The Econopack Problem

(Originally posted on this ain’t livin’)

One of the assumptions that gets made a lot about poor folks in this country is that they are stupid, and not capable of making good purchasing decisions in places like the grocery store. It’s always charming to be reminded that people assume both that poverty is the result of a personal failing/stupidity, and that poor folks aren’t capable of managing their own affairs because, you know, they’re poor, so that obviously renders them incapable.

Newsflash, for those of you not previously aware of this: Poor folks are not stupid. But they are often forced into shitty purchasing decisions for a whole lot of factors. We’ve talked about some of them before here; issues like lack of access to options, limited transportation, having to juggle lots of tasks with shopping, and so forth. There’s something I want to zero in on right now because I’ve been noticing it coming up a lot. I call it the econopack problem.

Generally, when you buy something in bulk or you buy a lot of stuff packaged together, the per unit cost is cheaper. It’s cheaper for me to grab rice out of the bulk bins at Harvest than it is to buy a bag. I can buy the same amount of rice for less, even. It’s cheaper to buy 24 rolls of toilet paper, per roll, than it is to buy four. A lot of manufacturers offer economy packaging and it’s a lot less costly to buy things that way.

There are a lot of reasons for doing this. It definitely encourages people to cut down on packaging, which is good for the environment. It’s less expensive for manufacturers to package stuff in big containers than it is for them to make a bunch of small ones. And so forth. It’s just generally cheaper to buy larger sizes of things.

Per unit.

It is not cheaper in terms of the overall sticker price. If you are living on a food budget of $20/week, say, you cannot AFFORD to buy an economy-sized bag of beans that costs $5, so you’re forced to buy the little pack with the higher per-unit price for $.99. Because that’s what you can afford on your budget. If you’re buying toilet paper, you would probably prefer to buy 24 rolls for a low per-unit price, but you have to buy the four pack, because it is what you can afford.

Packaging is shrinking and prices are going up; my five pound bag of sugar is now a four pound bag of sugar. Poor folks are feeling this acutely right now. The response is often that they should just buy the larger package or go for bulk. Neither of these are good solutions. The larger size package is too expensive. And buying in bulk isn’t an option if your store doesn’t have a bulk section, which, you know, a lot of stores do not. Bulk tends to be more common in upscale stores, I’ve noticed, which are both more expensive and located in areas poor folks may not be able to reach.

Being able to buy large sizes is also a function of having a place to put them. People who are homeless or who live in small spaces (like, say, people renting rooms in a house where there’s no safe place to put supplies other than their rooms) do not have oodles of space for stacking up their bulk goods. People living alone (already experiencing a higher cost of living) may not be able to finish something packaged in bulk on their own before it goes off, and thus buy small containers. I do this a lot with things I know I can’t eat in full and I hate it, because I hate the waste of packaging involved, but throwing out food is pretty awful too.

People act like poor folks are too stupid to know they’d save money by buying large packages. Trust me, most poor folks are well aware of the fact that per-unit costs drop radically when they buy stuff in bulk or in big packages. They would much prefer to pay $.39/roll than $.99/roll for their toilet paper. But that option is not available to them because their bottom line won’t permit it. When you are operating on a very limited budget, you cannot simply decide to blow your whole week’s available funds on a giant package of toilet paper even though you know it’s cheaper and would be a better buy.

The focus on improving conditions for poor folks is often on individual education, treating it as a personal rather than a cultural and systemic problem. The issue here is not that poor people don’t know how to do math and are getting bamboozled into buying miniature containers of everything. The issue is that they cannot afford to buy things with high overall price tags, even when the per-unit cost is cheaper and they are well aware of it. You cannot get blood from a stone; if you have a limited food budget you cannot exceed, you cannot magically make more money appear so you can buy things in bulk. You can’t cut your food budget to save money for bulk purchases because, probably, your food budget already doesn’t really cover your food costs.

Every time we tell poor folks they are failing at life, we are telling them that everything is their fault, their problem, and their responsibility. Poor folks didn’t wake up one morning and decide to make it more cost effective to package in bulk than it is to package in small sizes and they most definitely didn’t think it would be awesome to have limited food budgets that force them to make crappy purchasing decisions.


The Benefit Trap

Originally posted on this ain’t livin’.

I’ve often noticed that many people who have never had to rely on government benefits, or who have never come into close contact with those who do, do not really understand how benefits work. This is not terribly surprising. It’s hard to understand an experience you haven’t lived and there are lots of things I don’t understand because I haven’t experienced them or interacted with people who have. But I think one of the problems we face when it comes to talking about benefits programmes is that a lack of understanding about them creates a lot of confusion and sometimes that expresses in odd ways.

So, let’s talk about welfare and disability benefits, because the systems for both are deeply broken, and there’s a very specific issue I want to address today, because it’s important: the poverty trap. Both welfare and disability, by design, keep recipients poor, limit opportunities for advancement, and in fact actively penalise people for trying to get ahead. This is a serious problem, especially when many people want to be on benefits temporarily, not for life, or want to use benefits to supplement their lives to create a safety cushion, using financial planning to think ahead about how they want to manage their money. Both of these things are very hard to do (legally) on benefits and as a result they create a situation where people are stuck on benefits even when they don’t want to be.

If you want to get government benefits, the income threshold varies by region, but it is generally extremely low. Just for example, looking at this .pdf of eligibility guidelines for SSI, I can see that as an individual, to qualify I need to make $674 and I cannot have more than $2,000 in assets. As I say, eligibility guidelines are a bit more complicated than this (there’s a range of incomes to qualify, with a 300% max, usually) and in some regions they are higher to reflect cost of living and other issues. In all cases, they are very, very low, though.

If you make more than the income threshold, you may be eligible for partial benefits. If you make too much, none at all. This becomes very important. If you’re not working because of a disability or unemployment and you go on benefits, you get full pay[1. Which, by the way, is nothing to write home about. The amount you can get varies depending on a lot of factors but reviewing my own Social Security statement, I can tell you right now I could not afford to live on the amount the government would give me if I went on disability or welfare.]. So here you are, on benefits.

You are not allowed to have any assets, really. $2,000 is not a lot of money. It can seem like it, but it’s really not. Imagine only being allowed to have that much money. You can’t start a savings account and put money in whenever you can set some aside. Depending on how assets are calculated, your ability to own things is limited. If you have any assets, you have to put them in trust, in someone else’s name, to be administered on your behalf. You cannot independently control your assets. So, you’re on benefits, you don’t need them, right? How are you going to pay the deposit when you need a new rental? What about when the rear differential on your car goes and you need to fix it? What if Medicare/Medicaid refuses to pay for a treatment you need and you have to pay out of pocket?

Functionally, people on benefits are actively discouraged from saving money. Despite being told left and right that we need to take charge of our finances and put aside funds for a rainy day, despite being given tax advantages for certain types of savings schemes, we tell people on benefits that they cannot save and should not have assets. Does anyone else think there’s some serious classism going on here, when we tell certain groups of people that they shouldn’t strive to achieve what society expects people to achieve? What, indeed, society judges people for not achieving? Home ownership, for example, is held up as the holy grail of accomplishment, yet it’s effectively denied to anyone on benefits.

It gets more complicated than that. Eking out a living on benefits is very, very hard. Many people have to have roommates, they scrimp and save, they may compromise their safety and health to survive. And as soon as they start working, they start losing benefits. You are allowed to earn up to a certain amount, and then your benefits get correspondingly cut. Eventually, you pass beyond the threshold of eligibility, and you’re on your own. But you’re not making enough money to survive, really. And thus, you often find yourself looping right back around to being on benefits. Which aren’t enough, so you try and find work, you finally start to get ahead, your benefits get yanked, you fall behind, you go back on benefits, and the merry go round is endless. Endless.

There’s a reason for this; the government very much doesn’t want people who don’t need benefits to access them. I think this is entirely reasonable. However, in its zeal, it’s also actively punishing people through the benefits system, and I cannot help but feel that since the poverty trap created by benefits is a well known issue, since the government can clearly see that benefits are not pacing inflation, that this is being done deliberately. There’s no earthly reason to keep people in a state of enforced poverty, unless you think they should be poor. And the government seems to think that a lot of people…should just be poor.

Zombie economics

From the New York Times:

When historians look back at 2008-10, what will puzzle them most, I believe, is the strange triumph of failed ideas. Free-market fundamentalists have been wrong about everything — yet they now dominate the political scene more thoroughly than ever.

How did that happen? How, after runaway banks brought the economy to its knees, did we end up with Ron Paul, who says “I don’t think we need regulators,” about to take over a key House panel overseeing the Fed? How, after the experiences of the Clinton and Bush administrations — the first raised taxes and presided over spectacular job growth; the second cut taxes and presided over anemic growth even before the crisis — did we end up with bipartisan agreement on even more tax cuts?

They hold the scissors, we hold the rock

“They hold the scissors, we hold the rock. General Strike, 15.12.2010. Workers from the book sector.”

Poster from yesterday’s general strike in Greece.

via Jodi Dean

Class War in Congress

“This apparent contradiction makes sense only if you understand what has become so manifestly obvious that writing it out makes me bored and angry: conservatives do not care about deficits or the national debt. Nothing they have done over the past several decades—from the record deficits of the Reagan and Bush/DeLay years to their party-line opposition to nearly every legislative measure (public option healthcare reform, cap and trade) that would reduce the deficit—suggests otherwise. The great spokesman for the so-called fiscal hawks in the GOP caucus, Wisconsin’s Paul Ryan, not only voted against the largely conservative recommendations of the president’s deficit commission but in 2003 cast the deciding vote for Medicare Part D, a corporate giveaway and entitlement expansion that was unfunded and will, according to the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein, add “$400 billion to the deficit in the first 10 years, and trillions more in the decades after that.”

What Republicans do care about is defending the incomes of the country’s wealthiest, distributing income upward and cutting taxes in order to make progressive governance impossible. Obama was right to say in his press conference that tax cuts for the rich are the Republicans’ Holy Grail.”

So this was Chris Hayes’s post on the tax cut “Compromise” that essentially puts the lie to any and all wankery about “deficits.” And he’s spot on, and the only thing I wish he’d added to it was to call it what it is: class warfare. As Sherrod Brown said the other day on John King: “I work in a place that too often sings with an upper-class accent…I’m not engaging in class warfare, I’m just pointing out what happened.”

See, when people cry “class warfare” in this country, it inevitably means “they’re coming for my money!”  It’s the rich whining about it, and the idea is that people don’t want class warfare because they might someday be part of the class with the cash. But let’s be real, here: if I ever get to a point where I make $250,000 a year, I will gladly pay more in taxes, especially if I’m making that kind of money in an economy where 10% unemployment is becoming normal.

Let’s put some other key votes that happened today into context as well, shall we?  Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was the focus for a lot of people, but Claire McCaskill tweeted about the bill and brought up what else it contained: “Rs just blocked modest pay raises 4 military cuz we haven’t yet given them tax cuts for multi millionaires.”

And if that isn’t disgusting enough, how about this, from the New York Times? “Republican senators blocked Democratic legislation on Thursday that sought to provide medical care to rescue workers and residents of New York City who became ill as a result of breathing in toxic fumes, dust and smoke from ground zero.”

This is the same party that has used 9/11 as a political football for the last nine years, insisting that we get felt up at airports and invade two countries, that we couldn’t have a community center near the site of the attacks that might have a place for Muslims to pray inside it, but they just voted AGAINST pay raises for the troops they claim to support, AGAINST health care for the rescue workers who rushed in to help the victims that day.

Let’s stop pretending this is anything other than a blatant attack on the working class in the name of further enriching those who are already rich. Let’s call it what it is, already: it’s class warfare.

Jameson on Utopia

The Utopians not only offer to conceive of [. . .] alternate systems; Utopian form is itself a representational meditation on radical difference, radical otherness, and on the systemic nature of the social totality, to the point where one cannot imagine any fundamental change in our social existence which has not first thrown off Utopian visions like so many sparks from a comet.

Fredric Jameson, Archaelogies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions.

The Missing Centre

While we’re plugging Grit-TV, I should also note Thomas Frank’s recent appearance was a really on-point rebuttal of the half-arsed centrism of the media classes.  In this clip, he says:

Right, ok we’re shifting gears here to the political science conversation, which is that the centre is what always prevails in American politics.  Where if a party gets too far to the right or too far to the left, they get smacked back to the middle and the median voter sits in judgment on all things great and small, right?  This is always the logic used to excommunicate the left wing of the Democratic party.  But, a very curious thing has happened in the last couple years.  The Republican party which got smacked around pretty badly in 06 and 08 and instead of scampering back the middle, what did they do?  You had John Boehner, the mastermind of the whole situation, move really sharply to the right.  Instead of embracing the moderates, they excommunicated them, they kicked them out of the party, they primary them, and what happened?  They just won.  They just won, Laura Flanders.  It’s a political philosophy embraced by political science professors and Washington Post columnists and those people, it turns out, don’t win elections for you.

I think this is so key.  The mythical centre (sorry I can’t use the US spelling, it is just wrong) doesn’t have anything at stake, doesn’t need anything but the status quo.  By appealing to the “centre”, you forget that the class interests of the many lie to the Left, that people need better working conditions, better pay.  What they don’t need is to live in the Magic Wish Land of the Right, where the middle-class still exists and a 205k-a-year salary is somehow being oppressed…  and that is where centrism leads us, by legitimising the utter bullshit of the Right and moderating it a tad.  In essence, it accepts the false framing, the false forced choices.  The “there is no alternative” to neo-liberalism line.

As a parallel, the “centrist” positions on abortion takes the impossible position that there is a median between having a choice and not having a choice by accepting that so we should therefore limit some forms of abortion–thus accepting the very presumption that women cannot (always) be relied upon to make their own choices.  This centrist move unwittingly (or wittingly) forms a part of the broader “chip chip chip” anti-choice strategy as Melissa McEwan at Shakesville has called it.

No, Thomas Frank is quite right, centrism is a dead end for the Left as well as the Right.  The very field of struggle needs to be transformed, so that the universal, the equitable, the just, the social, become not just lipservice but actually politically viable options.