Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Kicking the Downtrodden: A Priority for West Virginia?


In the 1870s, the nation was slammed by one of those periodic depressions that punctuate our economic history. Although largely forgotten today, it was known as the Long Depression for its lingering effects. It lasted for 65 consecutive months — longer than the 43-month Great Depression of the 1930s.

Around 18,000 businesses failed between 1873 and 1875. Unemployment rose above 8 percent. Millions of Americans were jobless, hungry and homeless. In those days, there was no such thing as unemployment insurance, food assistance programs like SNAP or supports for the elderly like Social Security.

In New York City, thousands of jobless workers, nearly half of them women, turned to one of the only forms of public assistance. They got to sleep in their clothes on hard benches in police stations. And they had to be out at dawn in search of their next meal.

That’s a big credit to the humanity shown by the NYPD, but there was a catch. The homeless were only allowed to sleep for two nights a month in any one station house. For this reason, they were called “revolvers.”

That sounds like a grim existence, but there were those at the time — who had full bellies, money in their wallets and a roof over their heads — who condemned “the over-generous charity of the city” on the grounds that it “might sap the foundation of that independence of character, and that reliance on one’s own resources.”

One might hope that nearly 160 years later that kind of thinking would be obsolete. Instead, it’s alive and well and is being promoted in West Virginia by some state Republicans and out-of-state groups like the Foundation for Government Accountability, which aims to tighten the screws on poor people, many of whom are presumed to be “fraudsters” living too high on the hog.

Two groups targeted are people receiving TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), which is often referred to as “welfare,” and those receiving SNAP (formerly food stamp) benefits. There are all kinds of wild misconceptions about both.

People tend to vastly overestimate the number of state residents receiving welfare cash assistance and the level of benefits. But according to the DHHR, in September 2016, there were only 7,678 cases statewide. Of these, most were child-only cases with no adults in the benefit group, most of whom were kids living with a grandparent or other relative and who received no other support.

The number of adult cases (i.e. parents with kids) receiving cash assistance was only 2,698. That’s down from around 35,000 when “welfare reform” went into effect in the 1990s.

I did the math, dividing 2,698 adults getting TANF by the 2015 West Virginia population estimate of 1,844,128. That amounts to way less than 1 percent of the population. To be more precise, it’s 0.0015 percent -- not that anybody with a hard-on to cut benefits really seems to be counting.

As for the high-on-the-hog part, the TANF maximum benefit for a family of three is $340 per month, or $11 and some change per day per family. If people think it’s easy to live on that, I’d suggest they try it for a few months.

Benefits were actually slashed by $100 per month back in 2004, and the cuts have never been restored.

The typical adult receiving TANF is a single female, with two kids and some or all of a high school education, who might be a survivor of domestic violence and who has to comply with some stringent rules to receive temporary benefits and is subject to serious sanctions for failing to meet requirements.

Then there’s the SNAP population. According to the USDA, “SNAP continues to have one of the lowest fraud rates for federal programs.”

The West Virginia caseload is much larger than TANF, with more than 350,000 people enrolled in 2013. But around two-fifths of these were children and one-fifth were elderly or disabled. Around one-fourth are adults living with children.

Many of the adults who receive SNAP benefits work at jobs that pay so little they have to depend on this kind of help to get by.

Back to the proverbial hog. The average household SNAP benefit is $255 per month. Try eating high on the hog with that amount of money.

One might think the solution to the problem is to attract more and better jobs to the state, but others believe making benefits even harder to get is the answer. At any rate, it's probably a lot easier and thus more attractive to those who enjoy poor-shaming.

One thing that particularly seems to irk some people is the shocking discovery that some benefits are being spent in multiple states, although you might expect that in a state where around half of the counties border other states or where, God forbid, people visit family members who live elsewhere or who are serving in the military.

I guess that could be remedied by putting collars on poor people that give shocks when the borders are crossed, like the invisible fences some people use with dogs. Or we could try bringing back patrols like those used in the South before and after the Civil War to keep certain populations in line.

Or we could decide that we have better, less petty and more honorable things to do than stomp on people who are already down.

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