. He asked: “So you’re saying this shouldn’t bother me because it’s stimulating the economy and creating jobs?”

With what seemed like half the class gathered to hear my answer, I pulled out my standard response: “Yeah, basically that is what I’m saying. But it depends on the magnitude. If it was widespread, it might be a problem, but there is no evidence that it is. Besides how would the government enforce something like that? It could cost $1,000 to catch someone buying a $20 steak!”

My answer, with its rough-and-ready cost-benefit analysis, satisfied a large group of students, who walked away to go on break, but not David: “But it’s still wrong. It costs a lot to investigate murder too.” At which point an older Teamster driver from the same local intervened: “What do you give a shit if somebody has a little steak? It’s not murder! More like speeding on the toll way.” Being the professor, I went all Socratic on David: “What kind of steak was it anyway—London Broil or filet mignon?” (inadvertently implying that London Broil was like speeding while buying filet mignon could be like murder!). This shut David up, as it was clear from his facial expression that he didn’t know the difference between high-priced and low-priced steak, and it occurred to me that he and his family might never themselves have enjoyed a steak. The older Teamster put his arm around David and jibed as they started out for break, “Don’t be an asshole. That steak was probably delivered in a truck.”

On reflection I regret opening this door about what SNAP recipients should be allowed to purchase (they are and always have been allowed to buy steak and lobster) and what they actually do purchase (which nobody knows, but I’m guessing is almost never steak and lobster). I’m trying to teach about how deficit-spending and the high-powered multiplier effects of social safety net measures are crucial for reducing unemployment in a depressed economy. And I end up in a discussion about whether some poor soul buying a slice of London Broil is “taking advantage” of us hard-working taxpayers.

As a middle-class professional who often eats steak (including filet), I don’t get how anybody might see a SNAP recipient being a bit extravagant (or even a lot extravagant) as a moral challenge to a policy which creates or saves 3 million jobs—that is, 3 million “livelihoods,” such as they are. We could argue about the size of the multipliers—or about the potential downsides of deficit-spending. But the fact is that the $135 average monthly SNAP allotment, especially when combined with an average $300 weekly unemployment compensation check, is nearly as valuable to the rest of us as it is to those who receive them. These meager individual amounts spread across millions of recipients inject consumer spending power into an economy that greatly needs it because we live in a society where most income flows to the top 10 or 11 percent. Without these welfare-state “transfer payments,” unemployment would be much worse and, as a result, real wages and median household incomes would be declining even more than they have been. And as Benjamin Friedman’s classic The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth exhaustively documents, these minor individual ameliorations correlate with more peace, less war and less crime, as well as with more prosperity for everybody.

I have learned, however, not to be indifferent to the moral concern some people have about cheaters and slackers “taking advantage.” Even a handful of people gaming the system challenges the hyper-vigilant work ethic of many settled-living working-class people, especially white men, but not only them. Like David, who is Latino, they tend to be a certain social type: They live frustratingly on the edge of a cliff doing work they often hate and struggling every day to keep themselves together, incessantly delaying gratification, “stretching every dollar,” never “letting themselves go” lest they fall off that cliff, taking their families with them.

There are a lot of people on that cliff, and a large group of them seem to think that a stern prejudice against “the poor” helps sustain the integrity of their own characters. Along with a superstition that “bad things do not happen to good people,” they hope their good characters will protect them from falling into poverty. A recent Hamilton Project study documents that at least one-third of working-age families with children (with incomes of up to $60,000) are “one major setback” away from “economic chaos.” Neither poor nor comfortably middle class, this group is dubbed by the study as “America’s struggling lower-middle class,” what many of us would call “working class.” It is also roughly the same income group ($30,000 to $75,000, in this case) that is most likely to blame the poor for being poor.

It is something like this complex social psychology that Republicans play into when they seek to justify cutting “food stamps” and extended unemployment compensation. Their latest efforts are especially hypocritical. A recent Fox News video of a surfer lad exuberantly buying lobster with his SNAP card evoked the cheaters-and-slackers meme. But the actual cuts Republicans have achieved and additional ones they are now seeking just cut benefits across the board and lop people from the program without any attempt to distinguish the cheaters from the frugally hungry. Surfer lad will still be able to buy lobster while bad things will happen to good people.

Worse to my mind, however, is the recent argument Republicans make for not extending unemployment compensation for the long-term unemployed. On the one hand, they insist that the $25 billion it would cost to fund for all of 2014 “be paid for” with cuts from somewhere else, thereby undermining the stimulative job-creating impact it would have. On the other, they insist on the need to address “the real problem: to find these people jobs.” Though some Tea Party crazies may not be aware of it, the GOP leadership group surely knows that, according to both the Congressional Budget Office and one of their own economic advisers (Moody Analytics), unemployment compensation has a multiplier effect that creates five times more jobs than corporate tax cuts do. The only federal government job-creation proposal from either party that has a larger macroeconomic multiplier effect, and thus creates more jobs, is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

I have about as much contempt for welfare cheaters as anybody on a cliff, but even surfer lad is a moral paragon compared to these guys.

Jack Metzgar is a core member of the Chicago Center for Working-Class Studies. He writes for Working-Class Perspectives, where this originally appereared.

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On a damp Friday morning, 11 days into the government shutdown, a few dozen truckers took to the Capital Beltway to tell lawmakers they were angry.

They were protesting big government. Yet opinion polls showed that Americans opposed the government shutdown and were hurting because of it. At that moment, according to polls, nearly one in three Americans already felt personally affected not by too much government, but by too little—by the sudden freeze in critical services.

Every American should have been in the streets when our elected officials labeled cancer care for children as "nonessential."

To be completely accurate, the entire federal government hadn’t shut down. Paychecks kept flowing to lawmakers and the plush House gym with its heated pool and paddleball courts remained open. That’s because “essential” services continued, even as “nonessential” ones ceased.

It turned out that whether services were deemed essential or not was a reflection of our lawmakers’ values.

Prioritized above all else were “national security” activities, deemed essential under the banner of “protecting life and property.” Surveillance at the National Security Agency, for instance, continued uninterrupted.

Indeed, only for a brief moment did the shutdown reduce the gusher of taxpayer dollars into the Pentagon’s coffers. After a couple days of furloughs, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced that 90 percent of his civilian workforce could resume work.

This from the crew that, according to Foreign Policy, went on a $5 billion spending spree on the eve of the shutdown to exhaust any remaining cash from the closing fiscal year. Those last-minute Pentagon dollars paid for spy satellites, drones, and infrared cameras, along with a $9 million sparkling new gym for the Air Force Academy, replete with a CrossFit space and a “television studio.”

Then there were the nonessential activities.

In Arkansas, funding for infant formula to feed 2,000 at-risk newborn babies was in jeopardy, as were 85,000 meals for children in that state. Nutrition for low-income kids was deemed nonessential even though one in four American kids lack consistent access to nutritious food, and research makes clear that improper nutrition stunts brain architecture in the young, forever affecting their ability to learn and interact socially.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) wasn’t accepting new patients because of the shutdown. Typically, 200 new patients arrive every week for experimental treatment. On average around 30 of them are children, 10 of whom have cancer.

Cancer, in fact, is the leading cause of death among children ages one to 14. But treatment for kids with cancer didn’t qualify as essential during the shutdown. Somehow, it didn’t make the cut as “protecting life and property.”

Let this be the last time a group of tea-partying truckers are the ones protesting the loudest over the dimensions of our government. Indeed, every American should have been in the streets when our elected officials labeled cancer care for children as “nonessential.”

And let this be the last time we as a nation let our elected officials cut nutrition assistance for vulnerable children at the same moment that they protect their own paychecks, Pentagon pork, and cavernous tax loopholes for the wealthy and corporations.

How can we fix this abysmal state of affairs?

We need a long-haul strategy—the unsexy yet necessary systemic change that will ensure that our government actually represents the people. There’s so much work to be done: Gerrymandered district lines must be redrawn fairly. We must get the big money out of political campaigns so that we the people may elect dedicated leaders instead of masters of campaign finance.

And then we must build—person by person—an electorate that’s informed enough about how our government is supposed to work to fulfill its responsibility in this democracy.

Together, we can ensure that our leaders care about the best interests of all Americans.

Jo Comerford is executive director of National Priorities Project and co-author of A People’s Guide to the Federal Budget. She writes for OtherWords, where this originally appeared.

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On the surface, the U.S. Supreme Court’s evisceration of the Voting Rights Act and the national non-discussion on poverty have little in common. The former is about whether the racially discriminatory history of certain parts of the country merits their being placed under special scrutiny when it comes to how they shape their 21st-century ballot access rules; the latter is about inequality and social justice. They are two separate stories about two distinct American phenomena.

Yet, I would argue, these two are intimately linked.

In my soon-to-be-released book, The American Way of Poverty, I chronicle the lives of America’s poor and marginalized. Some, such as one-time sheet-metal worker Matthew Joseph, were out of work and struggling to pay housing bills, find health insurance, and feed their families when I talked with them; others, such as Wal-Mart worker Mary Vasquez, an elderly lady with a laundry list of physical ailments, had work but were paid abysmally low wages. Some of the people I write about are young and deeply in debt because of student loans; others are older and equally deeply in the hole because they were pressured into taking out subprime mortgages. Some live in slums; others in suburban McMansions. Some are white, some are black, some are Latino, some are Asian, some are Native American.

That a majority of Supreme Court justices could, with straight faces, say systemic racism is a thing of the past shows a stunning lack of empathy.

Over the course of two years, as I reported the book and interviewed hundreds of people around the country, I came to have an appreciation of both the diversity of poverty in contemporary America, and also the deeply corrosive impact that spreading economic hardship has on the body-politic. For, as the broader economy was hollowed out in the years surrounding the 2008 financial implosion, so an increasing number of people began failing to meet their most basic economic needs.

One in six Americans, or about 50 million people, is now so economically insecure that they rely on food stamps to avoid hunger. Roughly one in five children live below the poverty line in this most wealthy of countries—a country with more billionaires than any other, and one in which well over 90 percent of all income gains in the past couple years have gone to the wealthiest one percent of the population.

Six million Americans have literally no cash access, living hand-to-mouth on food handouts and charity. And in cities such as Detroit and New Orleans, African-American child poverty reaches surreal heights. Sixty-five percent of African-American kids under the age of 5 in New Orleans live below the government-defined poverty line. In colonias in the southwest, undocumented migrants live in cardboard and scrap-metal shanties, often with no electricity, no sewer lines, no running water. In many inland counties in California, despite our ostensibly being four years into a recovery, unemployment rates still top 15 percent.

While poverty transcends race, a disproportionately high number of African Americans and Latinos in this country live in poverty, and the more intense the poverty the more the data becomes racially skewed.

As for household wealth, while white families have always been far wealthier, on average, than black families, the housing market bust massively magnified these trends. In 2011, the Pew Research Center found that white families’ median wealth was 20 times that of blacks and 18 times that of Latinos. The subprime mortgage debacle wiped out decades of wealth accumulation for minorities; three years into the bust, the median household wealth of black families was less than $6,000.

And since, in America, the wealthier one is the more likely one is to vote consistently from one election cycle to the next, and the poorer one is the less likely, what we see here is an ongoing political as well as economic crisis. Sure, in some elections—notably the last presidential one, in 2012—some of this data is turned on its head; but averaged out over the years, these trends hold fairly constant.

Too many people are essentially being told by the most powerful institutions in the land that their voices don’t count and their stories don’t matter.

Magnifying this is another issue that I have written about for more than a decade now: felon disenfranchisement. More than 5 million Americans cannot vote because they are either currently in prison or on parole, or because they live in states—most of them in the Deep South—that still impose lifetime prohibitions on voting for people convicted of felonies. America incarcerates a far higher proportion of its population than any other country on earth—and, again, disproportionately this burden falls on African Americans and Latinos. Nearly one out of every 20 black men in America lives behind bars. In some Southern states more than one in five African-American men have lost the right to vote. The Hispanic incarceration rate is lower than that for African Americans, but still roughly double that of whites.

All of which ought to have given the Supreme Court huge reason to pause before dismantling the Voting Rights Act and the core protections embodied in it for nearly the past half-century. By every measure, removing these protections will make it harder for poorer Americans to vote; and, because of the distribution of poverty in this country, will make it peculiarly hard for poor African Americans and Latinos to exercise the franchise.

Chief Justice John Roberts and his four confreres may be right that America is no longer living through the overt race-baiting era embodied by Bull Connor or George Wallace; but that doesn’t mean the country as a whole has somehow entirely gotten beyond its sorry racial history. Yes, at the federal level the president and the attorney general are African American. But that reality hasn’t stopped anonymous leaflets being distributed in poor black communities in recent election cycles telling residents that the date of the election has been changed; nor has it stopped gerrymandering that looks suspiciously like it is designed to minimize African American voting strength in several states; nor has it prevented the circulation of rumors in poor communities saying that not only are felons disenfranchised but so too are all people convicted of misdemeanors—or, in some instances, that even an outstanding traffic ticket is enough to remove a person’s right to vote.

That a majority of Supreme Court justices could, with straight faces, say that systemic racism, in all its complexity and in all its many manifestations, is a thing of the past shows a stunning lack of empathy. That same lack of empathy is seen when defenders of restrictive voter I.D. laws say that it’s easy for everyone who wants I.D. to get it. It is also seen in the remarkable absence, from the recent national dialogue, of a detailed discussion of modern-day American poverty and its impacts on the lives of millions of Americans.

Too many people are essentially being told by the most powerful institutions in the land that their voices don’t count and their stories don’t matter. It is past time for a politics of empathy to once again take center-stage in this country.

Sasha Abramsky is the author of several books, including Inside Obama's Brain and Breadline USA: The Hidden Scandal of American Hunger and How to Fix It and the forthcoming The American Way of Poverty

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