More on Pelosi and Maher; The “Entitlement Culture”
March 19, 2012

It should be noted that, for all of Pelosi and Maher’s pretensions to being fearless truth-tellers, their denunciations of the “entitlement culture” are nothing new. Here’s Barbara Ehrenreich from last week, talking about the history of the “culture of poverty”:

It’s been exactly 50 years since Americans, or at least the non-poor among them, “discovered” poverty, thanks to Michael Harrington’s engaging book The Other AmericaIf this discovery now seems a little overstated, like Columbus’s “discovery” of America, it was because the poor, according to Harrington, were so “hidden” and “invisible” that it took a crusading left-wing journalist to ferret them out.

[…]

At the same time that it delivered its gut punch, The Other America also offered a view of poverty that seemed designed to comfort the already comfortable. The poor were different from the rest of us, it argued, radically different, and not just in the sense that they were deprived, disadvantaged, poorly housed, or poorly fed. They felt different, too, thought differently, and pursued lifestyles characterized by shortsightedness and intemperance. As Harrington wrote, “There is… a language of the poor, a psychology of the poor, a worldview of the poor. To be impoverished is to be an internal alien, to grow up in a culture that is radically different from the one that dominates the society.”

It’s a wonder that you don’t hear nearly so much pearl-clutching over the “culture of wealth” explored in The Atlantic’s 2011 profile of the new global elite. That’s despite the recent proliferation of studies like this, which suggest that corporate executives are five times more likely than the general public to display psychopathic tendencies.

But so anyway. The point is, paternalistic assumptions about the culture of poverty are an old, old trope. And anyone who doesn’t think they’ve already gone a long way towards shaping the modern welfare state hasn’t been paying attention. Ehrenreich again:

So it was in a spirit of righteousness and even compassion that Democrats and Republicans joined together to reconfigure social programs to cure, not poverty, but the “culture of poverty.” In 1996, the Clinton administration enacted the “One Strike” rule banning anyone who committed a felony from public housing. A few months later, welfare was replaced by Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), which in its current form makes cash assistance available only to those who have jobs or are able to participate in government-imposed “workfare.”

In a further nod to “culture of poverty” theory, the original welfare reform bill appropriated $250 million over five years for “chastity training” for poor single mothers. (This bill, it should be pointed out, was signed by Bill Clinton.)

Even today, more than a decade later and four years into a severe economic downturn, as people continue to slide into poverty from the middle classes, the theory maintains its grip. If you’re needy, you must be in need of correction, the assumption goes, so TANF recipients are routinely instructed in how to improve their attitudes and applicants for a growing number of safety-net programs are subjected to drug-testing. Lawmakers in 23 states are considering testing people who apply for such programs as job training, food stamps, public housing, welfare, and home heating assistance. And on the theory that the poor are likely to harbor criminal tendencies, applicants for safety net programs are increasingly subjected to finger-printing and computerized searches for outstanding warrants.

Unemployment, with its ample opportunities for slacking off, is another obviously suspect condition, and last year 12 states considered requiring pee tests as a condition for receiving unemployment benefits. Both Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have suggested drug testing as a condition for all government benefits, presumably including Social Security. If granny insists on handling her arthritis with marijuana, she may have to starve.

 Pelosi and Maher aren’t being bold contrarians; they’re helping to lay the groundwork for the extension and entrenchment of these policies.
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Pelosi, Maher, and Cosmopolitan Bigotry
March 18, 2012

In the above clip (via Ta-Nehisi Coates), Bill Maher says, “When I see the toothless guy, as a liberal, what I say is, I want to help you get teeth. Why does that make me an asshole?”

Of course, wanting dental care for the poor is not what makes Maher an asshole. What makes him an asshole is that he feels compelled to add a crude imitation of a Southerner saying, “You damn Yankee, trying to get me teeth!”

That moment perfectly crystallizes everything that’s wrong with the above clip, in which Maher and Alexandra Pelosi (documentarian and daughter of Nancy Pelosi) take aim at “both sides” by portraying both poor white rural Southerners and poor black city-dwelling Northerners as equally grotesque, stupid and lazy. Maher may support policies that would ease the suffering of the poor, but he’s also roundly contemptuous of the poor’s experiences. Those experiences aren’t real and meaningful in the sense that the white coastal elite’s experiences are real and meaningful — instead, they’re just a canvass onto which Maher can impress his own moral sophistication and enlightened sensibilities.

The irony is that Maher and Pelosi’s “enlightenment” corresponds to a total incuriosity regarding the lives of people who don’t reside on their lofty socioeconomic stratum. While Pelosi might pat herself on the back for having, “intelligent conversations with these people,” (these people being poor white Southerners), the clips she shows of those conversations don’t tell us anything about them beyond their willingness to reiterate certain right-wing shibboleths. “This is what they believe,” she says, but she never bothers to explore the nature of their belief, the why of it, nor anything of the world in which they live. By the same token, she thinks she can score a point against the “entitlement culture” by showing a clip of a young black man in New York who admits he can’t find work because he has a criminal record. But she never asks why a young black man in a city with notoriously racist policing policies has a criminal record, or why that record might disqualify him from finding work.

But perhaps the starkest moment of willful ignorance comes when Maher uses a permutation of the “some of our best friends are black” defense as a way of excusing Pelosi from charges of racism (Pelosi actually uses the expression “welfare queen” repeatedly, evidently without irony). “I mean, I, after all, just gave my imaginary child’s college fund to Barack Obama,” he says, “and your mother is Nancy Pelosi.” The charitable reading of that defense is that Maher has absolutely no understanding of how racism perpetuates itself, and no desire to learn.

Moments like that make Maher’s mockery of poor Southern ignorance especially pungent. “Maybe it’s you,” he says, addressing the camera. Of course, there’s no way it could ever, in a million years, be him.

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When the Work Stops Working
February 29, 2012

I have an essay 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 can mean 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 here belongs on the word forcing, because 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.

Thus welfare becomes a means of keeping spare workers on ice until they can again be made productive — which is to say, until they can again be slotted into temp jobs. But collecting a welfare check shouldn’t mean forfeiting the right to a baseline of self-determinacy. If welfare is to serve to benefit the poor — which is to say for actual human beings, and not for an abstract intellectual construct such as the Economy — then it should ameliorate domination, not perpetuate it in a modified form.

 Read the whole thing.
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What is Welfare For?
February 17, 2012

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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Pity-Charity Indentured Servitude
February 16, 2012

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.
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Havel to the Castle
December 18, 2011

“Truth and love must prevail over lies and hate.” – Václav Havel
1936 – 2011

When Václav Havel was still a playwright and dissident in Communist Czechoslovakia — before the Velvet Revolution and his ascendance to the presidency of the post-Communist Czech Republic — he would urge his fellow anti-Communist revolutionaries to “live within the truth.” The Communist regime, he argued, perpetuated itself on the basis of lies. By forcing its subjects to go through small daily rituals of deceit, the Communist Party could make everyone culpable in their crimes. They could strangle resistance by turning everyone into a collaborator by default.

But when a regime derives its legitimacy from lies, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act. The regime, Havel wrote, “only works as long as people are willing to live within the lie.” If enough Czechoslovakians were willing to live within the truth, the truth would eventually prevail.

Neoliberal America is not Communist Czechoslovakia, but much of the American state’s power also rests on a foundation of lies. In this country — ostensibly a beacon of freedom and democracy for the rest of the world — 2.5 million people rot in prison. Eleven million undocumented immigrants are denied basic freedoms on a daily basis. The Obama administration has deported record numbers of the undocumented, and reserves the right to assassinate its own citizens abroad.

In what is supposed to be the land of opportunity, the Census now classifies nearly half of all Americans as “low-income earners.” Those who can still find employment are spending longer and longer hours in the workplace — which, as union density declines, remains the least democratic space in public life.

If you want to honor Václav Havel’s memory, tell the truth.

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