Wednesday 9 October 2013

How To End Welfare As We Know It – Really!

Ok, Rethuglicans. I see your welfare disdain and raise you a plan. Rep. Steve King of Iowa said in July that the U.S. has a "cradle-to-grave" welfare system that encourages dependency. You know what? I agree. Wait, hold your shrieks of outrage and/or your applause. Let me explain: The U.S. welfare system does encourage dependency. It is difficult for someone receiving benefits—Rep. King noted that there are at least 80 different programs—to become financially independent and no longer need this assistance. There are, to put it mildly, disincentives to leaving some of the programs. But the reasons are not what Rep. King and other cons think they are. In fact, the reasons are of their own making.

Reason #1) Lack of universal, single-payer health care
One, single-payer health care system for ALL Americans would reduce welfare dependency more than any other policy change. Mothers on benefits who get a job lose Medicaid for their child(ren). If they do not get insurance with their job, which is common for low-wage workers, and they cannot afford to buy coverage, also common, they have little choice but to quit their jobs if their child becomes sick or just not get a job in the first place. Welfare case workers have plenty of stories of women who work low-wage jobs with no benefits calling them up & saying, "My child is sick, what do I do now that I am working and no longer have Medicaid?" "Quit your job so your child can go to a doctor" is the response they get.  This also applies if the mother, rather than the child, is ill.

The phenomenon of people needing to keep their income below a certain level in order to maintain their eligibility for government-subsidised health care increases the use of benefits substantially. The same situation applies to people on SSI disability. They may be able to do some work but they would lose their disability payments if they took a job, even a part-time one, so they don't work at all or only under the table.  Most people who are not totally disabled could do some work but not nearly enough to survive.  Despite some attempts at reform, most welfare programs are all-or-nothing.  You earn, you lose.

Beyond mothers and children, medical expenses are the single greatest source of financial strain on Americans. People who lose their jobs and their homes when they become sick or injured sign up for unemployment, food stamps, Medicaid, and other benefits. All because of medical bills they wouldn't receive in a rational, humane health care system. I just read about a cancer victim who could not afford surgery—no insurance provided by his employer—who lost his job due to his declining health. Once he was unemployed, he was eligible for Medicaid and received treatment.  He was also now eligible for unemployment and food stamps.  So, we have a man who was gainfully employed full-time, receiving no government assistance, who winds up on three benefits programs due to health care expenses.  If we had universal health care, he could have received immediate treatment without losing his job.  He may wind up on disability—a fourth program—which he could have avoided had he gotten treatment earlier, before the cancer spread.

Universal health care would solve this, and many other problems. (Obamacare, alas, won't.) You cannot decry the use of social welfare benefits in one breath and oppose universal health care in the next; they are inextricably linked and inversely correlated.

Reason #2) Lack of a liveable minimum wage
We've all heard by now about Walmart workers being eligible for food stamps, and about many other companies scheduling workers for hours just below the threshold at which they would have to provide benefits (another problem that would be solved by universal health care!). I realise that many of the workers on benefits are not working full-time but that does not imply that full-time wages at $7.25/hour would support them; rather, full-time hours would still not pay a living wage but would trigger federal laws requiring their employers to pay benefits. So, it amounts to the same thing.

Listen carefully: No-one who works a full-time job should need government benefits to make ends meet. By definition, every full-time job should fully support an individual. In fact, the Rethuglicans who want women in the kitchen barefoot and pregnant and not in the paid workforce should be in favour of all full-time jobs supporting an entire family, wife and kids included. It is absurd that someone who works full-time should have to avail him- or herself of social welfare benefits just to keep a roof over their head and eat. The point of working full-time is that you are making a living. No full-time job should be allowed to pay so little that a person living within commuting distance of it cannot live on their wages. It should simply be illegal. Full stop.

So, if you oppose a minimum wage, don't complain about people receiving benefits to make ends approach.

Reason #3) Lack of adequate family-planning resources
The classic image of a welfare recipient is a single woman with children. The Rethug strategy for reducing out-of-wedlock births is to eliminate sex ed., impose abstinence-only education, and hinder the availability of birth control and abortion. If you want to reduce the number of single moms on welfare, the sensible strategy would be to enhance sex ed., and reduce the cost and increase the availability of birth control and abortion. Make it mandatory for all schools to teach accurate sex education and explain, repeatedly, to teenagers all birth control options and the importance of using them correctly each and every time they have sex.

Remove the stigma associated with abortion. Make it a given that anyone who cannot support a child without government aid will have an abortion if they get pregnant. I don't mean make abortion mandatory—we are not China—I mean make common sense the cultural norm instead of religious drivel. Create a culture where having sex without using birth control conscientiously or continuing a pregnancy when you do not have the money to support the ensuing baby is simply unconscionable. Just not done. Unthinkable. Do that instead of making abortions harder to obtain and allowing insurers to opt out of covering birth control and you will see far, far fewer women on welfare. 

Whilst we are on the subject, payments to the disabled constitute a considerable welfare expense. Since we have the technology to diagnose foetal abnormalities in utero, why not make it a moral imperative to abort foetuses with serious issues instead of spending tax money on their lifelong care? Rethugs applaud when a pregnant woman says she won't abort AND they balk at paying benefits. But they don't see the clear connection between them.  And I haven't even addressed the people on permanent disability benefits because they were the victims of gun violence or members of the military disabled in unnecessary wars.  The Rethugs blame the Dems for the size of the welfare state, but the majority of it is of their own making and perpetuation.

These three reasons are just the tip of the iceberg. The point is that if you say that you don't want citizens sucking on the government teat long-term, or at all, then you need to create a country—socially, economically, and legally—where citizens have both the incentives and ability to take care of themselves. The people who tend to screech the most vociferously for the government to get out of people's lives tend to be the ones most dependent upon its services and the ones most likely to favour the very policies that increase dependence.

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