Welfare System Designed to Keep the Poor Poorer

Sanford Schram, professor of political science at Hunter College, says new state laws that place restrictions on welfare recipients mark the poor as deviant and are designed to keep them from receiving welfare

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

Governor of Kansas Sam Brownback has signed a new bill into state law that places restrictions on what welfare recipients can purchase with cash assistance, including movie tickets, liquor, and tattoos. Advocates of the bill say it will provide more accountability for taxpayer money, but will it actually improve the conditions of the poor? Now joining us to discuss this from New York is Sanford Schram. Sanford is professor of political science at Hunter College, CUNY. He is an award-winning author of many books, including Disciplining the Poor: Neoliberal Paternalism.

Thank you so much for joining us.

SANFORD SCHRAM, PROFESSOR OF POLITICAL SCIENCE, HUNTER COLLEGE: My pleasure.

PERIES: Let’s begin with what this bill will do, and how bills like this throughout the country is affecting the employment and well-being of welfare recipients.

SCHRAM: Yeah, the Kansas law is just one of another spate of laws that have been passed lately. The country seems to have a habit whenever things start to go bad or the economy’s not doing well to fall into a pit of invoking stereotypes, often racist and sexist stereotypes about the poor as deviants who aren’t adhering to white, middle-class rules of work and family. And amazingly, we’ve seen this happen again in the last few years post the great recession, and state after state has passed these kinds of restrictions which really don’t make a lot of sense. A popular one is drug testing of recipients, though people on welfare are on average less likely to use illegal drugs than the population in general. And states lose money, they spend more on testing than they get back from dropping people from the rolls for that.

But we see these other kinds of restrictions coming in like the ones in Kansas, limiting how much money you can withdraw from your Electronic Benefit Transfer card each day, $25 in Kansas, and limiting what you can spend the money on. In many cases, about things that low-income people would never even contemplate buying or can afford to buy.

So it’s really more about marking the poor as deviant, and sort of creating a kind of policy feedback that feeds back into the society. The policy sort of calls out the poor as deviant and manufacturers their otherness in order to reinforce or buttress anti-welfare antipathy.

PERIES: Now Sanford, what is there to be gained by marginalizing the poor more than they already are in our society? Particularly given that we are in economic crisis, it is well-established fact that unemployment and the economy is in a very slow growth period. What’s the point in marginalizing the poor any more than they already are? What’s in these heads of these people who passed this legislation in Kansas?

SCHRAM: Well I think there are multiple dimensions to it, but most concretely, materially, it’s about not having to spend money, to avoid having to raise taxes. Since the welfare system was changed dramatically in 1996, where they instituted time limits, work requirements–

PERIES: This is important. This is not even under Reagan, this is under President Clinton, and at that time with the assistance of Hillary Clinton, who’s now running for president.

SCHRAM: Yeah, there’s been commentary lately that allegedly Hillary was very much in support of Bill’s signing of the law. In many ways the Republicans, I think, backed Clinton into a corner and made him deliver on his promise when he had run for the presidency the first time, to end welfare as we know it. He ended up having to sign the law in part perhaps because he knew he was politically vulnerable with scandal hanging over him. He wasn’t entirely happy with it, though in his autobiography he said he considered it his greatest achievement as president.

So it is bipartisan that we need to change the welfare system, make it more restrictive, to put more of the responsibility on the poor to be self-sufficient so they’re not a burden on everyone else. And what’s happened over time is so many people are not receiving public assistance that are eligible, we’ve gone back to the bad old days before the ’60s and the welfare rights movement and the civil rights movement, when people were able to start to exercise their rights to assistance.

And now only about a third of all the people who are eligible for assistance are receiving it. So part of this is about keeping them at bay, and not having to meet our obligations as a society. So as the number of people who are extremely poor or live in deep poverty grows, and as the system doesn’t respond, I think there’s pressure to maintain the restrictions rather than confront the dire need that’s rising all around us.

PERIES: What would you suggest or propose, since you study this area and must have solutions outlined. What are your recommendations in terms of short-term and long-term ways to address this kind of poverty?

SCHRAM: Yeah, it’s really hard to overnight just overturn all of this. So I think we have to think more strategically and more incrementally, as taking steps along the way to get to a better place. And so we have a work-based system of social provision now. It’s not just public assistance, cash assistance, or food stamps, and so on and so forth. But the earned income tax credit’s actually our largest cash transfer program for the poor. And we subsidize people’s wages. And in fact, it’s getting to the point where states are worried that they’re paying so much through cash assistance and food stamps to support low-wage employers, now post-great recession a lot of people are going back to work but they’re still having to rely on food stamps and public assistance while they do that.

So one of the main things we could do is raise the minimum wage. And there is a lot of growing support for doing that, for more cities to try and follow Seattle and raise the minimum wage up so that one of the results of that will not only be lifting families out of poverty if we do that enough, but will be reducing their need to rely on public assistance, and it will reduce the extent to which the state will be paying to subsidize employers.

PERIES: Sanford, would that equalize–like at the moment, if your income doesn’t reach a certain level, you have access to various tax credits and benefits. Especially if you’re having a family. Now, if you raise the minimum wage, will some of those people become ineligible for some of those tax credits?

SCHRAM: Yeah. There are what are called notch effects. And so, and some people may be discouraged from working more because they’re worried that their income would get too high and they lose their food stamps, and their earned income tax credit will be incrementally reduced as their earnings go up. But if we raise the minimum wage enough, that’ll compensate for that.

When the earned income tax credit started to get expanded years ago, it was–there was a debate about whether it was going to discourage employers from raising wages because they would know that their wages that are being paid to their employees were going to be subsidized by the government. And I think there’s more evidence of that now. And so there is a tension between the minimum wage law and the earned income tax credit, and we need to worry about their interaction. But I think the weight of the evidence now is that we should be massively raising the minimum wage, and there are instances where this is happening, now. Seattle being a precedent.

PERIES: And globally, the World Bank just recently declared that even worldwide, unions who were advocating on behalf of a higher wage for workers around the world was doing a good thing and should be included in some of the considerations for loans. So this is not just a U.S. phenomenon in terms of increasing the minimum wage, it appears to be a global trend.

SCHRAM: Right, and it’s increasingly a global economy. And a lot of employers are concerned about global competitiveness. So I think it’s important that we think about global responses.

PERIES: Thank you so much for joining us today, and giving us your insights into how this particular problem could be solved in our society.

SCHRAM: Thanks for talking to me. I appreciate it.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

End

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