Our Welfare Puritanism

By Jack Meserve

The question of checks has, in recent months, captured more of the societal consciousness than any policy proposal since Obamacare. Explainers on checks, memes about checks, people in desperation and immiseration relying on checks for rent and food. Popular enough that Josh Hawley and Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and Joe Biden all insist on checks arriving in mailboxes (or direct deposits in bank accounts). Compelling enough that checks are one of the only bipartisan policies in America, with 80 percent of all voters supporting them. Why this intense support, not just in a dull political sense but in a vibrant and psychological and animating one?

To answer that, let me briefly talk about babies. When Matt Bruenig of the People’s Policy Project released an excellent collection of policy proposals in 2019 to support parents and children, the “Family Fun Pack,” he included a bevy of expensive, comprehensive plans like free childcare and generous paid leave. But the policy that rattled around in my head for months was the smallest and cheapest: the baby box. An existing program in Finland, Scotland, and elsewhere, it’s a box of supplies—books, clothes, diapers—that the government gives to all mothers, free of charge and with no restrictions. The box itself can act as a bassinet, and Scotland’s includes a poem, “Welcome Wee One,” by their national poet.

The boring, rational part of my brain kept saying: “This is a tiny program, this isn’t actually a vital part of a family support policy, why do you care?” But I’d still find myself fixating on the idea, which I’d bring up at boring Washington parties back when there were parties. Because the small romance of your government sending your baby a giraffe toy masks something massive and entirely missing from American governance: a message that you and your family have intrinsic value, that you are part of a community that trusts you and will help you.

Checks resonate for a similar reason. Because the government sending you a check with no preconditions, even if it doesn’t include a poem, also sends a message: You deserve help, we trust you to spend this on what you need. This is an exception in decades of American policymaking, where the standard has become a ritual debasement and humiliation of citizens who are often in the worst moments of their lives. This stance the government takes toward its citizens is a hidden variable, forgotten among endless quantitative debates. This qualitative stance of suspicion and doubt is a perpetual poisoning of the well against government for those who receive benefits, and against recipients for those who don’t. A new movement of the broad left has to change this stance toward one of trust and belief if any of these reforms are going to stick.

A handful of current American aid programs are instructive, but let’s start with one literally close to home. If you needed to use the SNAP/EBT program, what used to be called food stamps, and walked into the Wawa near my old apartment to buy a sandwich, you’d see this sign scattered throughout the store.

The rules vary slightly depending on state, but this restriction is standard based on federal rules: no hot food; no prepared food. This all stems from trying to prevent supposedly lazy Americans from wasting precious taxpayer money on surf and turf. An article at the food website Civil Eats illustrates how that works in practice:

Esperanza Fonseca was trying to get her life back on track. It was 2017, and she had recently lost her job and her apartment in Southern California, and was living out of a friend’s car. After enrolling for SNAP food-assistance benefits in her county, she tried to use her benefits card to buy the salmon lunch special at a Ralph’s supermarket, but she was refused.

“They told me that they could only sell me raw fish. They couldn’t sell me anything that had been cooked or prepared. It was against the law,” Fonseca said. “And in that moment, it was really humiliating because there’s no dignity in this. Having no access to a kitchen, there was no way I could cook food.”

Maybe you think Esperanza, living in a friend’s car, should have looked up the rules prior to using this benefit. If she’d done so, she would have found this totally clear and rational explanation: “See, generally, 7 C.F.R. § 271.2 and MPP § 63-102(e)(2)…. Prepared food intended for on-premises consumption [are ineligible], but prepared food intended for off-premises consumption is eligible as long it is not hot at the point of sale.”

It’s worth emphasizing: It is not per se the amount of the benefit that is the problem here, but the entire orientation of the aid. An implicit assumption of these rules is that you, the recipient, are a mooching layabout who, if you’re not kept in line, will bankrupt the government through “toasted bread or rolls.” Also, in electoral terms, it’s hard to think of a better way to give voters material help and gain absolutely nothing from it than to subject them to humiliating restrictions as a condition of that help.

Another example is unemployment. Albert Burneko, a former Deadspin writer, tried to file for unemployment in Maryland during the pandemic. Before he could even file a claim, the state made him watch an infantilizing and insulting video titled “Sometimes Good People Make Bad Decisions,” which all prospective unemployment recipients must watch. It has both the title and production value of a sex-ed video for middle schoolers. The video follows a family who discovers that an older man of their acquaintance has been receiving unemployment benefits while, horror of horrors, visiting his out-of-state brother and working hours at his wife’s small business while waiting for his new job to start. (You cannot travel out of state while on unemployment benefits, and receiving any income voids your benefits.)

The video’s message is that this man is a disgusting worm who is “subject to criminal prosecution.” I use the word infantilizing literally: The video’s narrative structure is driven by an annoying pre-teen boy asking his parents why “Mr. Bailey is getting free money from the government.”

The concerned parents lay out the myriad ways the unemployed Mr. Bailey is culpable, and the video concludes with the father staring directly at the camera to say, “Ignorance of the law is no excuse” and giant floating Word Art telling the unemployed viewer “Don’t Commit Fraud.”

By every metric, losing a job is one of the single worst events that can happen to a person, causing long-term damage to mental health, marital relationships, and personal sense of identity. Most states’ unemployment systems are set up to look at that person and ask him or her “How dare you ask us for help?”

Burneko ended up not receiving unemployment benefits from Maryland.

These are individual programs, but the case study of a family who needed substantial help from the government better illustrates this default position of governmental distrust and judgment.

Andrea Louise Campbell is a professor of political science at MIT, and an expert in America’s welfare state. That should have been helpful when her seven-months-pregnant sister-in-law, Marcella, was in a car accident caused by a hit-and-run driver that left Marcella a quadripelegic with an infant. In Campbell’s criminally underrated book Trapped in America’s Safety Net, she describes how Marcella and her husband Dave are demeaned by the government. They had health insurance, but it wasn’t adequate, which started a Kafkaesque journey through California’s aid programs for the poor and disabled, which are all too complicated for even Campbell to understand.

Campbell walks the reader through what  Marcella and Dave had to do to receive help. First, “Dave and Marcella must also meet Medi-Cal’s asset test…. Their house and one vehicle are exempt. Beyond those two items, they can possess only $3,150 in assets, total. They have to liquidate everything else and must put the resulting cash only into the house and the one car…. Even Dave’s hobby runs afoul of this asset test: he must sell the old cars he was working on.”

Marcella has extraordinary medical needs, which California penny pinches on in pointless and degrading ways. For instance, “Medicaid will pay for incontinence supplies, although fewer than Marcella actually needs; every month she has to apply and get approval for thirty additional catheters. Medicaid will pay for a wheelchair, although not necessarily an adequate one [capable of reclining]…. Now when Marcella has to be catheterized every five hours, she has to stop what she’s doing and go home to a bed where she can lie flat.” Even the benefits for her child are pointlessly restrictive: “Marcella and the baby did qualify for Women, Infants and Children….WIC supplies infant formula, but only one type, which made Logan [her baby] throw up.”

Campbell asks the California social worker whether she can help pay for preschool for Logan when the time comes. The answer? “If it were considered a loan, yes. But if you simply pay for his preschool, it counts as income for Dave and Marcella, so no.”

This governmental attitude even taints private charity. Campbell recounts how a local cafe owner gave extra proceeds from a fundraiser to Marcella. The result? Because of government income limits, “After the fund-raiser, [Marcella’s social worker] called up: Where’s the money?”

Campbell, no Marxist firebrand, sums all this up well:

As a social policy scholar, I thought I knew a lot about these programs. I had been teaching and writing about them for years, first at Harvard and then at MIT. Little did I anticipate how useless I would be to Dave and Marcella as they tried to navigate the extraordinarily complex American system of social assistance.

And nothing prepared me for the Dickensian reality we encountered. I will never read the sober, measured manuals from government programs or the academic analyses of social policy in the same way again. Behind the statistics—and beyond the ideological battles over policy design—are human beings whose lives are molded, distorted, and stunted by policies purported to help them.

Even more than cuts in the amount of aid, an insidious way that austerity has entrenched itself in the last four decades is by infusing every government program with suspicion and doubt toward the citizens it is supposed to help. That stance leaches into the populace, where soon average citizens look at their neighbors’ unemployment claims with skepticism, their fellow citizens’ need for help as an indication of sloth and greed. We now too often have a country of welfare puritans, all suffused with a haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be getting a benefit she doesn’t deserve. The saddest aside in Andrea Louise Campbell’s book is her offhand mention that, after she wrote an op-ed in The New York Times about the difficulty her quadripelegic sister-in-law had receiving aid, she received multiple emails from readers describing Marcella and Dave as “irresponsible loafers soaking the public.”

I’ve become more convinced that these means tests and restrictions and rules have a vast harm that ripples outward through policymaking. FAFSA, the federal student aid form, is meant to check income so that only the needy are helped with college tuition. The form has become so complex, so onerous and burdensome that The Wall Street Journal dryly notes that the “students who most need the assistance are least likely to apply for it.” (This has long been a critical mistake of fans of means-testing, the assumption that such a test somehow only applies to the rich, instead of burdening everyone, including those who need help the most.) The solution to this problem? States are now passing laws that require high-school students to complete the FAFSA forms in order to graduate. To reiterate, one part of government passes a means test so complicated it backfires, and a different part of government tries to fix the problem by imposing yet another onerous regulation.

Or take a particular quandary with the Earned Income Tax Credit. It’s long stumped wonks why working-class people use for-profit tax preparers like H&R Block, who soak up hundreds of dollars of desperately needed aid in fees. Deserved blame goes to those companies, who target the poor with a variety of misleading and exploitative ads. But in their book It’s Not Like I’m Poor, Sarah Halpern-Meekin and co-authors interview more than a hundred families using the EITC and other tax credits and just ask them why they used these private preparers. The repeated answer is that private companies treat them with dignity and respect, which is a rare and pleasant feeling. “The bright offices, neat as a pin, and the ‘specialists’ at H&R Block…[who] treat you like a valued customer, just like every other taxpayer” contrast with these individuals’ experience at “the welfare office, where many had to go apply for TANF, SNAP, or Medicaid: long lines in drab buildings, impersonal or even rude treatment, and the heavy atmosphere of desperate people soliciting aid.” One interviewee described her treatment: “[Caseworkers] talk to you like you’re an imbecile. They talk down to you like you’re a second-class citizen.”

In this light of people already beaten down by the difficult circumstances of their life being further degraded by the people and institutions supposed to help them, it’s entirely “rational” to spend a few hundred dollars of your tax refund to be treated like a human being for a couple hours.

So why do checks have power, bipartisan and psychological and cultural? Because COVID’s unique damage has had at least some leveling effect. Under this pandemic, even many of the more materially well off feel their health threatened, their relationships faltering, their mental health deteriorating. For this brief moment, all of us are in a position of need, admittedly to wildly different degrees. But a check is help in the way that a tax-preferenced account, a refundable credit, a bag of groceries you have to prostrate yourself before the state to claim, is not. Franklin Roosevelt put it well in 1936: “We seek not merely to make Government a mechanical implement, but to give it the vibrant personal character that is the very embodiment of human charity.” So yes, let’s send the check, but let’s use this moment of shared suffering to do much more, to craft aid that assumes the best of the Americans who need it.

Jack Meserve is the managing editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.

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