I’m a little late commenting on the Sunday Times Week In Review because I was stopped dead by this: “You would not know, just as egg-yoke-colored glacier lilies are pushing through ground newly unburdened of its snow, that there is so much trouble around these lands that form America’s Best Idea.” (It’s corrected on the web.) I loves me some Timothy Egan, but I never yoke my eggs. Raw, they’re too runny and hard-cooked, they just won’t move. That field can’t plow itself, dammit.
Anywho, the point is Barbara Ehrenreich’s piece on how humiliating it is to apply for welfare these days. A neat trick, it’s kept people from applying for the help they desperately need.
Nationally, according to Kaaryn Gustafson, an associate professor at the University of Connecticut Law School, ‘applying for welfare is a lot like being booked by the police.’ There may be a mug shot, fingerprinting and long interrogations as to one’s children’s paternity. The ostensible goal is to prevent welfare fraud, but the psychological impact is to turn poverty itself into a kind of crime. …
It’s no secret that the temporary assistance program was designed to repel potential applicants, and at this it has been stunningly successful. The theory is that government assistance encourages a debilitating ‘culture of poverty,’ marked by laziness, promiscuity and addiction, and curable only by a swift cessation of benefits. In the years immediately after welfare ‘reform,’ about one and a half million people disappeared from the welfare rolls — often because they’d been ‘sanctioned’ for, say, failing to show up for an appointment with a caseworker. Stories of an erratic and punitive bureaucracy get around, so the recession of 2001 produced no uptick in enrollment, nor, until very recently, did the current recession. As Mark Greenberg, a welfare expert at the Georgetown School of Law, put it, the program has been ‘strikingly unresponsive’ to rising need.”
We’d like to thank you, Bill Clinton, for really showing us the way. We taught those welfare queens who’s boss, didn’t we? Only now, lots of people need help and we’re still treating them like scum. Food pantries are empty, cash donations are down, and the safety net is more onerous than generous. Is that who we are?
It brought to mind a PSA I keep hearing on KNC (or is it WSHA?) about the culture of secrecy that prevents citizens in high crime areas from cooperating with the police. Telling people that reporting crime isn’t “snitching” isn’t enough if we treat them like dirt when they need help. I know Raleigh needs to fight its burgeoning gang problem, but preaching at people who have more to fear from gang members than they can expect to hope from government officials is useless. Let’s think globally here, treat people like dignified human beings, and then ask for their cooperation. Let’s really reform welfare so that it’s a safety net, not a dehumanizing snare. We may get farther that way. We certainly can’t get much lower than treating needy folks like criminals because they dare to ask for help.