Published: Fri, 09 Dec 2016 00:00:00 -0500
Last Build Date: Fri, 09 Dec 2016 20:19:02 -0500
Thu, 01 Sep 2016 08:30:00 -0400When outspoken socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders was in the presidential race, he often expressed his dream to turn the United States into a Nordic-type social democracy like the one in Denmark. Hillary Clinton dismissed his comments by claiming that the United States isn't Denmark. But the truth is that at the center of her political platform is an extensive set of Nordic-like government interventions, including paid sick leave, paid parental leave, subsidized child care, and a more generous safety net—and higher taxes. So what's the appeal of Nordic democracies for U.S. Democrats? Writing in The Atlantic, Anu Partanen (a Finn living in the United States) claims that Nordic nations "offer their citizens—all of their citizens, but especially the middle class—high-quality services that save people a lot of money, time, and trouble." Partanen admits that Sanders' socialist framing of the policies does the model a disservice. As "a proud Finn" with an American passport, she insists that these policies aren't socialist in nature, saying they don't go against free markets and they aren't about big government; they're about smart government. We're to believe that Nordic government programs—such as free college, free graduate school, and nearly free health care, all paid for with higher consumption taxes—don't involve trade-offs in the form of lower wages as they do everywhere else. Don't believe it, says Nima Sanandaji, a researcher who grew up in Sweden. His new book, Debunking Utopia: Exposing the Myth of Nordic Socialism, is a balanced and comprehensive analysis of Nordic public policies, including their home runs and failures. In particular, it nicely lays out the human and social cost of the welfare state. Welfare policies have the same effects in Nordic countries as they do in other countries. As Nordic people have been asked to pay higher and higher taxes in exchange for the welfare payouts, their incentives to work less and capture government or mandatary company handouts have evolved to the point of undermining the countries' economic foundations. Sanandaji has a lot of data, including some showing how Nordic workers have a stronger tendency to call in sick during sporting events. Maybe the most extreme example is a 41 percent increase of sickness among men in Sweden during the 2002 World Cup, up from 7 percent during the 1988 Winter Olympics. Work ethics and a higher tolerance for collecting undeserved benefits have developed slowly, but the data show that over time, "Nordic people have changed their attitudes as social democratic policies have made it less rewarding to work hard and more rewarding to live off the government." To be sure, Nordic countries are at the forefront of gender equality, as we're often reminded, and government programs such as paid family leave for both men and women and generous child care handouts help women balance their home life and work life. However, as Sanandaji asks, why are there so few Nordic women at the top? Data from the International Labour Organization show that in the United States, the share of female managers is 43 percent, as opposed to 28 percent in Denmark, 30 percent in Finland, 32 percent in Norway and 36 percent in Sweden. Though it's true that Nordic women participate in the labor force at higher rates than other countries, studies show that broad-based welfare policies tend to limit their ability to reach the top. That's partly because they're overrepresented in public-sector monopolies where wages are flat and rise based on seniority rather than individual achievement. The truth is that Nordic nations were always leading in the fight for women, long before the welfare state came along. They also became comparatively rich when economic policy was dominated by free markets and small government in the 19th century and early 20th century. Unfortunately, the big welfare state policies, starting in the 1960s, have hampered their economic performance. Finally, Sanandaji writes, "Nordic countries have more generous welfare systems than the United States, but change h[...]
Tue, 28 Jun 2016 13:52:00 -0400As president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) from 1996-2010, Andy Stern was called "the nation's most politically influential union president." Now Stern believes that labor unions are increasingly irrelevant. "Labor unions now play a particularly boutique role in the economy," he told The Atlantic in an interview about his new book, Raising the Floor, which advocates for a universal basic income (UBI). A UBI-type system, in which traditional welfare programs would be abolished and each citizen would get a certain yearly handout (regardless of personal income or worth), has been supported by libertarians, liberals, and conservatives alike over the past few decades. As automation, globalization, and the information economy make many jobs obsolete, advocating for a UBI—also known as a "basic income guarantee" (BIG)—has been coming back in intellectual vogue. "I believe that this is not our father's or our grandfather's economy, that the 21st century will not be employer-managed," Stern said. "It's going to be self-managed, because the growth in alternative work relationships—contingent, freelance, gig, whatever you want to call it—is clearly going to increase. Although the economy can grow in terms of GDP and productivity, it no longer means there will be wage growth or job growth, as opposed to the 20th century." Stern left traditional labor organizing because he "could not figure out anymore how a shrinking labor movement, a changing economy, a changing structure of work" could lead to economic security for Americans. "If you can't figure out where you're leading an organization, it's pretty hard to get up everyday and go to work. So I resigned," he told The Atlantic. And it wasn't just SEIU resistant to change, of course. "I would say that unions are not generally oriented towards thinking too far into the future," Stern said. We spend most of our time chasing the future and trying to understand it rather than finding ideas that put us where the future was heading and have it come towards us. We are spending, appropriately, a large amount of energy on $15 an hour wages, getting governments to promote paid family and sick leave. In the absence of unions being able to make changes in workers' lives, people are turning to the government as a solution to do that on a broad scale. But unions have rarely thought 10 or 20 years ahead, and universal basic income requires that kind of thinking. What I'm hopeful, somewhat from this book, is that unions can look up from the defensive crouch they're in, look into the future, and understand that so many of the things they're doing now that are enormously important could be very insufficient. And that they'll begin to think of universal basic income as they think of minimum wage, as an idea that becomes essential if we're going to end inequality, provide stability, and keep the American dream alive. It's interesting that while mainstream liberals and Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, push plans to shoehorn new on-demand-economy work into traditional employment and labor-union structures, someone straight out of the belly of the beast is saying no, no, no, that's the exact opposite of what we should do. Read the whole Atlantic interview with Stern here. For more on basic income proposals, see: Making the Welfare State Less Intrusive Finland Wants to Replace Welfare Programs With a Minimum Income for All Residents Greece to Test Minimum Guaranteed Income Program Time for a Guranateed Income? Libertarians Debate Basic Income Guarantee [...]
Sun, 06 Mar 2016 09:30:00 -0500
Is America's welfare system destroying the incentive to work? That's what Phil Harvey and Lisa Conyers contend in their recent book, The Human Cost of Welfare: How the System Hurts the People It's Supposed to Help.
"The prospect of having all your benefits cut off...or a significant part of your benefits cut off makes people look on earning income as risky," says Harvey.
The co-authors sat down with Reason TV's Nick Gillespie to talk about what they learned from hundreds of welfare recipients they interviewed around the country.
Click below to watch:
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Thu, 03 Mar 2016 10:55:00 -0500
(image) At around $700 billion a year, federal spending on welfare programs such as housing assistance, food stamps, and disability payments is bigger than the country's military budget.
Yet for all the money—and good intentions—spent on welfare, it routinely leaves recipients with meager prospects for improving their situation. Worst of all, because the system is so poorly designed, beneficiaries routinely turn down job opportunities that will cut their benefits.
That's the message of the richly researched new book, The Human Cost of Welfare: How the System Hurts the People It's Supposed to Help, by Phil Harvey and Lisa Conyers. The authors interviewed hundreds of welfare recipients all over the country to provide an inside view of how welfare actually works and how people navigate an endlessly complex and contradictory set of programs. While appreciative of the reforms to welfare in the 1990s, the authors say the time for new changes is well past due. Under both Republican and Democratic presidents, work requirements have been dropped while programs have been vastly expanded.
"One of the worst things aout the welfare system is that it induces this psychology of fear of earning too much," says Harvey, the head of DKT International, which provides family planning and HIV/AIDS prevention around the world, and Adam & Eve, the adult-products catalog (Harvey is also a donor to Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes Reason TV). "The prospect of having all your benefits cut off...or a significant part of your benefits cut off makes people look on earning income as risky."
Co-author Lisa Coyners of The DKT Liberty Project traveled the country to talk with welfare recipients in a wide range of personal and economic situations. To a person, she says, they knew not to earn over a certain amount in order to protect their benefits. "It was actually frightening for them," she says, "taking that extra hour of work or taking that raise [if] they would lose their benefits."
Harvey and Conyers propose a series a reforms, including changes to the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which is broadly popular with lawmakers, that would allow welfare recipients to effectively "top up" their wages so that becoming upwardly mobile isn't blocked by serious, short-term reductions in living standards.
The Human Cost of Welfare is reminiscent of Losing Ground, the 1984 book by Charles Murray that explained how Great Society welfare programs inadvertently created incentives for people to stay on welfare. Like that earlier book, which is widely credited with spurring welfare reform under Bill Clinton, The Human Cost of Welfare, shows how programs designed to help individuals end up perpetuating the very behavior they seek to improve. With its scores of original interviews and empathy for people who want to be in greater control of their lives and its sensible, workable reform agenda, The Human Cost of Welfare is a must-read for anyone interested in making government more accountable and improving the lives of the poorest Americans.
About 18 minutes.
Interview by Nick Gillespie. Cameras by Meredith Bragg and Joshua Swain. Edited by Swain.
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Thu, 07 Jan 2016 11:50:00 -0500
(image) Nearly a decade ago, the New York Police Department launched the Juvenile Robbery Intervention Program, also known by the unfortunate acronym J-RIP. This week an internal document detailing its failures came to light, leading to write-ups in The New York Times (under the headline "Report Finds Juvenile Program Failed to Reduce Robberies, but Police Are Expanding It") and the Gotham Gazette (under the headline "More Evidence Punitive NYPD Youth Programs Fail").
The most distressing detail may be this one, described by the Gazette:
Young people were...regularly visited by uniformed officers in their homes and on the streets. While these officers were supposed to be acting as mentors and monitors, defense lawyers reported that officers sometimes used these visits as a pretext to conduct searches and that they sometimes called attention to program relationships in front of other youth, potentially marking them as informants—a dangerous label in these neighborhoods.
"Mentors" who surveil you and give your friends the impression you're a snitch—no wonder the program didn't reduce crime. Nonetheless, the Gazette notes, "the NYPD has moved forward with an expansion of the program in a different guise," called NYC Ceasefire. The new effort
focuses more on gun crimes and adds group "call-in" meetings in which the targeted youth are brought in and lectured by police and community members about the harmful effects of their violent actions and the potential enhanced consequences of additional violent offenses. They are then placed under extensive surveillance regimes and targeted for enhanced punishments if caught re-offending. They are also offered some minimal services, primarily in the form of a centralized referral phone number run by a local non-profit that is there to link young people to already existing programs.
J-RIP and NYC Ceasefire are both examples of "Focused Deterrence" programs. Developed by criminologist David Kennedy, and first implemented in Boston in 1996, they attempt to stop gun violence or other serious crime through intensive and targeted enforcement combined with support services.
They are thus another example of the welfare state's convergence with the criminal justice system. For more on that marriage, go here and here; for further examples of it in action, go here and—from earlier this week—here.
Mon, 04 Jan 2016 12:25:00 -0500
(image) Yesterday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order requiring social service agencies throughout the state to extend shelter hours and take other steps to ensure a roof is available to the homeless. Less benevolently, it required state and local police to locate homeless people who are "unwilling" to enter the shelters, and to force them into those institutions when the temperature falls below freezing. It "is clear and well-established," the order claims, "that the State can take appropriate steps, including involuntary placement, to protect individuals from harming themselves."
This has gotten pushback from civil libertarians, from homelessness activists, and from the City of New York. (The context of Cuomo's order includes an ongoing public-pissing match between Cuomo and NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio.) Not surprisingly, a lot of homeless people are upset about it too. The New York Daily News reports:
"Hell no, I won't go to a shelter! How's that even lawful? You can't force people off a public street," said Luis Diaz, 31, who was shivering with his girlfriend on a Midtown streetcorner as temps hovered in the mid-40s.
"It's going to be crazy. They don't have enough room. They don't have the infrastructure to do this. Where are they going to put us? If they're shoving us in shelters with crazies and people who can't handle being in there, there is going to be a lot of fights. We're safer out here."
"I feel violated by this," added William Sanders, 45, who said he considered it "cruel and unusual punishment" to be forced into a shelter, where he said he has faced hostility from other residents because of sores on his legs but has been unable to get medical services.
"There is going to be anger and violence in the shelters if we go against our will. They are putting us in a really bad situation," he said.
According to the Daily News, some officials are now "saying people would not be forced to leave the sidewalks." But it also quotes the governor defending the idea of coercing New Yorkers into shelters: "If I get sued for keeping people safe and getting people in from the cold because they were endangering themselves, so be it." That doesn't sound like a man backing down.
A while back I blogged one homeless man's explanation for why he avoids the shelters. In addition to citing safety issues, he noted the unpleasantness of being a law-abiding non-addict in a place whose rules are "designed to try to keep alcoholics, drug addicts and criminals from being able to do those things." Obviously, his cost/benefit calculations might change in extremely cold weather; but that ought to be his choice to make, not the state's.
In any event, Cuomo's order is yet another example of the convergence of the welfare state with the criminal justice system. For more on that topic, go here, here, and—for a more historical view—here.
Mon, 07 Dec 2015 12:46:00 -0500Finland has a reputation for being "one of the world's best functioning welfare states," a magical land where—for the low price of paying half their income in taxes—citizens have access to state-funded health care and child care; generous unemployment benefits; and a robust system of services for the poor and the elderly. Now the Nordic nation may scrap all that in favor of giving every Finnish adult a basic income of about $866 per month. Details of the scheme are still being worked out—the Finnish government won't issue a final proposal until next November. But preliminary plans indicate the Finnish Social Insurance Institution (Kela) will test two basic-income models in the program's pilot phase. Under the first, adult Finns would each receive 800 euros per month; under the partial model, they would get 550 euros monthly. "In the partial pilot format, [earnings-based] benefits would not be affected," reports Finnish news outlet Yle. "The partial model would also retain housing benefits and income support packages." Under the full model, however, unemployment benefits, old-age pensions, maternity allowances, health benefits, housing benefits, and other earnings-based benefits would not be available to recipients, and these programs would be abolished entirely. Kela Director General Liisa Hyssälä told Lännen Media that a national basic income guarantee could save the country millions and simplify the welfare system, which currently includes an array of overlapping programs and benefits. It would also get rid of traps that disincentivize working under the current system. But why now? What's shifted in Finland to warrant this drastic change? "It may sound counterintuitive, but the proposal is meant to tackle unemployment," explains Quartz writer Olivia Goldhill. Finland’s unemployment rate is at a 15-year high, at 9.53% and a basic income would allow people to take on low-paying jobs without personal cost. At the moment, a temporary job results in lower welfare benefits, which can lead to an overall drop in income. According to a poll commissioned by Kela, 72 percent of Finns support a basic income. (Slightly more—78 percent—supported a negative income tax of the sort proposed by Milton Friedman.) The plan also has political support from the left and the right, and Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipilä is a fan. Finland isn't the only European locale flirting with a universal basic income. Greece is currently testing a pared-down minimum-income plan. Next year, Switzerland will hold a vote on the issue. The Swedes are at least aflutter about it. And in January, some low-income residents of Utrecht, the fourth-largest city in the Netherlands, will begin receiving a guaranteed monthly income (about $1,000 per month for a single adult or $1,450 for a couple or family) instead of their current welfare benefits. In about 50 of these test cases, the payment will be unconditional. Since Utrecht announced this plan, at least one other Dutch city has pledged to follow suit and six others are considering it. Forbes columnist Tim Worstall does a good job of explaining the cross-ideological appeal of a universal basic income: From the right it gets rid of the thing we worry most about welfare: the immense tax and benefit withdrawal rate that makes poor people not desire (because they are rational in the face of 60 and 70% tax rates) to increase their incomes. And from the left it actually increases workers’ bargaining power without, of course, needing those potentially self-interested unions standing in the middle. If you can live, just, without working, then the boss’ power over you is vastly reduced. Another way of putting this is that reservation wages rise–the amount you have to be offered to go to work rises. This will, of course, reduce inequality. The big problem[...]
Tue, 24 Nov 2015 14:14:00 -0500
(image) A coupla weeks ago, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released a proposal to ban smoking in all public housing. It would reportedly affect about a million households.
I've got a new column up at The Daily Beast arguing that the idea showcases government paternalism at its most naked. There's a strong case to be made that the federal government should not be involved in providing housing (including subsidies to housing in the form of the mortgage-interest deduction). But if it is, it would be far better to provide recipients not with Section 8 vouchers or payments but unrestricted cash. Indeed, that would be far better for any and all transfers to all recipients. As the Heritage Foundation has pointed out, about 20 percent of all government services and benefits got to the top income quintile. The more transparent such transfers become, the more we can actually debate and discuss their breadth and depth.
Rather than being adopted, the proposal should spur a larger conversation about how best to adminster other sorts of programs—from food stamps to the mortgage-interest deduction—that try to engineer our behavior to suit the whims of our leaders....
When it comes to food stamps (technically known as SNAP these days), the government refuses to pay for all sorts of products, to steer recipients to ostensibly healthier choices. The net result of giving people electronic benefit (EBT) cards that can only be used to purchase particular foods is a thriving abritrage market in the benefits. According to a 2014 federal study (PDF), for instance, SNAP recipients who want cash routinely use social media sites to sell the cards at a fraction of their face value. In San Antonio, $400 in SNAP money was offered for $240 in cash; in New Jersey, a $200 EBT card was advertised for $100 in cash.
Rather than trying to push the neediest Americans into particular behaviors—buy a house! have a kid! eat more kale! don’t smoke!—it would be far more elegant and efficient to simply give them unrestricted cash payments, whether for food or housing. That would eliminate all secondary markets in benefits and minimize the market distortions that inevitably occur in heavily subsidized markets (the favorable treatment of home ownership was one of the factors in the housing bubble). It might even allow us to start having conversations about simultaneously reducing the size of the welfare state while increasing its effectiveness.
Thu, 12 Nov 2015 09:31:00 -0500Here is paternalism in action against the lower orders: Smoking would be prohibited in public housing homes nationwide under a proposed federal rule to be announced on Thursday, a move that would affect nearly one million households and open the latest front in the long-running campaign to curb unwanted exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke. The ban, by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, would also require that common areas and administrative offices on public housing property be smoke-free.... Since the federal government began to press for smoking bans in public housing in 2009, more than 600 agencies encompassing over 200,000 households have voluntarily barred indoor smoking. In moving to require the prohibitions across the country, federal officials say they are acting to protect residents from secondhand smoke, which can travel through walls and under doors; to reduce the risk of fires; and to lower building maintenance costs. As The New York Times reports, this is more like the last action of an ongoing government policy rather than the start of a new campaign against a substance that, while still technically legal, is arguably as vilified in popular culture and tax policy. Indeed, in every day life, I'd say there's little question that being a pot smoker is less likely to raise an eyebrow than being a tobacco user. So what comes next, after tobacco smoke is banned in federally funded or supported housing? Despite posing virtually none of the personal health hazards of smoking, vaping is everywhere under attack because it mimics the act of smoking. Chewing tobacco doesn't present the same externalities (real and imagined) of secondhand smoke, but it poses health risks, which are likely to be paid for by taxpayers (if you're living in public housing, aren't you more likely to be receiving various sorts of other tax-funded support)? The proposed rule would require housing agencies to prohibit lit cigarettes, cigars and pipes in all living units, indoor common areas, administrative offices and all outdoor areas within 25 feet of housing and administrative office buildings. The rule would not apply initially to electronic cigarettes, but federal officials are seeking input about whether to ban them. Individual housing authorities can be as restrictive as they want, extending the prohibition to areas near playgrounds, for instance, or making their entire grounds smoke-free, officials said. The Times quotes one resident who expresses frustration with the proposed ban: “What I do in my apartment should be my problem, long as I pay my rent,” said Gary Smith, 47, a cigarette in hand as he sat outside the door to a building in the Walt Whitman Houses in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn.... Mr. Smith, for one, expressed skepticism that a ban could be enforced. “You don’t know what’s going on in people’s apartment,” he said at the Walt Whitman Houses. He added, “What are they going to do, smell your apartment?” Read the Times' article here. As someone who grew up in a house with parents who were smokers, I fully appreciate the arguments—and these are independent of questions of the health effects of second-hand smoke—that being around smokers is a nuisance and unpleasant. To the extent that's real, there should be relatively easy ways to create parts of public housing that allow smoking and others that do not. For those of you who assume that the negative health effects of secondhand smoke are settled in any sort of serious way, please read my colleague Jacob Sullum's prodigious and award-winning output on the matter (start here). But the idea that the state can or should condition the receipt of benefits on the avoidance of specific legal behaviors should be anathema not simply to libertarians but to conservatives who denounce social engineering and libera[...]
Wed, 30 Sep 2015 00:01:00 -0400The world has enough real problems without declaring everyone a "victim." Bill Clinton says Hillary is a victim of a right-wing conspiracy. Lindsay Lohan, when jailed for driving drunk and breaking parole, says she's a victim of cruel and unusual punishment. Michael Sam says his NFL career would have gone better had he not come out as gay. A Philadelphia dentist caught groping his patients' breasts said he is a victim of frotteurism, a disease that compels you to fondle breasts. Really. People benefit by playing the victim. Activists look for people they can declare victims, to bring attention to their causes. The New York Times once called the Super Bowl the "Abuse Bowl," claiming that during the game many more women are abused than usual because their men get crazed watching violence. CBS called Super Bowl Sunday a "day of dread." The Boston Globe claimed a study showed calls to anti-violence emergency lines go up 40 percent during the game. Then Ken Ringle of the Washington Post tried to trace those claims. The Globe reporter admitted she never saw the study in question but got the numbers from the left-wing group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. FAIR said they got them from a psychiatrist on "Good Morning America." That psychiatrist referred callers to another psychiatrist, who said, "I haven't been any more successful than you in tracking down any of this." The "Super Bowl victim" claim was bunk. Sometimes I feel like a victim. I stutter. Had today's disability laws existed when I began work, would I have fought to overcome my stuttering? Maybe not. I might have sued my employer, demanding they "accommodate my disability" by giving me a non-speaking job. Maybe I would have just stopped working and collected a disability check. I also felt like a victim the day I taped a TV report on how pro-wrestling is fake, and a wrestler beat me up, hitting me on both ears. Weeks afterward, loud noises hurt my ears. Someone then said that that the wrestler's boss, Vince McMahon, told him to hit me, so I sued McMahon. As part of the lawsuit, McMahon's lawyers demanded I see a certain doctor, who told me, "Your ear pain is a jurosomatic illness." "What's that?" I said. He answered, "Jurosomatic ... like psychosomatic. You hold onto your ear pain because you're involved in a lawsuit." I was furious. I screamed at him, "You haven't even examined me, and you make this accusation?" But guess what? After the World Wrestling Federation settled the lawsuit and paid me, my ear pain slowly went away. Was I holding onto pain because litigation kept reminding me that I was a victim? Maybe. It makes me wonder about those well-intended government programs meant to help the disabled. Social Security disability money used to go to blind people, people in wheelchairs, people clearly disabled. But now billions go to people who say they're disabled by things like headaches and back pain. Disability payments have increased so much that the program will soon go broke. But the increase in payments makes no sense. Medicine improved since 1990. People do less hard manual labor. There should be fewer disabled people. Why are there more? Perhaps it's jurosomatic pain? Or government-handout-omatic pain? Some people are just inclined to complain, and the modern welfare state encourages that. Lawyers made it worse by encouraging people to sue, rather than strive. That changed America. When you reward something, you get more of it. We change people's character by teaching them that "victimhood" is a way to get attention and moral status. Our ancestors never would have accomplished much if they'd labeled themselves victims. They crossed oceans and the prairie knowing that many people on the journey would die. Some of them really did end up being victims. But they were proud of striving, not proud of being vic[...]
Wed, 29 Jul 2015 11:18:00 -0400
The welfare state has always had punitive functions, and the penal state has always had welfare functions. But lately that convergence has been particularly tight:
(image) Every day, in public defender offices around the country, thousands of criminal lawyers step outside of their constitutional mandate. They find drug treatment programs and jobs for their clients. They intervene with landlords and child welfare services. They worry about whether their clients have transportation, or appropriate clothing for an interview. In sum, they provide a wide array of social services and legal aid that make them look less like the traditional defense attorneys contemplated by Gideon v. Wainwright and more like social workers.
At the same time, in schools, welfare offices, and public hospitals, civil servants are also operating outside their traditional job descriptions. Teachers are calling the police and sending students to probation offices. Welfare case managers monitor their clients for fraud and refer them to prosecutors. Emergency rooms are providing opportunities to catch and arrest people with open warrants. In other words, these institutions of the welfare state are engaged in a wide array of criminal functions that make them look less like service providers and more like law enforcement officers.
These two phenomena are the flip sides of the same coin. Public defenders and other criminal justice actors are morphing into service providers in response to the tight connection between criminalization and their clients' poverty, the same connection that drives teachers and welfare caseworkers to treat their poor clients as presumptive criminals.
That's the opening to "Gideon's Servants and the Criminalization of Poverty," a recent paper by Alexandra Natapoff of Loyola Law School. I could pick a number of nits with it, but it's a good guide to a development that defies a lot of conventional rhetoric about the roles played by the state.
(Note: Natapoff relies on Alice Goffman's recent book On the Run for her comment about emergency rooms and open warrants, and Goffman's claim on that count is controversial. See J.D. Tuccille's post here and Jesse Singal's article here for more on that debate.)
Wed, 01 Jul 2015 12:17:00 -0400
In the June Journal of American History—a special issue devoted to the carceral state—the Harvard historian Elizabeth Hinton argues that President Lyndon Johnson reacted to the riots of the mid-1960s by reshaping his Great Society reforms, blending
(image) the opportunity, development, and training programs of the War on Poverty with the surveillance, patrol, and detention programs of Johnson's newly declared "War on Crime." This entanglement of Great Society policies allowed law enforcement officials to use methods of surveillance that overlapped with social programs—for instance, antidelinquency measures framed as equal opportunity initiatives—to effectively suffuse crime-control strategies into the everyday lives of Americans in segregated and impoverished communities. In time, the entire spectrum of domestic social programs actively participated in national law enforcement, thereby pushing the boundaries of the carceral state beyond penal institutions. By the time Johnson's Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act passed in 1968, the carceral state had already begun to metastasize into a vast network of social programs originally created to combat racial exclusion and inequality.
"During the first half of the 1960s, antipoverty programs expanded the degree of federal influence in the everyday lives of black urban Americans," Hinton writes. "By fashioning a new liberal synthesis that brought crime-control strategies under the fold of social welfare programs, federal policy makers eased the shift toward national punitive programs in the second half of the decade." In this way, LBJ helped lay "the groundwork for contemporary mass incarceration."
Fri, 22 May 2015 13:59:00 -0400The Daily Beast today brings us a rather comical example of a liberal writer publicly discovering that raising the minimum wage can have negative repercussions for the poor. Writes Monica Potts: This week, the Los Angeles City Council voted to increase its minimum wage to $15 an hour, from the current $9, by 2020...But there’s another potential problem. The finances of those at the bottom are delicately balanced and intertwined with so many safety net programs, like food stamps and rental assistance, that the question of whether workers are better off must be weighed against whether and how they lose the support they receive from those programs. And the truth is it’s not clear how much better off people who make the minimum wage will be. It's encouraging to see the author realize that even the most well-intentioned government interventions can sometimes have disastrous consequences for the people they're trying to help. Reason's coverage of this issue over the years has been deep and wide. Minimum wage increases force business owners to cut back on hiring, making it harder for low-skilled workers to find jobs at all. (Potts' evidence-free assertion that "most economic research" doesn't bear that out gets a good pre-buttal from Ron Bailey here.) People in poverty, who may already be struggling to afford food and clothes and diapers, are also least able to absorb it when goods and services become more expensive—a natural consequence of forcing employers to pay workers a lot more for the same labor. Potts' main fear, though, is that if workers start making more money, they might no longer qualify for public assistance programs. And she's right: A person whose wage suddenly jumps 66 percent to $15 an hour (and who is lucky enough to keep her job at all) could very well lose access to means-tested benefits like food stamps and childcare subsidies, which together provide her with more value than the additional after-tax pay she's now receiving. Here's the thing: A worker who would be worse off making $15 an hour due to a minimum wage hike would also be worse off making $15 an hour because she went back to school to learn new skills. This is exactly what people on the right mean when we talk about welfare creating a poverty trap—that too-generous government programs can change the calculus for a person at the low end of the income ladder so that it no longer makes financial sense to try to increase your value as a worker, because if you earn too much, you'll lose your benefits. It's not worth the risk. Potts' article is also an excellent example of what I was talking about in my appearance on HuffPost Live earlier this week, when I said that replacing our 80+ disparate federal welfare programs with a "universal basic income" might sound good in theory—but I'm skeptical the existing programs would ever actually go away. That's because as soon as you try to eliminate a program, some people will get up in arms on behalf of those who currently benefit from it. "You can't actually mean you want to get rid of Medicaid?!" they might cry, where "Medicaid" could be replaced by "housing assistance" or "Pell grants" or any other federal sacred cow. In fact, I would like to get rid of those programs. They are an inefficient, convoluted, fraud-ridden mess, and when it comes to helping the poor, as a society we ought to be able to do better. I'd also like to get rid of the minimum wage. If a person wants to hire someone at $4 an hour to do a low-skilled task and a worker is willing to accept the job at that rate, that's a win-win and the government has no business stepping in to forcibly prevent it. The fact is that not everyone has the experience and qualifications to be worth hiring at $15 an ho[...]
Thu, 19 Mar 2015 13:20:00 -0400In January I noted that two Colorado legislators, Sen. Chris Holbert and Rep. Rhonda Fields, were preparing to introduce a bill to decriminalize truancy in their state. (The bill is now making its way through the lawmaking process.) Holbert is a conservative Republican and Fields a liberal Democrat, so they don't agree on a lot, but they do share the sensible notion that the possible punishments for skipping school should not include jail. At this time of backlash against over-the-top school-discipline policies, who could disagree with that? Meet retired judge Dennis Maes, who attacked the proposal in an op-ed for The Pueblo Chieftain: It appears that Sen. Holbert and others are opposed to placing status offenders in detention. A status offense is conduct which would not be a crime under the law of the jurisdiction in which the offense was committed if committed by an adult. Their belief is that when status offenders are placed in detention with children facing juvenile delinquency charges, they are negatively affected and perhaps even be attracted to criminal activity, themselves. To my knowledge, there is no proven clinical study that validates such a premise. As a matter of fact, one of the indicators of potential juvenile delinquency is truancy, which supports the need for truancy courts. The vast majority of convicted felons show one thing in common—dropping out of school. There is a philosophical divide among those involved with status offenders concerning the use of detention time.... Sen. Holbert's bill is a giant step backward in addressing school engagement for at-risk students. If the bill passes, it will take years to unravel the damage done. I should note that Maes also argues that Colorado is not "sending children to detention for failing to go to school" but "sending students to detention for failing to obey a valid court order." The court orders in question, of course, are for the truant kids to return to school. Anyway. Maes' argument—which has been embraced by the Chieftain's editors—reminds me of the debate last year before Baltimore adopted intrusive new curfews for children and teens. The Baltimore Sun endorsed the measures on the grounds that detaining and identifying these kids was "the first line of defense against allowing them to develop even more serious problems." It's a social-worker-with-a-gun attitude, a worldview that doesn't simply want to offer people help but is willing to threaten them with the bloody awfulness of the American detention system if they reply with a no-thanks. I find this outlook deeply disturbing, but it has a long history in this country. As I wrote a few years back, the history of the penal system and the history of welfare are closely intertwined, going back to the invention of the prison and the poorhouse. As the sociologist David Wagner writes in The Poorhouse, a social history of the institution, "two totally different ideas—hospitality and punishment—oddly enough became confused," with the old medieval institution of the almshouse and the newer, more punitive workhouse both falling under the "poorhouse" label in popular discussion. (Workhouses were rare in America, but poorhouses attempted with mixed success to enforce a regimen of labor. One 19th-century New York journalist, quoted in [Michael Katz's book In the Shadow of the Poorhouse], visited a Rhode Island institution where he saw "a party of men carrying wood from one corner of the yard to another and piling it there; when it was all removed it was brought back again and piled in the old place.") It's telling, at any rate, that one of the centers Wagner studied, the poorhouse in Rockingham County, New [...]
Mon, 02 Mar 2015 12:00:00 -0500Liberals and conservatives do not agree with each other, as a matter of general principle. If one side says something is true, then the other side will try hard to prove it isn’t, just to show them. So it is nice to see liberals come around on a point conservatives have been making for decades: Welfare leads to moral rot. Conservatives have made this point over and over again, in books and conferences and blog postings ad nauseam. Twenty years ago David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, wrote that “without welfare and food stamps, poor people would cling harder to working-class respectability than they do now.” A couple of years ago Paul Ryan made the same point: “We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.” By giving people their daily bread, conservatives say, the welfare state robs them of any reason to get off the couch and make it themselves. And this is bad not just because it imposes economic costs on society. It is bad because it corrodes virtue. Industry, thrift, a go-getter spirit—these are important qualities in both the individual and the community. Laziness, sloth, dependence on others—these are character flaws. Those on welfare could go to work and do for themselves, conservatives say, if only the welfare state hadn’t enabled them not to. Liberals think this is all bunk. While some, such as economist Paul Krugman, might concede that “incentives do have some effect on work effort,” they contend the effect is quite small. What’s more, they say conservatives get the causality backward. People receive government benefits because they are poor, and they are poor because of economic circumstances. They aren’t poor because of government benefits. Or so they used to say. But then came Walmart. A couple of weeks ago Walmart announced it would raise hourly wages for half a million employees. The New York Times argued it should be forced to raise pay even further through an increase in the national minimum wage. After all, the paper said, there is “little doubt that Walmart (and other employers) would pay more if low wages were not, in effect, subsidized by taxpayers, who pay for the food stamps and other public assistance that low-wage workers rely on to get by.” The Times was referring to a study, such as it was, purporting to show Walmart’s low wages cost taxpayers $6.2 billion in public assistance, including food stamps, Medicaid, and housing benefits. Other studies have purported to show similar things about the fast-food industry—which ostensibly costs the taxpayers $7 billion in social-welfare spending. These tendentious claims have several shortcomings, such as loaded assumptions (PolitiFact has ruled a similar claim, by an MSNBC figure, “mostly false”) and the fact that a slightly smaller percentage of Walmart’s workforce receives public benefits than the average for the U.S. retail sector as a whole. Imagine, too, what would happen if Walmart and fast-food restaurants went out of business tomorrow. Would other companies snap up all their employees, perhaps even pay them better? Probably not. (In fact, the increase in job applicants might depress wages elsewhere.) It is far more likely that the shutdowns would lead to higher unemployment and therefore even more social-welfare spending. Hence Walmart and other low-wage employers probably reduce the total amount of social-welfare spending in the U.S., rather than increase it. But forget all that. Assume the company’s critics are right—that Walmart is leaning on public a[...]