Pity-Charity Indentured Servitude

From his “favorite graph of the week,” Mike Konczal discovers, in Florida, “a very strong relationship between sanctioning those on welfare with the needs of local, highly seasonal, labor demand.

In layman’s terms: during the peak tourism months in Florida (when the demand for cheap labor rises to accommodate the influx of tourists), the state is more likely to penalize welfare recipients — for whatever reason — by withholding funds. Thereby, presumably, forcing them to find employment in seasonal, minimum wage jobs.

Cue a very strange response from Kevin Drum:

Still, this is nonetheless pretty persuasive evidence that case workers do, in fact, calibrate sanction levels to the needs of the job market. So my next question is this: is this a bad thing? Mike doesn’t really take a position, though he seems vaguely disapproving. And it’s possible that the details of the sanctioning regime are objectionable. But just in general, is there anything wrong with welfare case workers trying to push clients into the job market when jobs are available, but being more lenient when jobs just aren’t there? Offhand, I’m not sure I see a problem with this.

Drum misses a few things.

1.) Sanctions are penalties. They’re not just a form of benign “nudging.” Sanctions occur, ostensibly, because welfare recipients are failing to meet the requirements set by the relevant welfare agency.

2.) This pattern disproportionately affects black welfare recipients. Mike quotes a passage from the book Disciplining the Poor: Neoliberal Paternalism and the Persistent Power of Race (also the source for the graph):

Consistent with the predictions of the RCM, the significant seasonal relationship observed when blacks make up 28 percent of the caseload (the 10th percentile value in our sample) becomes far stronger as the black percentage rises to 43 percent (the median) and then 68 percent (the 90th percentile value). Here, as in other areas of our analysis, we find that disciplinary poverty governance operates to service local labor markets and pursues this agenda more vigorously when confronted with black policy targets. [Emphasis mine. – NR]

SO TO RECAP: Florida welfare recipients just happen to be disproportionately penalized when doing so is more likely to serve the ends of the state tourism industry, and it just so happens that the penalized recipients happen to be disproportionately black. To which Kevin Drum replies: “I’m not sure I see a problem with this.”

Moving on:

3.) Even assuming that case workers (and their institutional overlords) are acting entirely in good faith when they levy sanctions, it’s still indicative of a very disturbing structural pattern. Let’s pause for a moment and revisit Drum’s premise, that this is a simple case of “welfare case workers trying to push clients into the job market when jobs are available.” Let’s also assume that this is a good thing: welfare, after all, is supposed to be a safety net, not a permanent resting place. Shouldn’t we expect a good welfare case worker to nudge welfare recipients back into the job market, where they can give their own bootstraps a firm tug?

This is, as I’ve written before, the danger of talking about “jobs” in the abstract: making jobs qua jobs its own end justifies all sorts of unsavory means. In this case, it means forcing people into precarious, temporary, low-wage, nonexistent-benefit work that will most likely land them back on the welfare rolls in a couple of months. Emphasis on the word forcing: we’re talking about a situation where welfare recipients have virtually no other options. A major income stream has been cut off, and potential employers — faced with an oversupply of labor in the broader job market — have the upper hand in negotiations. These same employers can feel free to deprive their employees of the basic security needed to stay off welfare for good — after all, once the fallow season ends, the state will subsidize those workers’ subsistence until the business community needs them again.

I refer Mr. Drum and everyone else back to the Freddie DeBoer essay that coined the term “pity-charity liberalism”:

Even if you could guarantee a certain minimal welfare state, the idea of poor and working people depending on the largesse of the rich and powerful is obscene. Sometimes, people have to live under the charity of others. But nobody wants to in perpetuity, because they then are not in control of their own lives, and because having to do so leaves many feeling robbed of personal dignity. As long as economic security is a gift of those at the top, it can be taken away. And if the last several decades have shown us anything, it’s that for the richest, what they already have will never be enough. No matter how income inequality spirals out of control, no matter how absurd the gap between those on top and everybody else grows, they’ll look to take more. And the more that you make the people on the bottom dependent on charity, the less they’re able to protect their own interests.

There’s your problem. If the safety net serves any function, it should be to provide something more than basic sustenance; it should be a means towards self-determination and freedom from domination. Here, we can see it as just another cage. And a racist one, at that.

UPDATE: This post credits Freddie DeBoer with coining the phrase “pity charity liberalism”, but, as Dylan Matthews points out in the comments, credit properly belongs to Mike Konczal.

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7 Responses

  1. I’d love to see K-Drum’s reply to this.

  2. As a jaded veteran of the neoliberalism wars, I’ll just be a pedant and note that “pity-charity liberalism” was Mike Konczal’s coinage, not Freddie’s.

  3. Yeah, I referred to it as “globalize-grow-give.”

  4. […] see Kevin Drum has replied to my criticisms. He writes: Actually, Resnikoff’s response was pretty weak. Yes, sanctions are penalties. […]

  5. […] out today 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 […]

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