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Australia Seeks to ‘Manage’ the Poor While Making Them Poorer

1:56 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Rally against Income Management (Photo: Bernadette Smith, australiandocumentaryphotos.blogspot.com)

Originally posted at In These Times

When Mitt Romney derides the legions of Americans who are supposedly utterly dependent on government and are ruining the country’s entrepreneurial spirit, we should remember that while this disdain for the poor may have a uniquely American inflection, the greed-is-good ethos flourishes in other rich nations. In the land down under, we see a mirror image of the political establishment’s frontal assault on poor communities, with welfare policy acting as a cudgel for blaming the epidemic of poverty on the poor themselves.

The Australian government has been tightening its grip on welfare benefits through the Income Management program, which essentially dictates how the poor should spend their benefits. Participants may have about 50 to 70 percent their money placed under state control, reserved for essential items like food.

Like welfare reform in the United States, this is retrofitted paternalism: participants must spend the “quarantined” money using a “Basics Card” at government-approved outlets. The rationale is that too many poor people would squander money on gambling, drinking, pornography and other unproductive things when given a chance.

The program was first piloted in destitute aboriginal communities that had become notorious for cases of family crisis and child abuse. Income Management is now spreading to several new areas, according to the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS), with enrollment based on “referral from child protection authorities” and referrals from social workers “on the grounds of ‘vulnerability.’ ” The targeting of these already stigmatized groups–indigenous people, parents in troubled homes, and others deemed financially incompetent–reflects the myth that poverty is cultural and not the result of oppressive structures. Read the rest of this entry →

Reforming Welfare and Gutting the Poor: A Bipartisan Platform

8:57 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Charles McCain/Flickr/Creative Commons

Originally posted at In These Times

The Romney camp’s new attack line on the Obama administration–that he “gutted” the work requirements imposed on families receiving public assistance–has been widely debunked as a distortion of a mundane policy memo. But the real scandal here isn’t what Obama did or didn’t do to “workfare”; it’s that both parties have gutted the welfare system as a whole to conduct a cruel social experiment on impoverished families.

As many watchdogs have pointed out, the memo in question from the Department of Health and Human Services basically offers states more flexibility to meet mandatory targets for moving people off of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and into gainful employment. This program, administered jointly through federal and state agencies, is the central plank of Clinton-era welfare reform, and its principal political aim has always been to reduce the statistical presence of the poor, not alleviating their poverty.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), as welfare reform approaches its Sweet Sixteen, TANF’s track record contrasts bitterly with that of its predecessor, AFDC, which Reaganite conservatives had savaged as undeserved entitlement:

Romney-Rosen Firestorm Is Reminder: We Need to Redefine Gender Justice

7:39 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Justice

(photo: Don Sutherland/flickr)

Cross-posted from In These Times

It’s almost poetic that this year’s Equal Pay Day—the one day of the year when Americans are supposed to reflect on the value (and undervaluing) of women’s work—coincided with the media firestorm surrounding the American stay-at-home-mom. The “controversy” over Ann Romney’s decision to stay home rather than work a “regular” job should highlight some of the continuing struggles of women to be valued and respected for their work, in and out of the home.

But the partisan proxy war waged over the mommy question only underscores the country’s lacking vocabulary when it comes to discussing the totality of social and economic barriers facing women. Pay discrimination, domestic violence, attacks on reproductive rights, overlapping oppressions facing women of color—it’s misleading to try to lump all these issues together into a blanket term like “woman problem,” but there is one persistent theme: society’s fear of women controlling their own lives.

The distorted framing of the debate is captured in Mitt Romney’s contradictory comments about forcing mothers receiving public assistance into the labor force—in order to instill in them the “dignity of work.” This myopic binary between women of poverty and women of privilege reflects the evolution of the federal welfare state throughout the 20th century.

Poor women, who evidently lack dignity, must redeem themselves through work, while the apparently inborn dignity of their affluent counterparts allows them to embody feminine virtue by staying within the domestic sphere. And if they volunteer to climb the career ladder, they’re vaunted as supermoms.

Part of this mentality stems from a reactionary, often racialized construction of the “deserving” versus the “undeserving” poor. The argument is also steeped in the corrosive cultural assumption that poor women’s social value derives from their labor or reproductive capacity, not their humanity, intellect or relationships.

The counterpoint to Ann Romney’s domestic sainthood is the right’s fictional “welfare queen,” the unwed mother who supposedly leeches off the state with abandon and embodies corrupt, uncontrollable fertility.

And that’s where the “dignity of work” comes in, to discipline the unruly woman and keep her in her place, safely below the poverty line. Neoliberals like Newt Gingrich have sought to broaden the attack on poor women by advocating for the use of the child welfare as a punitive tool, sweeping kids into state custody to “rescue” them from disadvantaged mothers and their communities. So much for family values. Read the rest of this entry →

Makers, Takers and $2-a-dayers

2:32 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Cross-posted from In These Times

One official measure of poverty around the world is surviving on $2 per day or less. It’s a condition many Americans could barely imagine living in. And yet the official data suggests that while politicians insist the U.S. is insulated from such deprivation, a large share of the country is feeling a cold draft from the “Third World.”

A set of new analyses from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), drawing from a study of income data by the University of Michigan’s National Poverty Center, shows that for well over a million households, many of them with children, are besieged by hardship of an epic magnitude:

The number of U.S. households living on less than $2 per person per day — which the study terms “extreme poverty” — more than doubled between 1996 and 2011, from 636,000 to 1.46 million, the study finds… The number of children in extremely poor households also doubled, from 1.4 million to 2.8 million.

The World Bank’s $2-per-day metric derives from a perennial cliché in humanitarian circles, generally used to describe poor countries in the Global South. But while some question the usefulness of such simplistic measures, the phrase has a unique application in a country that’s historically represented the top of the human development scale. And one reason why the U.S. has so many people stuck at the bottom is because in many communities, this inequality is practically written into the law, with public assistance programs virtually enforcing the extreme poverty line.

Since bipartisan welfare “reform” under the Clinton administration, which precipitated the gutting of programs and erosion of benefit levels over time, the poorest households have become mired in outmoded welfare systems that don’t correspond to real social needs:

Benefits are below half of the poverty line in every state.  For a family of three, benefits are only about $2 per person per day in Mississippi and Tennessee and only slightly more than $2 per person per day in Alabama and South Carolina, for example.

It’s basic math: Add the recent recession to years of wealth-hoarding by the richest Americans, factor in endemic socioeconomic, racial and gender inequality, and you get polarization that’s global in scale and intensity. This is reflected in each individual whose daily standard of living is worth the cost of a Wall Street financier’s morning coffee. Read the rest of this entry →

Scant Room for Equity in Obama’s Talking Points on Jobs

7:16 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Photo by Kevin Lamarque-Pool/Getty Images

Cross-posted from In These Times.

President Obama’s jobs speech before Congress struck an uncomfortable balance between the art of the possible and the sophistry of defeatism.

The speech did offer some serious ideas about reinvigorating the stagnant economy. But for all the talking points—from infrastructure investment to initiatives to promote hiring of veterans and the long-term unemployed—his eloquent words sidestepped the ideological barriers imposed by Washington’s reactionary ideologues. Meanwhile, the groups suffering the worst of the economic crisis—the poor, people of color, single women—may be hurt more by his careful omissions than they’d be helped by his proposals.

First, it’s far from clear whether the initiatives laid out in the speech, particularly the tax-cutting provisions, would make a significant dent in unemployment. The Progressive’s Matthew Rothschild points out that the structure of Obama’s highlighted payroll tax cut could be considered “regressive,” in that the bonus will be weighted toward the pockets of higher income-earners rather than the working poor.

More broadly, the pitch for cautiously modest, though earnest, stimulus measures seemed designed to ease the path toward more deficit slashing and cutbacks on social programs in the long run. The subtext appears to be a drive toward austerity and “entitlement reform”—pivoting toward conservatives who routinely demonize “nanny state” institutions like Social Security and Medicare. So despite rhetoric that pundits praised as “Trumanesque” and “fiery,” celebrating historic public works and exhorting Congress to cooperate for once, the speech was silent on the institutional pillars that should buttress any job creation plan. Read the rest of this entry →

Georgia’s Celebrated No-Cost Labor Scheme: Cheating the Jobless?

4:36 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Cross-posted from In These Times

For a typical boss, there’s only one thing better than getting away with not paying your workers: getting the government to supply you with people who will work for free. It’s an employer’s dream that may soon become reality around the country, as President Obama has moved toward incorporating it in his emerging job-creation agenda.

The job-creation flavor of the week is GeorgiaWork$, a job program that has for several years funneled unemployed workers into job slots as “trainees.” Under this half-internship, half-indentured servitude scheme, a worker can earn a $240 weekly stipend on top of regular unemployment benefits for eight weeks, working 24 hours per week. Unlike other job subsidy programs, which use generally use public dollars to supplement workers’ regular earnings, GeorgiaWork$ allows the state to capitalize on existing unemployment payments while giving a free boost to private employers. Workers, often hired in service sectors like child care and restaurant work, can only hope that their bosses will hire them after their preliminary test run ends.

This system fits well with Obama’s anti-spending, quasi-pro-stimulus double-speak, and his forthcoming jobs plan may include a federal version of Georgia’s virtually free labor system.

While there may be many desperate people ready to forfeit labor standards for any form of paid work, the Huffington Post reports that so far, the program doesn’t seem to live up to its promise of  sustainable job growth: