Denied Housing Assistance

Denied Housing Assistance

In the United States it is hard to build political consensus for any measure. Measures aiding the poor are especially difficult to build a strong coalition behind. As a result, many of the measures that our nation adopts in an attempt to help the poor or address issues for those in need have compromises that make them less effective. This means that sometimes our policies don’t actually end up helping the people who most need assistance.
Matthew Desmond writes about this in his book Evicted. Regarding housing assistance, Desmond writes, “often, evicted families also lose the opportunity to benefit from public housing because Housing Authorities count evictions and unpaid debt as strikes when reviewing applications. And so people who have the greatest need for housing assistance – the rent-burdened and evicted – are systematically denied it.”
It is hard to find political support to provide assistance to people we don’t find deserving of assistance. The things that make people deserving of assistance are things like personal responsibility, a strong work ethic, a good sense of moral and social expectations, and self discipline to bring all these qualities together. Unfortunately, for many people living in poverty, especially those who have suffered trauma, some or all of these characteristics may be missing. We judge these characteristics by people’s level of debt and missed payments, by their history of eviction, and whether or not they have been able to maintain a stable job. These proxies help us determine if someone has the characteristics that would make them deserving of aid, but they also completely miss the point.
People who are deserving of aid usually are not the ones in the most dire need of aid. Quite often people who possess all the qualities to be seen as deserving hit hard stretches and need aid, but quite often people fail, they lose support and struggle to maintain the characteristics that would make them deserving, and are left without aid, making it impossible for them to actually improve their lives and become deserving of aid.
Desmond’s book, and the work of others on housing issues, advocates for a housing first policy. We cannot make housing assistance an incentive, it must be the primary foundation. We cannot expect someone to get a job if they don’t have housing. We cannot expect someone to stay off drugs if they don’t have a safe place to live. We cannot expect someone to catch up on debt payments if they don’t have a house and can’t get a foothold in the labor market. Housing, and housing assistance, has to be a priority, not an incentive or reward that is only provided to those seen as the most deserving.
The Limits, Strings, and Expectations of Charitable, Religious, and Familial Aid to the Needy

The Limits, Strings, and Expectations of Charitable, Religious, and Familial Aid to the Needy

I’ve written in the past about aid provided by charitable organizations in the United States. Aid provided by families comes with many of the same pitfalls as aid provided by charitable organizations. Our country is generally not comfortable with aid provided by a faceless government to everyone who qualifies. Many people in the country prefer that aid be provided by charities and/or religious organizations instead. Implicitly, what people seem to prefer is aid provided in a manner where certain restrictions and strings can be attached.
My two main criticisms of aid provided through religious organizations is that donors are engaging in a divine quid pro quo, giving money in exchange for divine reward. The implicit idea is that charitable aid provided to those in need comes with the expectation that individuals receiving assistance will become more religious and/or more respectful toward those churchgoers who donate money. Those who provide aid through religious and secular organizations are also able to be more selective and excludable than aid provided by government. It is easier to deny people aid for lack of a job, for drug use, for perceived sexual deviance, and other factors when you are a small charity or a church organization with a limited amount of aid available to give.
In the book Evicted, Matthew Desmond shows that these same strings and limitations are also present in aid provided by families, another preferred method for aid and assistance that Americans favor over government aid. In telling the story of a young woman who was evicted while Desmond was researching the book, he writes, “Over the years, she had learned to ask her favorite aunt for help only during true emergencies, and evictions didn’t quality. If Arleen asked too often or for too much, she would hear about it. Merva might give her a lecture or, worse, stop returning her calls.”
Our country shames those who receive aid, and all the strings, expectations, and personal responsibility lectures that accompany familial, charitable, and religious aid contribute to that shame. This is not a bug in the system, it is a feature. American’s don’t want a well functioning and efficient government program to deliver aid to any struggling American who needs it. They want a system that shames the poor, wastes their time, and limits aid if they are criminals, drug users, or sexually promiscuous.
The story of Arleen is important. Her landlord assumed she had family to stay with or to hold her over if she was evicted. We assume people can always fall back on family until they get their lives on track. We assume that family will do the tough work of instilling personal responsibility in another, or absorb the societal costs of a dejected family member on behalf of the rest of us. We set up limitations and strings on aid from other sources and make government aid hard to access so that people cannot receive aid unless they are personally responsible. When they are not, we expect their family to take up the responsibility that the needy person lacks. This is a system that deprioritizes aid to those in need in favor of principles and rule following.
TANF

TANF

“TANF has become welfare for the states rather than aid for families in need,” write Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer in their book $2.00 A Day. In the United States we don’t like the idea of giving direct aid to poor people. We want to make sure that people who receive social aid and assistance deserve the help they get, and as a result we have put restrictions, limits, and qualifications on the aid that the government provides to poor people. We also tend to prefer in-kind benefits rather than cash benefits, believing that cash benefits will be wasted and abused, and believing (whether we admit it or not) that we know what is better for poor people than they do. Providing the thing we think poor people need is our preference rather than providing poor people cash to acquire the thing.
This is how TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) came to exist in its current form. TANF is a block grant from the federal government to states. That means that the federal government provides a certain amount of money to the states for them to use in assisting the poor. Obviously, this means there is an incentive for states to put restrictions and limits on the aid they give to families so that they don’t expend all of the money from the grant. Any money not spent on needy families can be redirected to other purposes for which states may need additional funding.
Work requirements, drug screenings, complicated forms, long lines, and life-time limits reduce the total expenditures that states have with their TANF programs. Instead of focusing on what would be the most beneficial for the needy, programs utilizing such restrictions focus on what would be best for the states coffers. This is why the authors describe TANF as welfare for the state instead of aid for families.
Guaranteed Jobs

Guaranteed Jobs

About a year ago I read a series of books focused on homelessness and poverty in the Untied States. One take-away I had from the reading was that we need a federal guaranteed jobs program. A guaranteed jobs program would certainly be looked down upon, would not be well respected, would be criticized, but would make a huge difference in addressing deep poverty across the nation.
In their book $2.00 A Day, Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer explore the lives and realities of people living on an average of $2.00 a day in the United States. There are people in our country living a poverty so severe that many of us cannot imagine it exists within our country, yet the number $2.00 a day poor has increased recently and results from a complex set of factors that the authors explore.
One factor explored by the authors is a lack of quality and meaningful jobs for people at the lowest end of the socio-economic scale. Jobs for these individuals are often unreasonable in multiple ways. Schedules are often set at the last minute, with unpredictable and often unworkable hours. They are also often part-time, temporary, and likely to be cut at the slightest misstep. Better jobs may be available, but they may be further away than an individual living in poverty can reasonably and reliably commute to. Jobs, in other words, are not as easy to obtain and maintain as people higher up the socio-economic scale might imagine, and getting a foothold with a job to propel oneself is often next to impossible for individuals whose work future is hanging in the balance with every tiny misfortune.
Jobs provided by a government, jobs that are always available and make an effort to meet people where they are, simply do not exist. For the nation’s poorest, a job in government is almost impossible to find. The authors write, “a small group of low-skilled individuals find work at municipal buildings or in schools (perhaps as cafeteria workers or bus drivers), but prison inmates are sometimes used for maintenance and janitorial services in these places [specifically referring to the Mississippi Delta region].”
Our nation’s poorest compete for very few low wage public jobs. Part of their competition comes from prison labor, where inmates are paid less than minimum wage to work. I think these prison programs are a good thing, though I have never studied or considered them in depth. But it is notable that those in deep poverty have to compete against prisoners who make less than the minimum wage.
The only things stopping our country from developing a guaranteed jobs program is a lack of interest and stigma against the poorest of the poor. It is likely that we would not be able to find truly meaningful work for everyone who wanted and needed a job at all times, but we should make an effort to find something to do to employ the poorest among us in one way or another. There is no reason we cannot develop a program that would help meet people where they are and find something for them to do for which a wage can be provided. We have diminished the social safety net programs that help support the poorest among us, often with the argument that people should only receive such support if they are productive members of society, but we don’t make any efforts to help people become productive members of society. We don’t offer guaranteed jobs and we don’t do a lot to work with people who have not been employed for a long time to get them back into the swing of work. While some programs exist, generally we don’t find flexible ways to let people work and find pride in being part of society.
Instead, we marginalize people, criticize them for being failures, and push them to the side while blaming them for their failure. Companies and businesses are then unwilling to hire such people, reinforcing in their own minds that their failure is something inherent in who they are, driving a vicious cycle of failure, poverty, apathy, and despair. It is not a welfare program itself that drives this cycle, but the entire system and way in which we act toward such people. A guaranteed jobs program would not be perfect and would not solve every problem for every individual, but it would start to make a difference and offer some people a real way out of $2.00 a day poverty.
Hating Welfare

Hating Welfare

Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer write about David Ellwood, a Harvard Professor who studied welfare during the 1980’s and 90’s. Ellwood studied welfare and found that most welfare recipients used the program as temporary assistance, not as permanent support. His findings contrasted with the popular narrative that welfare made people lazy, dependent, and degenerate, leaving them stuck in the system with no possibility of ever escaping. Ellwood had trouble getting traction with the lessons he learned from his studies and as the authors write, “Ellwood came to a critical realization: Americans didn’t hate the poor as much as they hated welfare.”
Welfare represents the opposite of the American Dream. We believe that anyone can improve their situation in life as long as they are willing to work hard enough, pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and apply ingenuity and grit in pursuit of their goals. Welfare says that individuals have no chance of improving their situation on their own, and thus require assistance from the government for basic functioning and survival. The American Dream is individualistic, creative, nimble, and innovative. Welfare is slow, bureaucratic, and lazy. It threatens the American Dream, and is hated by those who pursue the American Dream and by those for whom the American Dream has slipped away.
Edin and Shaefer note that at the time that Ellwood was presenting his research, a time when Ronald Reagan was pursuing a war against poverty and welfare, American opinions captured in surveys showed that the percentage of Americans who thought the country was spending too little on help for the poor rose from 63% to 70%. People wanted to do more to support the poor, but they hated the systems and institutions that existed to provide aid.
This reveals a challenging paradox that our country still has not solved. We all want to pursue the American Dream, but we also still want to be generous and good people. Our highly consumeristic and capitalistic culture tells us that we should constantly be pushing for economic success, that having a big house, numerous cars, and nice things is a reward for our hard work, and that these purchases are socially beneficial because they power the economy to keep everyone advancing along the American Dream. At the same time, we still manage to feel compassion for those who fall on hard times, and we want to have a social system, especially one backed by the government, that helps people when in need. However, we hate the system we have developed for that purpose.
We have developed highly individualistic institutions to support our American Dream and our consumer culture.  We strive to live in the best neighborhood possible, economically segregating ourselves from lower socioeconomic status individuals and families. We push ourselves to constantly work harder, maintaining longer work weeks and hours than most other western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic countries. We spend our time as part of professional organizations more than as part of social missions. Nevertheless, we still want to help the poor who we run away from. We still want government (someone else) to solve the problems of people who fail in our capitalistic society. We want to be generous, but we only invest in the institutions which have furthered our own individualistic paths toward the American Dream, leaving others behind. We don’t have the institutions which would truly help those in need, and we chide the welfare institutions that do help them. This is the paradox we face, and the only way to get out is to find new institutions that allow us to continue to work toward a version of the American Dream while simultaneously being more socially active.
Misperceptions About AFDC

Misperceptions About AFDC

Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) was the welfare system in the United States from the 1930’s to 1997 when it was eventually replaced with a new system for welfare. In the book $2.00 A Day authors Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer write about the history and legacy of AFDC to explore how America ended up in a place where so many people in our country still live in a poverty that many don’t believe could exist in the richest nation on earth.
One of the challenges, the authors note, about welfare programs in the United States is that most people have serious misperceptions about how the programs operate and who is being served by the programs. These misperceptions are worsened by our country’s troubled racial history, and narratives about welfare beneficiaries in some instances are more influential in the design and implementation of welfare programs than real facts.
Edin and Shaefer demonstrate that this was true of Ronald Reagan who focused on AFDC and presented a racialized stereotype of welfare beneficiaries. Reagan popularized the narrative of the welfare queen which the authors describe by writing, “she was black, decked out in furs, and riving her Cadillac to the welfare office to pick up her check.” This narrative played on racial stereotypes, fears, and the dehumanization of black and poor people.
Edin and Shaefer continue, “None of these stereotypes even came close to reflecting reality, particularly in regard to race. It was true that as of the late 1960’s and beyond, a disproportionate percentage of blacks participated in AFDC. But there was never a point at which blacks accounted for a majority of recipients. The typical AFDC recipient, even in Reagan’s day, was white.”
The racialized stereotypes were used to justify changes to the welfare system, less generous benefits, and to demonstrate the idea that aid to the needy actually harms them rather than helps them. A narrative that was based more on anecdote and fear than reality shaped public opinion, perception, and policy. Misperceptions about AFDC meant that policymakers and their constituents were focused more on the narrative of welfare and less on the actual needs, systems, structures, and institutions of those living in poverty and ways to help them improve their lives.
Compelling Narratives

Compelling Narratives

“Although there is little evidence to support such a claim, welfare is widely believed to engender dependency,” write Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer in $2.00 A Day. People hate welfare and distrust welfare recipients. Part of the reason why is because compelling narratives have been developed and routinely deployed to argue that welfare creates dependence, that it weakens the person receiving aid, and creates a cycle where those who are poor lose skills and work ethic, becoming more dependent on a system of support.
“Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt claimed that welfare is a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit,” write the authors. Rather than viewing welfare as a system that ensures everyone is able to meet their basic needs or as a system that provides a stable foundation for everyone to live a healthy life, welfare is viewed as a system that ruins the lives of those who receive it by draining their motivation to anything productive with their life. In the United States, a country founded on Protestant ideals where hard work is rewarded with divine riches, the idea of welfare runs against the concepts that have fueled capitalism and our independent spirit.
But the narratives around welfare are often little more than narratives. When it comes to government aid and social support, people are more interested in stories than statistics. A single anecdote about a greedy individual is more powerful than research on economic mobility, the long history of racism in the United States, or randomized controlled trials and natural experiments which show the benefits of social support systems. Research shows that economic mobility is not as simple as hard work and pulling oneself up by bootstraps. The long history of racism in America shows how black ghettos were the result of deliberate racist policies designed to hinder the economic and social advancement of black people. And natural experiments from Oregon regarding Medicaid lotteries show that individuals who receive Medicaid experience less stress and are more willing to engage economically when they are not worried about providing for their healthcare. “Sometimes evidence, however,” write Edin and Shaefer, “doesn’t stand a chance against a compelling narrative.”
When it comes to social support, we want to feel as though we are generous and we want to use charity to signal our wealth and success. Welfare provided through the government does not help us achieve these ends. Additionally, in our own narratives we like to tell ourselves that we are hard working, that we overcame obstacles, and that we are making worthwhile sacrifices for the good our families and communities. Providing welfare through the government to anyone who is below an economic threshold accepts that failure is not due to personal work ethic, challenging the idea that our success is purely a result of how hard we work. It acknowledges that racism has played into the economic outcomes (positive and negative) that we see today, it acknowledges that having a stable footing helps people get ahead, diminishing our personal narratives of overcoming obstacles. The narratives around our own success and the failures of others drive our views and opinions of welfare much more than the evidence of how welfare actually works and impacts the lives of those around us. This is true for the every day citizen on the street and many of the presidents and political leaders throughout our country’s history. These narratives also prevent us today from truly moving forward in a way that supports those who are the poorest among us.
Seneca on the Deserving Poor

Seneca on the Deserving Poor

I really enjoyed studying public policy at the University of Nevada, especially when I had a chance to dive into Social Construction Framework as a way to understand the legislative process. Social Construction Framework (SCF) posits that the way we think about the targets of a policy, that is the characteristics and traits that we ascribe to the population who will be rewarded or punished by a policy, determines how we structure the policy and how likely the policy is to be passed by a legislature. The world is too complex for us to have nuanced, detailed, and accurate understandings of everyone and everything, and so we make shortcuts. These heuristics help us understand the decisions we have to make, and we bring them into the political arena with stereotypes and simplifications of people and social processes. The final policy that we enact is not an objective and scientific product of rational thought about the complex nature of humanity and the universe, but is instead based on these heuristics and social constructions.

 

It is in this framework that I have recently been thinking more about the deserving poor. I have recently done a bit of reading into homelessness, and there is a tension in America in terms of the social constructions attached to homelessness. The homeless can be seen as deserving of aid because (now two) economic downturns have wrecked their financial opportunities or because they faced parental abandonment or abuse growing up, and never got off to a good start. Alternatively, we can see the poor as undeserving, because we think they may be lazy, may be drug users, and might just make poor decisions and they need to pay the consequences. These two ways of conceptualizing the homeless play into the SCF and determine whether we pass policies that help them or punish them.

 

SCF is relatively new and isn’t something that is discussed by the broad public very often. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t think in ways that are described by SCF, and it doesn’t mean that these ways of thinking are new to Americans in the 21st century. Seneca, in his book Letters From a Stoic wrote, “My situation … is the same as that of many who are reduced to slender means through no fault of their own: everyone forgives them, but no one comes to their rescue.”

 

What Seneca describes is the way that we see poor people who face economic hardship through unlucky situations as being deserving of aid. As opposed to those who lose a fortune gambling, making bad investments with grifters, or appear to be poor due to personal flaws like laziness, those who lose their fortune due to an unpredictable cancer diagnosis, the tragic loss of a loved one, or a sudden natural disaster are viewed as less blameworthy. They are somehow deserving of sympathy and aid, but often times, these individuals are politically weak. Children don’t have much ability to shape public policy because they can’t vote, but they are a sympathetic constituency. The same may go for the elderly poor, widowed wives of military veterans, or people with disabilities. They are socially praised, or at least not blamed for their dire situations as Seneca noted, but that doesn’t mean they are likely to get a lot of help.

 

Because these groups are well liked, we don’t actively make things more difficult for them, the way we would for people convicted of violent crime or for drug users. But because they don’t contribute a lot to society (in the views of most people) and because they don’t have a lot of political power, they often receive positive rhetoric from elected officials and members of the public in general, but they don’t often receive much aid. This was true when Seneca was writing his letters which became a book, and it is still true today. Viewing people as deserving or undeserving goes back a long way, and we should work to be consciously aware of how we think about groups, and what policy we put forward based on how we understand a group’s level of deservingness.

A Simple Quid Pro Quo

Have you ever thought about how we treat people who are sick? We have an entire economic system (trillions of dollars in the US) set up around treating people who are sick. When we have family members who are ill we often take time off work, help make sure their pillows are comfortable, and make them hot tea or soup. We will put ourselves at risk of catching whatever illness they have, or if it is not contagious, we will sacrifice large parts of our lives to be there in support. I’m not suggesting that caring for the ill is a bad thing, but it is curious that humans would develop a drive to help those who are sick at great personal risk and cost to oneself.

 

In The Elephant in the Brain authors Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson suggest that helping those who are sick is actually less about helping the sick person, and more about making sure we will have someone to help us if we are in a similar situation in the future. There is a quid pro quo taking place where we make a sacrifice so that others will sacrifice for us if we get sick.

 

The authors write, “in part, it’s a simple quid pro quo: I’ll help you this time if you’ll help me when the tables are turned. But providing support is also an advertisment to third parties: See how I help my friends where they’re down? If you’re my friend, I’ll do the same for you. In this way, the conspicuous care shown in our medical behaviors is similar to the conspicuous care shown in charity; by helping people in need, we demonstrate our value as an ally.”

 

We all want people to see us as nice, generous, caring individuals. To make sure people see us that way, we seize upon opportunities to demonstrate those qualities in the real world, even if there is a cost to us. The authors would argue that it is precisely when there is a cost to us that we are most likely to be charitable or to help those who are ill, at least if there is a sufficient audience. It often feels like we are just doing something nice for another person out of the goodness of our heart, but often there is another layer at play that is more self-interested than we would want others to see. We hide that part of ourselves and make an effort to not see that part of ourselves in who we are, or in the people we care about. That part of ourselves is the elephant in the brain which is dictating a lot of our interactions with the world, even though we won’t acknowledge it.

Political Advocacy

Political Advocacy is something I think of constantly. Personally, I am getting ready to return to school and I plan to study for a Masters in Public Policy.  What I find interesting is the idea of studying and understanding our problems and having a chance to truly consider what types of actions will benefit those who need help most. Often times the perception of our problems and the reality of our problems are not aligned, and we bemoan a particular policy even though it may not be as serious or have the negative consequences that our voices suggest. For Peter Singer in his book The Most Good You Can Do, political advocacy is presented in another light, as a way to make changes that impact those who live in the most profound poverty, and to provide the means for changing situations which drive so many into poverty.

 

“Political advocacy is an attractive option because it responds to critics who say that aid treats just the symptoms of global poverty, leaving its causes untouched” Singer writes to show that simply providing aid may not be  the most effective way to improve the lives of individuals. Organizations and groups that help develop fair trade, fight corruption, and advocate for the citizens of a country can shape the world for those living in poverty. Advocacy can help them find a more stable economic base, and it can provide for more clear paths out of extreme poverty.

 

Singer seems to be on the fence about the true impact of donations and efforts related to political advocacy. He argues for it but it is clear that he is concerned about how much anyone can claim that their lobbying impacted the decisions that were made.  He finds it a useful way to make donations or become involved to help others, but the difficulty of measuring ones true impact makes political advocacy seem to be a second tier form of difference making in Singer’s views of effective altruism.