Michael Maiello's picture

    The Social Safety Net Isn't Good Enough

    A fascinating analysis in The New York Times today takes a crack at the Thomas Frank problem of why people vote Republican, against their own economic interests. Alex MacGillis reports his way to a new conclusion -- people using government assistance aren't voting at all.  Those who have used it, successfully, to clamber into the lower rungs of the middle class are voting and they are voting against the programs that helped them succeed.

    This is not as crass as it sounds.  MacGillis profiles a woman who used a federally funded tuition assistance program to attend nursing school.  She now works at a clinic that provides dialysis services to people, largely covered by Medicare.  She is angry that most of her clients claim disability rather than work.  She believes that the programs they use to obtain medical treatment, which MacGillis describes as justified precisely because they allow citizens to remain productive, should have work requirements.  She cites, from her own story, the requirement that she maintain a certain GPA in order to keep her publicly funded scholarship money.

    I think there's a lot wrong with her analysis.  First, there's the notion that a ton of people could work but don't because they live off the government dole.  I'd wager that any increase in people living off of Social Security Disability Insurance since the Financial Crisis can be attributed not to laziness but to the reality of an extremely difficult labor market.  Indeed, the increase of SSDI recipients implies to me the opposite conclusion that many have drawn -- it says to me that before the Financial Crisis, a lot of people who had conditions that would have qualified them as disabled and unable to work were working anyway and were often working through the pain, perhaps to the detriment of their long term health.  The benefits provided to a disabled citizen are so meager that this is hardly a surprising conclusion.  From an earnings perspective, it makes a lot more sense to work hurt and make more money than to not work and to scrape by on SSDI.

    The idea that people living on public assistance don't vote is also not surprising to me.  It's a miserable way to live.  Public benefits are not generous.  Buying groceries with food stamps is obviously better than starvation, but I would not wish it on my least favorite person in the world. Publicly funded unemployment insurance (you know this as "welfare payments") replace a small percentage of lost income for the involuntarily unemployed and the process for collecting these payments (paid for, by the way, by the taxes paid while employed) is often degrading -- we've all heard tales of laid off professionals forced to take unnecessary job placement seminars and the like.  It really is unemployment insurance but it carries a stigma unlike any other.  Could you imagine looking down on somebody for making a claim to State Farm when their house burns down?

    People living on government assistance are beaten financially, emotionally and politically.  No politicians in America, at any level, courts the "welfare vote."  For people without any money, even micro-donations are not possible. When they are noticed in the media, it is not for their political opinions.  They are treated as supplicants, not citizens.  They are also, because of the stigma associated with receiving public assistance, unlikely to organize publicly (and, when they do, how are such organizations treated by our media and rival politicians?)

    Those like our nurse, who have struggled and risen, remember public assistance for what it is -- a series of trials that is helpful but hardly indulgent and they want people to make the same progress they did and can maybe become a little judgmental about it, even though all of our circumstances are different.

    The problem, for those who believe in the social safety net, is that the social safety net that we have alienates its own beneficiaries from the political process.  It primarily does this by keeping them poor and treating them as stupid. MacGillis has answered Frank -- people are not voting against their interests, they are simply not voting.

    That these people are disinterested is a failure of the system and the problem is not that we have some sort of persuasive welfare state. It's the opposite.



    The social safety net 'keeps people poor and stupid'? That is your belief ?

    I thought it was Wall Street's job to keep us poor, and Republicans job to keep us stupid.

    In the end, it does.  I think that's against the intentions of those who support it and in favor of those who oppose it.  I think the hoops we make people jump through to get help are absurd. I think the low level of help we give is absurd.  In the end, this combines to keep people poor and stupid.

    It doesn't have to be this way, of course.  I'm not supporting what it is or what it does.

    I'm assuming that by "stupid" you mean uninformed. That poor people with little hope don't statistically vote doesn't mean that they don't understand the issues; it more likely means that they aren't convinced that their vote matters. Sadly, they aren't alone.

    I have had some very intelligent political conversations with people waiting their turn at the Food Bank.  It is a process that takes a couple of hours. We make it hard for people to register and vote. 

    I think I let my rhetoric get away from me this time.  Meant no dispresect.

    I'm confused. If you don't support the safety net and what it does, does that mean you want to abolish it? That would make you a Republican. But you didn't sound like one before.

    I support a social safety net.  Just... a good one.

    The indigent may not vote, but why do working class and lower middle class Republicans vote against their economic interests?

    An unrelated question: if, as conservatives say, unemployment is caused by laziness, do people get lazier during a recession?

    Theorizing,:is worse than useless ,,susceptible to  prejudicial conclusions compared to those derived from data- based polling-validated by psychological in-depth research..

    Or in plain talk: ask them. 


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