2.19.2015

The Food Issues Book Club: How Hungry is America, Chapter 8

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

How Hungry is America, Chapter 8:
Let Them Eat Sound Bites: The Polarized Politics of Welfare Reform

Summary:

In the late 1990s amidst welfare reform efforts, overall poverty decreased - but extreme poverty increased.  By 2001, both rates were increasing again.  Neither the political Right nor the Left will assess how much good or harm was done through efforts at reforming the system.  Both sides have taken stances that are wrong.

Scanned from the book because it's too good not to share: Berg's chart of
Conservative vs. Liberal stances on welfare and poverty

Conservative backlash to "welfare" - the support program for families living in poverty now known as TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) - began with its inception in the 1960s.  It has never been the case, though, that "most" people living in poverty also receive welfare, as the common rhetoric goes.  The percentage reached its maximum of 48% in the 1970s, due largely to a record-low number of people living in poverty, therefore creating a higher ratio.  Welfare, then, does not seem to create poverty as is sometimes claimed.  In the 1980s conservatives began to claim that welfare and other support programs actually prevented poor people from progressing.  It is true that the welfare program at that time had rules that made things unnecessarily difficult for everyone involved, and did not satisfy needs.  Liberals under Clinton set out to correct this in the 1990s to both improve the system and restore trust in the government.

Nope.
The welfare reform efforts of the 1990s "shifted funding from welfare payments to work-support activities" on both federal and state levels, to both positive and negative effect.  People in poverty continued to struggle despite the new policies' best intentions.  Reform was considered a victory politically, though, because people could be removed from the welfare rolls.

"As of 2008, there has yet to be a comprehensive national study of the effectiveness of welfare reform in both boom time and recession."  Several small-scale studies, though, indicate that roll removal led to the withdrawal of benefits from underemployed families and was followed by soaring rates of issues associated with poverty (food insecurity among them).  Based on national numbers for food insecurity and welfare receipt, there is a correlation between fewer welfare recipients and higher rates of food insecurity.

Nope.
Supporters of welfare reform ignore the issue of underemployment, claiming that any job is better than being on welfare.  Additionally, the system of block grants provided to states doesn't allow for the changing economy: states receive the same funds whether there are a plethora of available jobs or none at all.  Many families who are removed from welfare are unable to find sufficient employment.

"[T]o truly fix welfare - so that it helps poor people achieve self-sufficiency - would require massive new investments in childcare and job training, another other things.  Both [political] sides have other priorities."

Discussion:

Penguins are such moochers.
In my memory, welfare and poverty have always been two of the most divisive political issues.  The conservative / Republican side seems to make aid recipients out to be moochers and layabouts, and the liberal / Democratic side seems to martyr the poor and rage against any implication that aid is not warranted (though in a decidedly less pointed way - I'm having a hard time finding a clear example to link).  I have probably been guilty of the latter more than once, and see it play out in the work of social justice organizations here in New Orleans.  To maintain credibility, it's important to acknowledge that the world works in shades of grey rather than black and white, good and evil.  Few adults are completely blameless regarding their circumstances.  But while personal responsibility is in fact crucial for every functional adult, it's equally important to recognize that "the system" is now and always has been stacked against low-income, minority, and other marginalized populations.

I'd say "Latino" and "black", but whatev.
In the political realm, I think the second-to-last section of Berg's chart above hits the nail on the head: neither side "really want[s] policies that will substantively reduce the power of the ruling elites over the lives of poor people."  As I've said for many years, when you reach the level of federal government you have almost nothing but rich white men who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, regardless which side of the aisle you're on.  Is it a surprise that the system they designed and that they rule puts the odds ever in their favor?

Childcare and job training services would certainly help some of those in poverty to find and keep jobs.  But it won't change the fact that there aren't enough jobs to go around.  Also, for as long as we enjoy our current social structure, we'll be needing cashiers, bus boys, dishwashers, and the many other jobs that currently do not pay a living wage.  Paying these workers less than a living wage is nothing short of creating a second class citizenry.  Underemployment - being unable to find full-time work - is also a huge issue that is rarely talked about, and is prevalent even among the college-educated.  And it's especially prominent in the food industry.

Perhaps, instead of looking to the government to support people who work full time but don't make enough money to live on and the government then looking to taxpayers, we should be looking to the enormously profitable corporations that are passing the buck to consumers and taxpayers by refusing to pay their employees properly.  They can afford to do so, and to do so without the ever-feared price-raising that seems as terrifying to consumers as tax increases.  They choose not to - and you're still giving them your money.  For those of us who can, perhaps it's time we start making better choices?




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