America’s social safety net, such as it is, has recently come under some scrutiny. Chana Joffe-Walt’s in-depth exploration of the increase in people getting Social Security Disability benefits at NPR got many listeners buzzing. Then in The Wall Street Journal, Damian Paletta and Caroline Porter looked at the increase in the use of food stamps, called SNAP. All three journalists look at the increasing dependence on these programs and come away puzzled: Why are so many people now getting disability and food stamp payments?
The answer is two-fold. Recent trends give us the first part of the explanation. Yes, as Paletta and Porter note, the economy is recovering and the unemployment rate is falling. But, as they recognize, the poverty rate is also rising. And therein lies the rub: people are getting jobs but staying poor. The available jobs are increasingly low-wage and don’t pay enough to live off of. And the big profits in the private sector haven’t led to an increase in wages.
GDP and employment may be doing well, but that hasn’t done much for those at the bottom of the totem pole. As the WSJ article points out, 48.5 million people were living in poverty in 2011, up from 37.3 million in 2007, a 30 percent increase. This is despite an unemployment rate that’s fallen off its peak. Some of the fall in the unemployment rate has been driven by people simply giving up on looking for a job altogether. But those who do get jobs are likely trading their once middle-class employment for low-wage work. The National Employment Law Project has found that mid-wage jobs have been wiped out during the recovery in favor of low-wage work: low paying jobs grew nearly three times as fast as mid-wage or high-wage work.
But there’s a deeper explanation that goes beyond the current economic picture. Aren’t there other programs for the increasing ranks of people living in poverty to turn to? Unfortunately, we’ve worked hard to weaken key parts of the safety net by changing how programs operate and then cutting back on their funds. Consequently, the number of people who are reached by programs for the poor has shrunk. But when you take away someone’s lifeline, they don’t stop needing it. So they either suffer hardship or find support elsewhere. What disability insurance and SNAP have in common is that they are fully funded by the federal government, which also can set the eligibility requirements. While states narrow eligibility requirements for TANF or unemployment insurance, the federal government can leave them (relatively) more open for SNAP and disability. That leaves them absorbing those who we’ve thrown off the rolls of other programs.
Unemployment benefits are where people turn when they lose a job and need income before getting back to work. But due to financial and other requirements, not everyone gets them. These rules vary state by state because states are in almost complete control of the program. They set their own eligibility criteria and benefit levels and are also on the hook for most of the funding for the benefits. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports, “the federal government pays only the administrative costs.”
Unlike the federal government, states have constrained budgets and most have to balance them every year. These budgets get even tighter in a downturn when people lose jobs and don’t pay as many taxes. On top of this, states have come under pressure from business groups during good times to reduce the contributions they use to fund the reserves that pay out benefits when things get tough. So many states have cut back on eligibility or benefit amounts in light of squeezed budgets. Given all of these constraints on benefits, only about a third of all children whose parents were unemployed at some point in 2011 actually saw any unemployment insurance benefits. They were far more likely to get food stamps, a federally funded program that has been much more flexible.
This story of a program financed by states that hasn’t been able to keep up with demand is the same for another huge part of the social safety net: welfare, or as we know it now, TANF. TANF does even worse than unemployment: it reaches just 10 percent of the children living with unemployment parents and just 30 percent of those living in poverty. The program used to do much better: in 1996, it reached 70 percent of poor families with children living in poverty. But then there was welfare reform, which turned it from a cost-sharing model to a block grant. Rather than the federal government sharing the costs with the states, the government now doles out lumps of cash and mostly lets states handle the rest. That lump doesn’t change even if the economy gets worse and more people live in poverty—and hasn’t even kept up with inflation.
While welfare reformers initially claimed victory as rolls fell during a booming 90s economy, the numbers have continued to fall even as jobs have disappeared. The poverty rate among families is back up to 1996 levels, but TANF’s caseload has fallen by 60 percent since then.
These families aren’t magically de-impoverished when they’re kicked off of government support programs. So they either go hungry or find other means of support. Enter SNAP and disability. SNAP has grown by 45 percent to meet increased need in the poor economy. The federal government was able to increase funding and waive some barriers to entering the program.
The CBPP reports that the growth in the use of disability insurance, on the other hand, is in large part due to demographic factors—an aging population and women’s increased entrance into the workforce—which accounts for half its growth since 1990. The elderly are far more likely to be disabled than younger workers, and more women workers means more workers who might become disabled. Other factors that contributed to its growth include the economic downturn. Joffe-Walt reports on how disability has dovetailed with welfare pruning its rolls. As she shows in two graphs, the number of low-income people on disability rose just as the number of families on welfare declined. Disability receipts also rise as unemployment rises. To qualify for disability, an applicant must have, as CBPP puts it, “little or no income and few assets”—which means that if unemployment and poverty rise, more people will fit this description. As Harold Pollack points out, “If you have a bad back, and the only jobs available are manual labor, that’s a real limitation. You’re unable to work. So it very much matters that we’re in a deep recession and a lot of the opportunities people faced are limited.”
Other than elderly disabled workers, those who sign up for disability are those who can’t even dream of finding a job that doesn’t require physical exertion and have no other income—thus leaving them with no where to turn but disability. After all, unemployment only lasts so long and TANF now comes with strict work requirements. Disability steps in when those with low education levels who live in communities based around industry—hard manual labor—lose their jobs and fall into poverty.
This is what happens when you burn enormous holes in the fabric of the social safety net: people either fall through or cling to the remaining parts. We can certainly debate whether we want food stamps and disability to carry so much of the burden of supporting the poor and vulnerable. In fact, this all seems to point to the simplest answer, which is to just hand money to those in poverty rather than funnel it through these different programs that may or may not actually meet people’s needs. But what we shouldn’t do is assume that food stamps and disability are bloated programs because so many people rely on them and then jump to cutting them back. Poor people don’t disappear just because we slash the programs they rely on. They still struggle to get by. That’s the lesson we should have learned over the past two decades.
By: Bryce Covert, The Nation, March 28, 2013
“Explain That Budget, Please”: Let’s Have Less Sanctimonious Talk About Your Principles And Vision Mr. Ryan
Today’s opening meditation, coinciding with the beginning of that annual speechapaloosa of the Right, CPAC, is from a belligerant remark made by Paul Ryan in an interview with National Review‘s Andrew Stiles, responding to incredulity that he’s back with more or less the same old budget for the third time:
Even some conservatives have questioned the idea of refighting old battles, as opposed to confronting the new reality with new solutions. But Ryan is sticking to his guns. “So just because the election didn’t go our way, that means we’re supposed to change our principles? We’re supposed to just go along to get along? We reject that view,” he tells National Review Online in an interview at his Capitol Hill office. “A budget is supposed to be a display of your vision,” he adds. “Our vision is a world without Obamacare.”
Ryan points out that Obama was not the only one who was returned to power in 2012; House Republicans maintained their majority. “We’re here, and we won our elections based on limited government, economic freedom, and we should not shy away from espousing those views,” he says.
If you’re like me, you’ve heard those words expressed by conservative ideologues so many times you barely register their content anymore: conservative principles, conservative principles, limited government, freedom, bark bark woof woof. Ryan may rely for his reputation in D.C. on a perception that he is some sort of genius-wonk, but the reason “the base” went nuts with joy when Mitt Romney lifted him to the national ticket last year is that right-wing activists believe he’s found a way to reflect their “conservative principles” in a blizzard of numbers.
But if you get out of the trance-state of believing everything Ryan says, and that his fans say about him, do his budgets actually reflect, or disguise, his “principles?”
Let me once again quote a key paragraph of Ryan’s speech last November at the Jack Kemp Foundation dinner wherein he discussed his “vision,” which is a world not only without Obamacare, but without any real public safety net:
Not every problem disappears through the workings of the free market alone. Americans are a compassionate people. And there’s a consensus in this country about our obligations to the most vulnerable. Those obligations are beyond dispute. The real debate is how best we can meet them. It’s whether they are better met by private groups or by government – by voluntary action or by government action.
Think about this approach for a minute. Ryan begins from the premise that the free market will if left alone solve most social and economic problems; you don’t even get into the discussion of a public role until we’re talking about “the most vulnerable.” And once we are there, the conservative side of the argument is to press for “voluntary action” by “private groups”–i.e., public abandonment, perhaps with a tax credit and hearty good wishes, but abandonment all the same.
Is that what you get when you peel back all the numbers and look for Ryan’s “principles?” I guess so, since the numbers themselves are actually pretty opaque. Why won’t Ryan specify the impact his spending assumptions would have on non-defense discretionary spending? Why won’t he address what happens to the Medicare “premium support” payment if all the market magic he’s assuming does not radically reduce health care inflation? If his “vision” is that federal support for and regulation of the program we now call Medicaid is to whither away, why not say so? Why go through the subterfuge of a “block grant” if the idea is that states would eventually liberate the poor from dependence on this program as they compete to cut costs and reduce eligibility?
And why, in the third iteration of his budget, why does Ryan remain unwilling to specify the content of that vast magic asterisk he identifies as “tax reform?”
Sure, all these evasions can be justified on Machiavellian grounds, but I thought we were talking about a bold expression of “conservative principle,” a “vision” here, not some mendacious effort to sneak “principle” through the bedroom window!
But this should come as no surprise after a 2012 campaign in which Ryan outdid Romney in posing as the maximum champion of Medicare because he opposed reductions in provider payments even though he included those same reductions in his own budget, and is doing so again today. What “principles” did that Medagoguery reflect? What “vision” are we supposed to glimpse? A world in which wealthier people over 55–which also happen to be the most pro-Republican group of people in the electorate–are insulated from any budget cuts while mothers with children under the poverty line are asked to make “sacrifices?” Spell it out, Paul Ryan!
It’s not just Ryan, of course. Republican pols generally are reluctant to tell us how they envision the country’s future. This is why when they occasionally let the mask slip and attack the New Deal or “government schools” or the very idea of income taxes or popular election of senators or any limitation on property rights or any concept of reproductive rights or any “entitlement” to public resources among those people–they are greeted with a feral roar of recognition and joy from the activist base for telling it like it is.
That is precisely what Paul Ryan won’t do. So love him or hate it, but let’s have less sanctimonious talk from him and his conservative fans about his “principles” and “vision.” He’s hiding both.
By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, March 14, 2013
Greg Sargent had a good post this morning positing this counterfactual: Suppose Mitt Romney and his tax- and spending-cut agenda had won a decisive victory over President Obama last November and in reaction Senate Democrats (still controlling their chamber) had doubled down on a progressive agenda with calls for social safety net expansion, tax-hike-only deficit reduction, stimulus spending, and then had crowned that agenda with admonishments that President Romney had “failed to sincerely try to find common ground with them.”
This is, of course, the track Republicans have followed in the wake of their side’s 2012 loss: Steady on, refuse to adjust their policy course, and claim the other guy is being unreasonable and won’t compromise. But given the howls of outrage from the right at President Obama’s pursuing a liberal course after campaigning on it and winning, it’s not hard to imagine the what-might-have-been reaction to unabashed progressivism in the face of a Romney-Ryan administration. I don’t think that it’s a stretch to say that Obama’s victory was the main difference between the right declaring 2012 a clarion mandate election and a … uh … well, whatever they think the 2012 election was.
The fact is that if the old adage goes that “elections have consequences,” it might have to be rewritten thusly to take into account the modern GOP: “Primary elections have consequences.” For House Republicans (the group that is currently driving the party and its agenda) the past and future national elections hold less import than their 2012 and 2014 primary elections; the broad will of the voters—who by a solid margin re-elected a progressive president who campaigned on securing the safety net and increasing taxes—is less important than the desires of the GOP voters and activists in their carefully drawn congressional districts.
That’s why so many conservatives talk about responding to the 2012 elections with a more pronounced version of the same.
And, as I argued last week, to the extent that they acknowledge the 2012 elections, they seem to view it as an illegitimate expression of the national will: Too many city voters cast ballots, so it can be discounted.
By: Robert Schlesinger, U. S. News and World Report, March 11, 2013
“Rights Are Not Entitlements”: Fundamental Human Rights Are Not Items That legislation Should Be Able To Take Away
As Americans discuss our system of social supports, we constantly hear the word “entitlements” and rarely the word “rights.” Of course, in America the word “entitlements” is not a neutral word. Rather, it is a loaded word, laced with specific attitudes and associations in both the speaker’s mouths and listener’s ears.
Instead of repeating facts about how America’s system of social supports is substantially smaller than nearly every other wealthy democratic country or the simple fact that America is the wealthiest country in the history of the world, it is important to pause to think about the concept of human rights.
A good starting point for thinking about human rights is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a declaration authored by a number of international delegates (including former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt) and adopted by the United States and other members of the United Nations in 1948. This document builds on other declarations of human rights that have occurred in the past including our own Declaration of Independence’s statement of the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
In our era of drone strikes without a judicial process, it is important to point out that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.”
In our era of for-profit prisons pushing legislation to increase America’s already world-leading incarceration rates even higher, our era of prison gerrymandering and prison labor, it is important to point out that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude.”
In our era of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, it is important to point out that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.”
In our era of attempts to slash support for the unemployed and aggressive attempts to dismantle the rights of labor to organize, it is important to point out that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.”
In our era of attacks on America’s already minimal social security system, it is important to point out that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”
There was a time when our nation eloquently wrote and spoke in support of the basic rights of humans yet we have consistently abandoned those words, time after time, action after action, century after century.
Often when someone suggests that America needs to slash “entitlements,” I find myself asking two simple questions, “What are the most fundamental human rights and what role should governments play in guaranteeing those fundamental human rights?” After all, fundamental human rights are not items that legislation should be able to give and take away with the stroke of a pen or the barrel of a gun.
By: Howard Steven Friedman, Open Salon Blog, Salon, February 28, 2013
March 4, 2013 Posted by raemd95 | Civil Rights, Human Rights | Abu Ghraib, Entitlements, Human Rights and Liberties, Incarceration Rates, Social Safety Net, Social Security, United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights | 1 Comment
The Republicans, now led from behind by House Speaker John Boehner, are painting themselves into a tiny corner. Boehner may have secured his job as speaker but he has categorically rejected any hope of a grand bargain, thereby leading his party in a rejection of America’s middle class. Unless he can be persuaded by Republican senators and a few dozen of his House colleagues to accept a balanced deal with the president and the Democrats he will severely harm his party by appealing only to the Tea Party.
Leaving the White House after the meeting with the president, Speaker Boehner dug in his heels against the closing of any tax loopholes or raising any revenue. Hasn’t he learned anything since the election?
Look at what has happened to the Republicans. Democrats have a 22 point advantage (according to the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll) on who would look out for the middle class, the largest margin in 20 years. The same poll found that 36 percent of the public viewed the Republicans favorably in October of 2012, only 29 percent view them favorably today—a remarkable drop in just four months.
And there are very good reasons why House Republicans, who really are the current face of the party, are tanking. They are completely out of touch with the American people on the critical issues. Putting aside votes on the Violence Against Women Act or relief for Hurricane Sandy or averting the “fiscal cliff” or even gay rights, choice, and immigration, they are digging a huge hole for themselves on economic issues.
Right now, 76 percent of Americans want a balanced approach to cutting the deficit, only 19 percent support the Republican position of “cuts only.” By over 2 to 1, voters think the sequester is a bad idea. If the House Republicans and John Boehner continue down their radical path of refusing to negotiate, threatening government shutdowns, and not raising the debt limit, their public standing will continue to erode.
According to a National Journal survey, four-fifths of Americans want to completely exempt Social Security and Medicare from any deficit reduction.
With entitlements making up two-thirds of the budget and growing, it doesn’t take Willie Sutton to figure out that’s where the money is! In order to get Democrats to take on entitlements and the political heat that would bring, the Republicans need to acknowledge that the wealthy must pay their fair share, that hedge fund managers and corporate jet owners shouldn’t be getting more tax breaks. Real tax reform means that we have a fairer and more equitable system. That really is only common sense.
But right now, if Boehner continues to march in lock step with his right flank, there will be no grand bargain, there will be no tax reform, there will be no stabilizing of future budgets. Boehner caved during the last grand bargain negotiations in 2011, according to this week’s New Yorker, because Eric Cantor and the Tea Party forced him to pull out of the deal.
Now, he refuses to negotiate, to work across the aisle, to even work with Senate Republicans. This is not the mark of a leader but someone who has been co-opted by the extremists in his party.
By: Peter Fenn, U. S. News and World Report, March 1, 2013
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