What is Welfare For?

I see Kevin Drum has replied to my criticisms. He writes:

Actually, Resnikoff’s response was pretty weak. Yes, sanctions are penalties. That’s the point: to push people to take jobs when they’re available. And yes, these are mostly low-wage, temporary jobs. But should welfare recipients be allowed to turn down jobs just because they’re temporary? Some of them probably should be, but not all.

The race argument is the only decent one, but Mike didn’t excerpt nearly enough of that in his post to make it clear what’s really going on. Besides, with a race-neutral correlation of .95, there’s really not much room for anything else to have a big effect.

However, I endorse Bill Cat’s suggestion below that anything coming out of Florida should be suspect by default. I certainly wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this program is worse than it looks on the surface.

A couple small points and then a big one:

First, Drum and I must hold very different understandings of what penalties are supposed to be for. By my lights, the application of a penalty implies that some sort of infraction preceded it. Not only that, but a penalty, justly applied, would be in response to what was understood to be an infraction by both parties under the terms of a prior agreement. So for example: if I break the law, I can rightfully expect some sort of penalty from the state based on our mutual understanding that penalties are what happen to people who break the law.* However, the law and legal repercussions cease to mean a whole lot if the state just arbitrarily punishes me whenever it wants to modify my behavior for whatever esoteric reason. But when it comes to welfare sanctions, Drum seems to not only be fine with that sort of lawlessness, but encourage it.

Second, I’m not quite sure what Drum means when he says it’s not clear that “the race argument” is “what’s really going on.” I assume he means that neither Mike Konczal nor I provided evidence that Florida welfare caseworkers are being maliciously, intentionally racist. And that’s true! But it’s also irrelevant. All that Mike and I are doing is pointing out that the statistical correlation I alluded to earlier becomes stronger in counties with larger African American populations. Here’s the graph:

And now for the big takeaway: these other issues aside, I think my disagreement with Drum comes down to a broader philosophical disagreement about the purpose of welfare. Here’s Drum again, but the emphasis is all mine:

And yes, these are mostly low-wage, temporary jobs. But should welfare recipients be allowed to turn down jobs just because they’re temporary? Some of them probably should be, but not all.

Should welfare recipients be allowed to turn down low-wage, temporary, degrading work that represents only an intermediate step between this welfare check and the next one? Are welfare recipients grown ass adults who should have some say in the way their lives are run? Yes to both.

Let me flip it around and try out a little thought experiment: You’re a welfare recipient in Florida. March is rolling around, which means that soon college kids are going to be flooding in from up north, and local businesses are looking for some temporary work. The money they’re offering is not significantly above that you receive in your regular welfare check — in fact, it might even be a little less. And there is absolutely no chance that the work you do for them might lead to steadier employment. In fact, the only significant that working this job will affect on your life is that you’ll have to do more menial labor, and that you’ll temporarily be at the mercy of a boss instead of a caseworker.

Now here’s the question: Why should you chase after that job? Is there something wrong with you if you choose not to do so? Is the problem with you, or with a policy regime that forces you to pick between two flavors of shit sandwich?

If welfare is to be a social good, it cannot just be a means of putting the spare worker bees on ice until the capitalist class finds them to be of use again.

*Whether the law is just is a question we should bracket. Let’s also bracket the point that penalties are often applied inconsistently and on the basis of socioeconomic status.

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6 Responses

  1. Given a fixed pool of resources, which would you rather have: A lower level of benefits applied without seasonality or a higher level of benefits applied with the seasonality?

    And as a political matter which regime do you think is more likely to induce voters to fund benefits generously: A program where benefit availability is in part a function of the availability of work, or a program where benefits are available regardless of labor market opportunities?

    I’m sympathetic to guaranteed minimum income as a policy goal but if I was in the mix in Florida politics in a practical way, my guess would be that allowing this covert seasonality is the best way to maximize the flow of resources to low-income Floridians.

    • That’s a fairly persuasive argument for why this might be the best we can currently do, but it’s not a persuasive argument for why there’s not anything horribly wrong with the status quo.

      • Ding!

  2. I might be wrong, but I assume Florida law says that welfare recipients have to take jobs if they’re available. So the “sanctions” aren’t arbitrary at all. It’s just the law being enforced. When more jobs open up, more recipients find themselves in a position where they’re qualified for open jobs.

    Why do you suggest that temporary work in the tourism industry is “degrading”? It might be, but I don’t have any special reason to think it is.

    On the county chart, I simply don’t think this is strong evidence of a racial effect. There are too many other possible confounding factors. We need more evidence on this.

    The status quo undoubtedly sucks. But it’s not clear that keeping people on welfare rolls for long periods is superior to getting them out in the workforce, even temporarily. My guess is that it’s not, but obviously we disagree about that.

    I am, of course, open to new evidence on any or all of these points.

  3. [...] in The New Inquiry that is essentially a wide-lens adaptation of the ideas expressed in these two posts. Here’s a taste: This is the danger of talking about “jobs” in the abstract: It can mean [...]

  4. I guess I find it amusing that the major discussion between the left and the right, at least as it is allowed in public discourse, is over how to manage the worker bees. Kevin Drum asks innocently enough about how we might assume that working in tourism is degrading. The easy answer is that we know that all forms of subjugation are degrading. Working, or wage slavery as they used to (correctly) refer to it, means simply renting yourself to the highest bidder. And we know that the amount of comfort involved in your work is related to your usefulness. So we can infer that being a disposable worker is going to be pretty darn degrading.

    I can only assume that much of the confusion on this topic is caused by the euphemistic language being used on all sides. In the early days of industrialization people knew the true nature of their existence under a capitalist system. Today it would be pretty easy to find a person digging a ditch who would call themselves a capitalist. We live within this cognitive distortion, were we intuitively understand what is happening to us, buy don’t have the language, or the stories to help us understand and develop solutions. Rebuilding the language and rebuilding the narrative are important steps in this process.

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