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.

Undercounting the Often Uncounted

Originally published at this ain’t livin’.

In September, I linked to a story discussing the fact that the poverty statistics released by the Census were, to be blunt, incorrect. The story pointed out that people horrified by the poverty rate disclosed in the Census numbers would be even more horrified if they knew the true picture of poverty in the United States and, indeed, we might better understand class disparities in the United States if we fully comprehended the extent of poverty in our population.

24% of the income in this country is accounted for by just 1% of the population. That’s what I would like to call a profound disparity. Expand our reach a bit, and you will see that the top 10% earns almost 50% of the nation’s income, which leaves 90% of us to duke it out amongst each other for a little over 50% of the income available in this country. When we talk about class disparities, this is the kind of thing we are talking about. It’s not just that wealth is concentrated, it’s that the concentration is almost obscene; are you telling me that 10% of the population does almost 50% of the work?

The top 20% controls over 80% of the income. What’s interesting to note is that many people are not aware of the depth of the class disparities when it comes to income, and are, thus, not aware of the fact that these disparities have been increasing rapidly and radically. People have a distorted view of how income is distributed and as a result, it’s hard to have conversations about poverty in the United States; while people know things are unequal, they don’t know how unequal they are, and the reality is really quite stark.

The Census, as a major source of statistical information about the population of the United States, has a duty to collect data as accurate and meaningful as possible. Which is why it’s a tremendous problem that the Census is using metrics from 1955 to estimate poverty rates.

They ignore many key factors, such as the increased costs of medical care, child care, education, transportation, and many other basic costs of living. They also don’t factor geographically-based costs of living. For example, try finding a place to live in New York that costs the same as a place in Florida.

Correcting for problems with the Census numbers yields a much larger and much more frightening number, especially when we start thinking about people who are living on the margins, in the paycheck to paycheck sense. They may not be considered poor in terms of their income, but they have limited to nonexistent assets, putting them in a position of extreme vulnerability.

People spending the bulk of every paycheck to survive don’t have money to put into savings or investments. They usually don’t own their own homes (where would they get the down payment?). Their cars are beaters, or they’re sinking a lot of money into car payments every month, and by the time the loan is paid off, the car has depreciated significantly. They don’t have things like art and jewelry and all of those other things wealthy people talk about as ‘investments.’ They have nothing, which means when the job dries up, when the hours get cut, they are helpless.

It’s not just that people have to contend with disincentives to save, it’s that they can’t save even if they wanted to, because they are too busy trying to survive and they are caught in a poverty trap where any additional money they make is immediately swept away in taxes or lost in benefits, keeping them functionally in the same position. When you look at people in the United States who are ekeing out a survival, whether by working or with government benefits, without any assets as a safety net, you start to realise it’s a pretty big percentage of the population. A scary big percentage. 60% of this country’s population makes the bottom 5% of the income. 186,221,597 people have to fight for a tiny fraction of the money earned in this country. You can bet your bottom dollar, so to speak, that most of them need some form of government assistance to survive, and are probably not getting it.

This is wrong. I don’t know any other way to describe it. It’s wrong, and the way the government presents statistics makes it harder for people to see that it is wrong. Providing true and accurate pictures of poverty in the United States would be jarring for many people, but the reality on the ground here is that the situation is bad, and it’s getting worse. One of the reasons it’s getting worse is that people don’t realise how bad it is.

Thinking about just the people I know, and taking into account the fact that the plural of anecdotes is not data, I know very few people with assets to support them in the event of job loss or major life events. Most of the people I know live from paycheck to paycheck, freelancing job to freelancing job. It’s not just that, it’s that people with assets are remarkable to me. The thought of having a lot of money in savings or a house is alien and unfamiliar and it seems weird when I meet people who have these kinds of assets.

I live in a fairly wealthy community. Only 16% of the population of Mendocino County is living below the poverty line and the median income is around $36,000. The cost of living is definitely very high, but the point is that demographically, we are doing much better than some communities in the United States. And I see poverty everywhere. I see evidence of poverty in so many ways, I can’t even begin to count it. If this ‘idyllic’ community has such stark reminders of poverty and living a marginalised existence on not enough, I can’t even begin to imagine what conditions are like in the rest of the country.

Homelessness now a crime in San Francisco

Sarah’s probably going to post something about the Hubba Bubba nightmare that is the US midterms elections (which I’m still ticking over), but I wanted to note a comparatively minor law passed: San Francisco Proposition L law.  The San Francisco Gate summarises the bill as:

Proposition L, known as the Sit/Lie Law, passed with 53% of the vote. It will now be illegal to sit or lie on the sidewalk in San Francisco between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. Proponents say this law will give the police an additional tool in addressing public safety concerns, especially in the Upper Haight neighborhood. Homeless advocates say this law will criminalize homelessness. There are some exceptions where sitting is allowed, such as a public event like the Giants celebration parade later today.
Yeah, this is just straight criminalising homelessness in SF, which in the context of the “jobless recovery” has and will continue to balloon, especially among already vulnerable populations. In the context of other moves like the effective criminalisation of debt in some parts of the country, it’s hard not to see this as part of a general trend towards criminalising whole populations of people for simply being unlucky enough to be poor in the midst of a recession.
Disgusting, pure and simple, San Francisco.

Any Colour, So Long As It’s Green: Race, Class, and the Environmental Movement

Originally published at this ain’t livin’.

The environmental movement has some serious housekeeping to do, and it’s always kind of amazing to me that it is, technically, a branch of the social justice movement, because, well, the environment is a social justice issue, but the environmental movement has a lot of work to do on its handling of social justice. The future of the environment has serious implications for us as a society and many of those implications are deeply tied with social justice issues, from the exploitation of immigrant labour to the communities that are mostly likely to suffer the immediate consequences of environmental damage.

There are so many -isms in the environmental movement, it’s kind of hard to know where to begin. Vicious fat hatred, for one thing. Ableism, with leading lights of the movement suggesting that people with disabilities are a waste of resources and we should just die, already, or not be born. Sexism, as members of the movement reinforce binary gender roles and attitudes about gender. Classism, and the closely entangled racism. Janani Balasubramanian wrote at Racialicious last year about the race and class issues entangled with the food movement, and these issues are still very much present, and still very much preventing the movement from making some important and meaningful changes.

This is a pretty classic example of why intersectionalism is important. It is not enough to say that the environment is broken because of our actions and we need to fix it. Both of these things are true and they are important, but the way we deal with it needs to take place in context. Some injustices involved in the current way we approach things like food production and environmental policy are explicitly social justice concerns; race and class injustice are closely tied with things like who is exploited to produce our cheap food, and who winds up in neighbourhoods used as dumps for our unwanted toxic waste.

In these cases, it’s not just the environment that matters. It is the tangled relationship between environment, race, and class. If we drop race and class out of the equation, and if we ignore the reasons race and class are so bound up with each other, we are not only failing to address these issues, we are not going to fix the fundamental problem. Thus, the environmental movement needs to be thinking about these issues if it wants to meet the stated goal of creating change.

Likewise, cultural contexts also need to be considered in the development and evaluation of plans for addressing environmental issues. For example, people who discuss food politics and want people to eat more fresh food need to find ways to make that food more accessible. That means addressing food deserts, addressing overwork that limits the time people have to prepare food, addressing cultural differences in the way people approach the preparation, handling, and sharing of food. It’s not as simple as announcing that everyone should eat more fresh food.

Very real barriers are simply ignored because they don’t fit in with the desired narrative. Class creates true situational barriers, making it impossible for people to do things, even if they think those things are the right thing to do, even if they want to do those things. The exchange of information is also all one way, with people being lectured by the environmental movement, but the environmental movement not really taking lessons from the people it is lecturing. Maybe if it did, it would learn about things that disadvantaged communities are doing to help the environment and it would do something other than figuring out how to monetise those things. How much cheap plastic crap is made to do things people in impoverished communities have already been doing themselves for decades?

The environmental movement acts surprised when people don’t universally embrace it, conveniently ignoring the history of embedded -isms, many of which are openly espoused by people prominent in the movement to this day. It’s kind of hard to take a movement seriously when it says rather bigoted things about people like you and fails to consider, at all, the context in which it is occurring. The environment is not a vacuum, and acting as though things like sexism and racism are ok in the environmental movement because it’s for a greater cause misses two fundamental truths.

1. No, they are not ok. They are not ok because they are unilaterally not ok, period. And because many people think they are not ok, including the victims of those -isms, tolerating these things in the movement and sometimes actively promoting them will result in alienating people. People will tune out and not be interested in following or engaging with the movement because they have been given no reason to think that the movement would welcome them.

2. Ignoring -isms in the movement also means that the movement is ignoring underlying intersectional -isms leading to environmental problems. Even if you have no problem alienating people by telling them they don’t matter and aren’t human beings, if your stated goal is addressing environmental problems, you need to actually address those problems. That includes looking at the ways that social attitudes contribute to environmental problems. Just for example, viewing people with brown skin as a source of disposable labour contributes to environmental degradation caused by the agriculture industry.

Can the environmental movement clean up its act? I certainly hope so, because I think the environment is important, and I think it’s telling that there are a number of splinter groups working outside the environmental movement on environmental issues because they don’t feel comfortable in the movement. When people feel strongly enough about your ‘movement’ that while they are working towards the same goal, they don’t want to be associated with you, I think you have a pretty serious problem.

attacking the already vulnerable

via FWD/Feminists With Disabilities

In the UK, people with disabilities have been among the hardest hit by the recent Thatcher 2.0 ConDem cuts of the Osborne Review.  The employment support allowance (ESA) which was previously able to be claimed until the person finds a job has now been set with a limit of one year.  I’m sure that’ll be of great comfort to people, cos disabilities also expire after year amiright?

This will hit hardest people who are already vulnerable – Mute magazine reports that 75% of people with disabilities and 70% of people with disabilities are already living in poverty in the UK.  Taken in context with cuts to housing and education, and the future looks bleak.  As Mute rightly points out, these cuts will kill.

Natacha Kennedy recently wrote a post arguing that cuts to housing where single people under 35 won’t qualify for housing will disproportionately affect young trans people.  Young trans people are frequently kicked out of their homes, and are placed further at risk with transphobic sex segregated youth shelters.  We already have high rates of poverty, unemployment, and homelessness (further compounded by survival sex work and its associated dangers, most notably the astronomical HIV infection rates for trans sex workers) and the lack of governmental support for under 35s to get housing will only make things much, much worse.

Paul Krugman recently pointed out in the New York Times that there is no real reason for this comprehensive axe-swinging–the job cuts will almost certainly depress the economy even further.  He rightly points out that all the historical precedent is against austerity measures, and in particular those are Krugman draws the obvious conclusion – funding cuts are part of a pre-existing neoliberalist desire to do away with the welfare state:

It would cut government employment by 490,000 workers — the equivalent of almost three million layoffs in the United States — at a time when the private sector is in no position to provide alternative employment. It would slash spending at a time when private demand isn’t at all ready to take up the slack.

Why is the British government doing this? The real reason has a lot to do with ideology: the Tories are using the deficit as an excuse to downsize the welfare state. But the official rationale is that there is no alternative.

It is worth pointing out in the light of this that the fact that austerity measures will most affect vulnerable communities is not a bug, it is a feature.  It is no accident that the poorest and most vulnerable are being hit hardest, emerging as Laurie Penny suggested recently, from the “the ugly Conservative conviction that poverty is a moral failing.”  Indeed, the disparity between the attacks on the poor and the treatment of the rich is rather stark given the recent news that Vodafone had been waived 6 billion pounds of outstanding taxes – something people rightfully protested in London today.

One rule for us, another for them.  Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose, eh.

Abuse of Intellectually Disabled Workers at Iowa Meatpacking Plant

Originally published at FWD/Forward.

A horrifying story out of Iowa has been getting some press attention over the last few days [in May 2010], if you know where to look[1. Which is to say, ‘if you have the time to search for news stories that are falling through the cracks.’]. An Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) report detailed the abuse of workers with intellectual disabilities in a meatpacking plant and it looks like the labour contractor responsible, Henry’s Turkey Service, is going to be brought up on charges. I can find stories on this dating back to early 2009; the uptick in interest appears to be the result of news that more federal charges are going to be filed.

The labour contractor, based in Texas, provides crews that go all over the country and has done so since the 1970s. This particular group of 21 men was sent to a plant in Iowa, West Liberty Foods. They were kept in a bunkhouse with boarded up windows and space heaters for heat; Iowa gets mighty cold in the winter and space heaters are unlikely to cut it. These men were getting up at three in the morning seven days a week to work in a meatpacking plant, and some of them were ’employed[2. I use scare quotes here because from what I understand of this case, this was more like servitude than employment.]’ for decades.

Here’s a description of the conditions:

“The living conditions were worse than squalor,” she said. “There were fire hazards, no heat, their rooms were crawling with cockroaches. It was just filth, a nightmare.” (source)

West Liberty was paying Henry’s Turkey Service around $11,000 United States Dollars a month for the men’s labour, and they were making, literally, pennies on the dollar:

The report found that West Liberty Foods paid Henry’s Turkey Service as much as $11,000 per week for the disabled men’s labor. Henry’s Turkey Service then paid the men a combined total of between $340 and $500 per week, or about 41 cents an hour, The Des Moines Register reported.

Compared to the pay the men would have gotten at minimum wage, the report found that the company underpaid them by more than $1 million during the last three years of the company’s operation. But the underpaid amount could climb because other workers doing the same job earned between $9 and $12 per hour. (source)

How was this justified?

…to justify lower wages the lawyer explained how by using a Department of Labor formula the company then calculated how much to pay based on how many disabled men it takes to equal the amount of work done any one man. His example was three-to-one. (source)

This story is primarily being reported as a case of employment discrimination and much of the litigation surrounds the back wages and pay these men are owed. This is definitely an issue and I’m glad to see it being addressed. But this is also a very clear case of abuse of people with disabilities. And I am deeply disturbed to learn how the EEOC deals with abuse of disabled workers:

Under federal law, once the EEOC determines that the rights of disabled workers have been violated, it must attempt to halt the violations through an informal process of “conference, conciliation and persuasion.” The commission plans to send a proposed conciliation agreement – a settlement of sorts – to Henry’s owners. If the owners reject the proposed settlement and refuse to negotiate, the EEOC has the option of taking the company to court. (source)

Evidently, if you are a disabled worker and you are being abused by an employer, including abuse like being kept in squalid conditions and being taunted and name-called by coworkers, attempts to work the situation out amicably must fail before more aggressive measures can be pursued.

This is a labour rights issue, but it is also an abuse issue. And it illustrates the critical need to get tougher protections in place for workers with disabilities. These conditions should never have happened in the first place and they definitely should not have been allowed to persist for decades. There would be widespread outrage if nondisabled people were involved in the case, but as it is, most of the reporting and attention seems to be happening in Iowa itself. This is being treated as a local news story, instead of what it is, which is a heinous outrage and a grave violation of human rights and all reasonable decency.

And it’s being treated as a one time event, rather than evidence of a systemic problem. Certainly, the news says, this case is awful and it’s good that charges are being filed. But there’s not a lot of exploration into how and why this happened. Some advocates are quoted in the articles, as well as family members, and they are righteously infuriated, but I don’t see any quotes from people with disabilities, including any of the workers involved; once they were removed from the bunkhouse, they were apparently whisked into group homes.

Henry’s Turkey Service is not the only agency that provides contract labour like this. West Liberty is not the only employer which tries to cut costs by using contract labour. This is a structural problem, not a local news issue. Workers with disabilities and workers with nebulous immigration status endure horrific abuses in this country; the situation at West Liberty is repeated over and over again all over the United States because of the attitude that these individuals are a cheap source of disposable labour, to be used up and thrown away.

And the people ‘in charge,’ the people who might be empowered to investigate and take action? Well:

Muscatine County Sheriff David White said recently that he is confident the people who ran Henry’s Turkey Service treated the bunkhouse residents well.

“Our take on it was, you know, that they were doing some pretty good things with these guys,” he said. (source)

The reason no one did anything about the hostile working environment, atrocious living conditions, and economic abuses of these men is that they were regarded as something less than human. And employment law appears to reinforce that idea by suggesting that the first step in abuse cases like this is not filing charges, but ‘conciliation and persuasion.’

While I’m on a meta…

Just wanted to note this post by La Lubu from last year, about Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story.  It is this last bit that works as a general statement, something I find truly bewildering when I encounter Americans who hold that raw social Darwinist selfishness is “human nature” (which is why they have to constantly argue for it, to produce the very behaviour they consider “natural”):

To be real: the commentary that my daughter and I raised back-and-forth with one another throughout the film? That’s how I was raised, too. Old-school labor union democratic socialism, the kind referenced in the film as FDR’s Second Bill of Rights. As is pointed out in the film, other nations enjoy this “second bill of rights” while people in the United States did and do not. While I was raised with an ethic of solidarity, the outside world, the world that feared unionism treading in its space, taught that capitalism is “human nature”. That looking out for “number one” was the way of the world. That people were fundamentally selfish and lazy, and that given any opportunity to cut corners or abandon others, they would. The philosophy of the gabbillotu, the overseer. Another legacy of the U.S. history of slavery; the recognition that oppressed people would resist in any way possible, no matter how limited their means to do so—but this time, extended to reference the entire character of people at large.

Unreferenced in this capitalistic worldview is the call to Craftsmanship. Creativity. The will toward artistry, imagination, virtuosity as a province of the common people. Capitalism holds that these qualities are rare. I disagree. Seeking craftsmanship, taking pride and ownership in one’s work, is as human as language…and as widespread.

La Lubu points out the ways in which craftsmanship is devalued (which ties in interestingly to the William Gibson post about how craftsmanship often disappears with mechanisation), and it’s long been a source of Leftist resistance to capitalism–think of William Morris’s utopia News From Nowhere, which imagines a world of pure creativity and craftsmanship.

Also is interesting in the context of the profound lie that is “austerity measures” and the recent decimation of the UK’s social services is the second “Bill of Rights” referred to, which is summarised aptly on Wikipedia:

This just seems like basic common sense, but it is a measure of how rapidly neoliberal dogmas have become dominant that in the United States today to argue for any of these things (or the gutted, monetised neoliberal versions Obama prefers) is to court criticism from the Right as Socialist, a traitor, and so on..  This is just odd if you come as I do from a country that has had in your lifetime free universal education and healthcare, and progressively cut those things and made the country worse, but nevertheless there it is.  Still, it is worth remembering that in 1945 an American President declared that these things were basic human rights.  And they still are.