Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Monday, January 2, 2017 1:15 pm

Mean(s) testing

Sadly, this is “normal,” but it is not OK:

Food stamp recipients in North Carolina soon will lose benefits unless they prove they’re working, volunteering or taking classes for at least 20 hours a week.

That federal requirement – which applies to adults under 50 who don’t have children – was suspended in 2008 as the recession hit and unemployment rates rose. But the exemption ended Jan. 1 for 23 mostly urban counties across the state, including Wake, Durham and Mecklenburg.

While the 77 other counties are seeing a slower economic recovery and could continue the federal exemption, the state legislature acted last year to restore the work and education requirement statewide starting July 1.

The change affects 115,000 North Carolinians who will have to document work, volunteer or education activities or lose their food stamp benefits. Recipients can still get up to three months of benefits without meeting the requirement. …

What is the purpose of imposing, or reimposing, such a requirement?

Sen. Norman Sanderson, a Republican from Pamlico County, said the change would push unemployed people on food stamps to look for work. “I think you’re going to see a lot of them go and get that 20-hour-a-week job, or they’re going to enroll in some sort of higher education to improve their job skills,” he said before the September vote.

The legislature also voted separately to increase requirements for unemployment benefits. As of Jan. 3, unemployed people filing new claims must make five “contacts” with prospective employers or they won’t receive an unemployment check. The job inquiries can be made online or in person.

“Short of telling them, ‘You can sleep all week,’ how much more reasonable can it get?” said Rep. Michael Speciale, a New Bern Republican, in August when that bill passed the House.

Ah, I see. We want to make sure that people who are on food stamps and/or unemployment are not just sitting around, not trying to do anything to improve their situation. Well, that’s certainly a very important message to convey, so I guess the legislature also provided ways and means to make sure that the people who need to receive this message do so, right? Not so much, it turns out:

Nancy Coston, director of Orange County Social Services, said her staff has to speak with 700 people who are affected there.

They have to determine “who’s working, who’s in school, and we can’t tell that without interviewing them all,” she said. “Many of them probably are not aware of this because the waiver has been in effect for a while.”

Well, at least the legislature made the measure a prominent issue when it enacted it, right?

The July 1 change for 77 counties was tucked into an unrelated immigration bill that passed the legislature in September. The changes for food stamp recipients were overshadowed by the outcry from immigration groups concerned about a ban on “sanctuary cities,” where local governments choose not to enforce federal immigration laws.

[Rick] Glazier [leader of the liberal advocacy group N.C. Justice Center] said sponsors of the bill probably knew the immigration provisions would distract attention from the food stamp changes.

“Those who ran it very much calculated where it was being put,” he said.

I see.

But, certainly, the legislature wouldn’t impose harsh or impractical requirements on some of our society’s most vulnerable citizens, right? They wouldn’t unduly burden the people Jesus calls “the least of these,” would they?

“It’s part and parcel of a ripping away of the safety net,” said Rick Glazier … . “The legislature is going to have to revisit these decisions.”

While state leaders can’t change the requirements for the 23 counties that no longer qualify for a federal exemption, Glazier said it’s irresponsible to apply the same standards to the 77 counties that aren’t recovering as well.

“There’s no data that those 77 counties’ economic conditions are likely to change,” he said.

Alexandra Sirota, director of the Justice Center’s Budget and Tax Center, said some people will struggle to meet the requirements because they don’t have transportation or might not have volunteer opportunities available in their communities.

Oh, c’mon. How tough could this be? After all, all 100 N.C. counties have excellent public transit, don’t they?

Nonprofits, [Sirota] said, “very rarely get a 20-hour-a-week slot for anybody.” And workforce training programs fill quickly.

“If they’re in a rural place, it’s hard for them to drive to the community college,” she said.

People who lose food stamp benefits probably will turn to food banks, which expect more demand for emergency food supplies because of the change.

Jennifer Caslin, a spokeswoman for the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, said the nonprofit already serves food stamp recipients who need additional help.

“Our system has been stretched for a while, and this is going to stretch it even more,” she said.

The kindest thing that can be said about this proposal is that it betrays a stunning ignorance of what it’s like to be poor and unemployed in North Carolina. But even granting that possibility ignores some pretty damning context. After all, Bill Clinton’s welfare reform is now 20 years old. There is, and has been for some time, a ton of information available to policy makers on how well different policies work. Put less charitably, there’s no excuse for ignorance.

And after all, if the real goal were to ensure that public dollars are being spent wisely, wouldn’t some similar sorts of means testing be applied to other public benefits, particularly those on which much more public money are spent?
Wouldn’t government contractors be banned from making political contributions, so as to ensure that the taxpayers enjoy a true arms-length relationship with their vendors?
Wouldn’t corporations granted charters by the states be required to operate at least minimally in the public interest — and at the very least be barred from acting against the public interest by, say, bribing politicians or polluting — as they were when corporate charters first became a thing?
If we’re going to drug-test welfare recipients, shouldn’t we also drug-test the lawmakers who require it?
I’d be all in favor of steps like those.
But the real goal isn’t to ensure that public dollars are being spent wisely, just as lawmakers’ ignorance of poverty isn’t what led to this measure. No, the real issue simply is that conservatives like to punish poor people for being poor. They have a sociopathic need to punch down. They do it, as we say here in the South, out of pure meanness. They have neither empathy nor shame. They need to be called out on it, and they need to be punished at the ballot box for it.

 

 

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