What kind of society do we live in? Two disturbing trends help answer this question.
First, growing numbers of our citizens are living below the poverty level and even, alarmingly, below half the poverty level. Growing numbers receive food stamps, live in shelters, and are daily denied emergency shelter assistance.
Second, despite the rise in poverty and inequality, the percentage of Americans who favor government help for the poor is declining. According to a Boston Globe article (“The Great Divide,” 11/4/12, p.1), the slide in approval of public benefits is especially dramatic among Republicans, whose support for aid has dropped from 62% to 40% over the past 25 years. Among Democrats, support for government assistance has also declined, from 79% to 75%.
Why is it that at a time when we should expect more compassion, we find less? These days, poor people are often described as “takers,” a stereotype which stirs up popular hostility. This hostility in turn justifies cutting public assistance and allows those in power to impose harsh demands in exchange for benefits .
In the context of increasing need coupled with declining support, this stereotyping further allows those in power to adopt measures that keep the poor in their place and humiliate those in need in exchange for help. Such degrading treatment flies in the face of our claims to being a humane society.
We challenge the notion that society has a right to insult the human dignity of the poor in exchange for resources essential to meeting basic needs.
For decades, politicians and regulators have asserted their right to control the poor by relying on myths about those in need. These myths are familiar to anyone tuned into popular media: the poor are lazy and must be forced to work; they don’t value education; they squander their resources on drugs and alcohol; they cannot care for their children properly.
Research studies have repeatedly debunked each of these myths. Still, these fictions have prevailed over fact in public consciousness. Irrefutable evidence that the poor are as hardworking and moral as any other group is ignored while the entitlement of the powerful to demean the poor in exchange for resources thrives.
When welfare programs began in the 1930s, New Deal planners made a l distinction between universal programs available to all (such as Social Security) and means-tested programs which required applicants to prove need (such as Aid to Dependent Children). Critics of means-tested programs argued then that they would inevitably lead to stigmatization of recipients. They were correct. Persistent stereotypes still justify policies that micromanage the lives of those receiving help.
In fact, we have never abandoned the presumption that society has the right to exact a measure of personal privacy, autonomy, and dignity from those living in poverty as the cost of receiving benefits. Despite the best efforts of recipients and their allies, coercive regulations and bureaucratic practices continue to cut the poor off from the social mainstream and undermine our democratic community.
Invasion of privacy
Years ago, welfare workers visited recipients after-hours to ensure there was no ”man in the house,” opened closet doors to make sure families enjoyed no unexplained luxuries or gifts, and examined telephone bills for "unnecessary" calls. Under such a system, nothing about a family's life was private for long.
Today, invasion of privacy persists in more impersonal forms. In 1995, Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children (TAFDC) introduced additional regulations that sacrificed the privacy of Massachusetts welfare recipients. For example, the “LearnFare’ requirement orders local education authorities to submit school attendance records of children on welfare to the Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA); too many unexplained absences trigger a cut in benefits. Such policies violate privacy,, single recipients out for unequal treatment, and subject them to severe penalties if they do not cooperate.
Constraints on personal autonomy
Years ago, welfare benefits were distributed in the form of vouchers for specific goods. Poor families were required to use these vouchers - for winter coats or a new baby's crib mattress, for example - only at approved stores, including charity shops.
Similar constraints now reflect an age when Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards have replaced vouchers and checks. Since 2011, the Massachusetts legislature has twice signaled that people on welfare cannot be trusted to make their own financial decisions, first by making it illegal to use EBT cards to purchase alcohol, cigarettes, or lottery tickets, and then by adding other restricted items to the list, including court-ordered fees, jewelry and manicures. Governor Patrick vetoed this year’s legislation, saying “I’m not going to do anything that makes vulnerable people beg for their benefits." But a compromise budget amendment eventually passed with a veto-proof majority. The amendment created a Cashless System Commission to study how the Commonwealth could establish a program whereby recipients would have no access to cash whatsoever.
Assaults on human dignity
Decades ago, the poor were required to obtain independent verification of need for many items. For example, families were not trusted to apply on their own for a Thanksgiving turkey or Christmas stocking but had to obtain a letter from a religious or other authority figure attesting to their need. Under this system, those receiving benefits lived under a constant cloud of suspicion. It was assumed they were guilty until proven innocent.
These days, distrust of the poor remains at the core of welfare regulations. Some states now propose to attach benefits to demeaning behavioral requirements, as, for example, in Florida, where applicants for welfare have to pay for their own urine tests to prove they are not drug-users. (This requirement is currently on hold as the courts consider whether it violates the Constitution's search and seizure clause.) Even more outrageous, Governor Martinez of New Mexico recently proposed that women in her state who are seeking childcare assistance for a child that resulted from rape be required to prove that their sexual assault qualified as “forcible rape.”
A means-tested welfare system institutionalizes second-class status for those in poverty. Two provisions of current Massachusetts law – the family cap and time limits – further write those who need assistance out of the social contract. First, babies born to women while on welfare are now deemed ineligible for benefits, leaving an entire class of vulnerable children without resources. Second, a recipient can receive benefits for only two years out of any five-year period. At the end of that time, regardless of circumstances, one is simply dropped from the rolls. These policies of exclusion help to consign a growing number of poor families to remaining in a permanent underclass.
Inhumane treatment of the poor by the powerful corrupts our democracy at a fundamental level.
That poor families and individuals seek benefits from our welfare system is hardly a problem in our wealthy society. A far deeper threat to our democracy is that those with power persist in imposing humiliating demands on the poor in exchange for help and exclude them from the social mainstream in the process.
Such demands on the poor cannot coexist with the proposition that all are created equal in our democracy. Regulations that institutionalize those in poverty as second-class citizens erode the underpinnings of our society. We who value the human dignity of all citizens should not let those who stereotype those in need and assert a right to control the poor go unchallenged.
Winter, 2012 – Poor People’s United Fund Newsletter -- ppuf.org
Vicky Steinitz is a retired College of Public and Community Service, UMass Boston faculty member and a longtime academic ally of the welfare rights movement. Anne Wheelock is an independent researcher who writes about inequality and education policy in Massachusetts.