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.

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About s.e. smith
s.e. smith is a writer, editor, and agitator with a focus on social justice issues based in Northern California.

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