“One way the poor pay for government aid is with their time,” write Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer in their book $2.00 A Day. In the United States we are wary of people getting things for nothing. We have a social support system that ensures people are worthy of government aid before they receive any support. We often tie work requirements, job search requirements, and drug screens to government aid, ensuring that people who accept aid are still making efforts to contribute to society. Still, even with these requirements people who don’t receive any government aid (at least not in the form of direct cash or in-kind welfare benefits) dislike the idea that so many people can access government aid for nothing.
However, as the quote from Edin and Shaefer shows, government aid is not really free, and the costs can be significant and even counter productive. On one hand it is understandable that locations to access government aid for things such as food, housing support, or direct cash transfers, would not be located on every street block. It makes sense that service centers would be relatively limited to reduce the government costs for administering programs. However, while this can make fiscal sense for government, it can also be a deliberate strategy to limit the number of people who access welfare benefits and receive services that are available to them on paper. Having a single location that operates standard business hours will necessarily mean that some individuals and families are incapable of accessing aid that is only distributed from that one location. A failure to co-locate aid offices also means that individuals and families may be strained in trying to access the aid that they need. Time can be a limiting factor that prevents people from accessing the aid and services which should help them get to a more stable economic position.
If people are able to make it to the location, aid often comes after lengthy applications, long lines and wait times, and lengthy commutes. Politicians may deliberately design aid programs to have these time costs as a way to reduce fraud and reduce the appeal and dependence on government aid, but for those who need it, it may mean forgoing necessary aid to help get one’s life back on track or to help put food on the table for a hungry family.
Often, the programs that provide aid are intended to temporarily support people until they can provide for themselves. However, if short-term aid is truly needed, to the point where the time costs are necessary to go through, then individuals may not be spending time looking for jobs, addressing child behavior issues, or otherwise using their time in a productive manner. These time costs are real, and can limit people’s opportunities in ways that actually make them more dependent on the governmental aid, and less capable of providing for themselves. The aid that people receive may seem as though it is free, but the time costs need to be considered, especially if programs are unwieldly and actually prevent people who do access them from taking steps to no longer need government aid.