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Why Do People Get So Upset When The Government Helps The Poor?

From food stamps to Medicaid, the government helps the needy in many ways—but we're still debating whether that's a good idea.

Why Do People Get So Upset When The Government Helps The Poor?

All Images: USDA Flickr

As reported in The New York Times, farms in Humphreys County, Mississippi have received over $250 million dollars in government subsidies since 1995. Ironically, this is also a county where half of its residents receive food stamps.

The farm subsidies are intended to help guarantee farmers a significant portion of their income in case of poor yields or declines in prices. Food stamps are intended to help guarantee that poor Americans can get some food assistance even with limited means.

In the case of Humphreys County, this means that a farmer can receive hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in subsidies. A family can receive less than $200 monthly in food stamp benefits.

We are deeply conflicted regarding when and how the government should intervene to help prop up the American Dream.

When asked in a national survey, Americans will tell you that the role of the government is pretty far down the list of what is necessary to achieve the American Dream. Yet, education is third on the list (behind hard work and a strong family) and is largely financed and run by the local, state and federal government.

KEEP THE GOVERNMENT AWAY FROM MY MEDICARE

During the debate over healthcare, many Americans expressed concern that the new Affordable Care Act would result in government-run healthcare. Ironically, some of the most concerned were those who were already receiving Medicaid or Medicare. In other words, those who were already receiving government-run healthcare, and by most studies, very happy with it.

This is yet one more example of what Suzanne Mettler refers to in her book, Submerged State. When we can’t see the help we’re getting, we don’t value it.

HANDOUTS, HAND-UPS OR HANDCUFFS

The role of government in helping someone rise is one of the most hotly contested debates in our country. One stoked by political extremism, media coverage, and talking points that obscure the reality of its ultimate impact.

From the New Deal plan through the War on Poverty, there was a concentrated effort to provide an essential safety net for the poorest among us. Making sure that Americans can eat (food stamps), can make enough to get by (minimum wage) and, have access to healthcare (Medicaid), are ideas that generally we support.

While we agree on the principles, when it comes to the government delivering these benefits, they become polarizing and stigmatizing. Why?

Freeloaders. Welfare Queens. Abuse. Fraud. Working the system. And most of all, lazy and irresponsible. Whatever you call it, there has been a steady drumbeat of stories and misinformation that overstates and stereotypes the negative elements of government programs that help others, and understates the fact that these programs, by and large, help people.

The key question is, how do they help people?

If you are conservative, you may think this kind of help is simply a government handout. It might help people, but it does so only in a way that leads to dependence.

If you are progressive, you think this kind of help offers a hand-up. In this instance, the government is trying to help someone get off the mat by providing temporary assistance. This is done with the hope that once help arrives,; you’ll be in a better position to elevate your station.

If you are a recipient of aid, you might even think of this kind of help as a pair of handcuffs. This was a term used by one working mother in Akron, Ohio, when we asked her if she thought food stamps could ultimately help in her quest to achieve the American Dream. Initially the response was jarring. But as she went on, we realized that what she was getting at was an underlying issue around these programs.

They are well-intentioned and important; but as currently designed, food stamps are not sufficient in increasing mobility.

When a mother, like the one in Akron, has to choose a lower paying job because a slightly higher paying one would result in a loss of food stamps for her children, then there is clearly an issue in design. She has to limit her own long-term mobility for short-term security.

DESIGNING BETTER GOVERNMENT

Increasingly, we are seeing more innovation in how these programs are designed and implemented. Some good. Some bad. Some ugly.

The good: The earned income tax credit, which basically supplements income, provided people put in the hard work. This is a program that President Ronald Reagan once called, "The best anti-poverty, pro-family, and the best job creation measure to come out of Congress." But even this widely popular program has its limitations as it only applies to families and not individuals.

The bad: Work requirements for welfare recipients. On principle, this effort was laudable and, in fact, was widely seen as a positive step. In 1996, in a deal brokered by President Clinton and Newt Gingrich, the "Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act" was passed, with a primary objective of moving people off of the government rolls and into the workforce. In one aspect, it was a huge success; welfare rates plummeted. But the work requirement for those on welfare did not increase substantially. Why? Because it was designed for the wrong problem. If the problem was lazy people who were taking advantage of the system, then the work requirement provides the proper incentive. However, if the issue was something like increases of single mothers who have few options for affordable day care or preschool, then requiring them to work only exacerbates their problem.

The ugly: If we go in thinking the worst of people, then we design ugly solutions. This is most apparent with new legislation coming out of Florida that will require drug tests for food stamp recipients. What signal does this send? It suggests pretty blatantly that we have a strong suspicion that many, if not most, food stamp recipients are drug users and that we shouldn’t waste funds on people who are engaged in such activities. That is no way to move people ahead. It just drives them further away.

WHAT GOVERNMENT SEES WHEN IT LOOKS IN THE MIRROR

It comes with little surprise then that we as Americans have a schizophrenic view of our government’s role in helping people achieve the Dream. After all, we’re merely a reflection of how our political leaders see and talk about their own roles.

At a 30,000-foot level, more progressive politicians see government’s role as trying to create systems to help people do better or fix broken systems that hold people back.

On the flip side, more conservative politicians will suggest that these systems actually get in the way of people trying to get ahead and should largely be minimized or removed.

In fact, in research conducted to understand how the two major parties thought about health, when staffers from each party were asked to create "visual metaphor" portraits of how they think people become healthier, this is exactly what we saw. Liberals produced pictures of cogs and machines and containers and systems. Conservatives put together pictures of roads and paths where people encounter barriers in need of overcoming or removal.

David Brooks of The New York Times put it this way:

"We now have one liberal tradition that believes in using government to enhance equality. We have another conservative tradition that believes in limiting government to enhance freedom. These two traditions have fought to a standstill."

In this same column he calls for the re-emergence of a third tradition, popularized by the Whig Party in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, which believed that government is in the tool business. If you give individuals the right tools, then they can navigate systems and remove obstacles on their path to a better place.

So if we should be in the tool business, what tools could help us get ahead?

A WORD ABOUT FOOD STAMPS

When did trying to give someone food become so politically polarizing? Food stamps are designed to give low-income people (mostly families with children) some additional resources so they can put food in their fridge, cupboards, plates and, most important, stomachs. Food Stamps help kids eat. Yet food stamps are the poster child for labeling the poor as "mooches," "takers" and "Welfare Queens." False stories about abuse run rampant. Jon Stewart on his Daily Show wryly pointed out that critics have blamed recipients for both purchasing food that was too unhealthy (snacks and soda) and too healthy (fresh fish because it’s too expensive). People have claimed that food stamps have been used to buy everything from liquor, ammunition, cars and fish bait. Most of these stories are bogus. And while there is fraud within this system (as there is in almost any system), it is remarkably low within the food stamps program and whatever fraud exists is not typically happening by individual recipients but by "better off" people creating Madoff-like reimbursement schemes.

The reality is that, for the most part, food stamps help parents feed their kids. Allowing their limited resources to cover other expenses like rent and childcare.

Furthermore, money spent on food stamps works its way through the economy, helping grocers, farmers' markets and food manufacturers. For every dollar spent on food stamps, it generates $1.64 in economic benefit for others.

Yet we stigmatize this program to the point that anyone who accepts it becomes stigmatized.

In our work, we’ve heard countless stories of mothers who sign up their families one day,; only to have their husbands, out of shame and embarrassment, drop them from the program the next.

When I was young, food stamps were a godsend. I remember how embarrassing it was for my mom to trek down to the welfare office and collect her benefits. I remember being denied items in grocery stores that went in other families’ grocery carts, because food stamps wouldn’t cover them. I remember the shame, guilt and stigma as if it all happened this morning.

Why? Because our government stepped up and said, we have families who don’t have enough to eat, we should help them?

The economist Paul Krugman wrote:

"It’s hard for young people to get ahead when they suffer from poor nutrition, inadequate medical care, and lack of access to good education. The antipoverty programs that we have actually do a lot to help people rise. For example, Americans who received early access to food stamps were healthier and more productive in later life than those who didn’t. But we don’t do enough along these lines. The reason so many Americans remain trapped in poverty isn’t that the government helps them too much, it’s that it helps them too little."

Thank you, Paul Krugman. And thank you to former Secretaries of Agriculture, Henry Wallace, and Milo Perkins, who first introduced and administered the program as a temporary relief plan as part of the New Deal, and to Congresswoman, Leonor K. Sullivan, who led the long struggle to make it a more permanent program in the early 1960s.

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