Response to Mr Blair 3

I haven’t read Assets and the Poor, though I’ll give serious consideration to ordering it the next time I get a spare 25 bucks, but there is an excerpt – the first 5 pages – at Amazon which at least gave me a flavor for what Sherraden’s after and where he’s coming from. First response? Not good.

Unfortunately, Amazon won’t let me copy any of the excerpt and as rotten a typist as I am, I’m not going to copy large chunks by hand – it’s only 5 pages and you can read it for yourself in under 5 mins. The main thrust of his thesis seems to be that anti-poverty strategies have been based on income tansfers and income transfers don’t work. (Reminder: this book was written in 1991 and is therefore 16 years old and outdated by at least 10.)

There is widespread discontent with the failure of income transfers, such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).

Who, may I ask is discontented with it? And why? He doesn’t say though this is the opening and obviously the place to summarize that discontent. If he’s going to argue unhappiness, it would be nice to know where that unhappiness comes from and what its basis is. Especially since later on he admits income transfers have had a positive impact.

[I]ncome transfer has maintained…a minimum level of subsistence in the United States….In addition, welfare policy has buffered the severity of economic cycles by providing strong countercyclical fiscal stimuli.

IOW, it has done as much as conservative means-testing has allowed it to do and provided the minimum safety net which is all conservatives could stomach. Their intention was to hold welfare to the subsistence level and they succeeded in doing that. How, therefore, do we justify calling it a failure?

After decades of federal programs, it cannot be demonstrated that means-tested welfare policies permanently change people’s lives for the better.

Well, duh. Of course not. The policy was built to actively prevent “changing people’s lives for the better”. Conservatives, as I have demonstrated, wouldn’t stand for it. They didn’t even want the minimum subsistence aid, as they showed quite clearly when they came to power in ’94 and immediately began gutting as much of it as they could.

So already, right at the beginning, we’ve got problems. Continue reading

Response to Mr Blair 2

What you – and a lot of other people; you’re not alone – don’t seem to realize is that poverty is not a state of mind. It’s an economic condition that’s often forced on people.

[T]here are a lot of people…who think poverty is the result of stupidity or laziness, people who simply can’t believe that in America talent and intelligence could go unrewarded. Well…they do. Every day.

One of the smartest people I know is a cook at a nursing home. He had two years at a technical college where he learned how to be a tool-and-die maker because he liked to work with his hands. That craft has been taken over by computers, so now he cooks. He’s good at it, proud of what he can do and how people feel when they eat what he makes. He can do wonders with a budget slim as a Chihuahua hair. He makes $9/hr. His family wants to know why he doesn’t do more with his life. In a weak moment (when we’d been drinking), he told me that, and then he told me what he didn’t dare tell them–that he kept the job because he was happy doing it, and that money really wasn’t very important to him as long as his family had a roof over their heads and enough to eat.

He was lying, like a lot of us do, by telling himself that what he could get was all he wanted. I challenged him, and he admitted he’d really like to learn gourmet cooking and work in a legitimate restaurant where he didn’t have to make superior food out of inferior product. I asked him if he’d considered going back to school, get a degree in Culinary Arts. Sheepishly, he told me he’d applied but his income ($9/hr!) was over the guidelines and there was no financial aid available since the Feds had cut their grant programs to the bone.

The most brilliant guy I know is a Hungarian émigré. He was trained as a surgeon in Eastern Europe, has a raft of degrees on the wall of his tiny apartment, and speaks 4 languages, 3 of them reasonably well (English, he tells me, is tough). But the degrees aren’t recognized in America, he’s over 50, and his accent is so thick, his English so rudimentary, that a lot of prospective employers thought he was retarded. He works as a janitor. He makes $7/hr after three years; he started at $5. It was all he could get. His shame is so great that he won’t tell his family where he is or what he’s doing now.

If intelligence and talent were what counted in America, that janitor would be running a huge hospital and Bill Gates–who stole everything MicroSoft is from smarter people–would be sweeping the floors of the wards. But they aren’t.

It’s a rigged game, Mr Blair. Leaf through the categories Poverty and/or The Class War and/or War on the Poor on this blog and you will find dozens of posts written over the last few years documenting the tricks, lies, and outright cruelty practiced on the poor by conservatives, first because they believe poverty is the result of laziness, and second because it’s what their corporate supporters want.

Continue reading

Response to Mr Blair 1

This is one of those posts that started out to be a comment on someone else’s blog until I decided that a) it was too long for a comment, and b) the issue has enough resonance to deserve wider exposure.

A brand-new blog (born March 17, barely a month ago) called Asset Almanac and authored by one Benjamin Blair linked to Monday’s post on infant mortality along with posts on several other blogs he’d never heard of that also featured pieces on the NYT article. Mr Blair’s point in this particular post, gently made, was that we were all having “knee-jerk responses” that aren’t “constructive” because they “impl[y] we ought to return to the good old days pre-welfare reform.”

Before I do answer him, however, I want to acquaint you with Mr Blair so we know who we’re dealing with and can put his remarks in some kind of context.

He describes himself as a “do-gooder…always working for fragile nonprofits” whose “passion” is for something called “asset development”. Asset development, it turns out, is a relatively new anti-poverty strategy built around, apparently, teaching poor people to save money.

The logic is very simple (important ideas are often simple): 401k account-holders save more when there’s a company match; perhaps poor people (few of whom have access to any 401k account, much less a matched one) would save more, and have a better chance of clawing their way out of poverty, if their difficult efforts to save for the future were also matched (…picture penguins marching through the polar winter — that metaphor may suggest the discipline and sacrifice necessary to save on an extremely low income). Michael Sherraden at the Center for Social Development at Washington University had that epiphany (well, not the goofy penguin part — I take full responsibility for that) and he wrote about it in his 1991 book, Assets for the Poor: A New American Welfare Policy. He argued that asset development, as opposed to (or in addition to) income support, is what can give poor people a chance at financial security and real self-sufficiency.

The beauty of the matched savings account is that the match can be used as not just an incentive to save but also a source of leverage about what to save for. Matched savings accounts, dubbed individual development accounts (IDAs), allow low-income people who complete a required financial education program to use their savings and the matching funds (which are often a generous two or three times the amount saved by the individual, up to a certain limit) to invest in a productive asset such as a first home, higher education, or the capitalization of a micro-business; in other words, the kind of investment that has been shown to move many people permanently up the economic ladder, and though certainly not risk-free investments (which we are being reminded of with the current subprime mortgage crisis), they have proven to be more practical and effective than most other investment options for the poor.

As regular readers have probably already guessed, warning flags starting going off all over the place, if not red then at least blazing orange. The idiotic concept that the poor are poor because they don’t manage their money well enough or save enough has been a right-wing talking-point for a generation, largely employed to frame the blame for poverty on the poor themselves and then sidetrack the discussion into a thoroughly useless cul-de-sac that neatly avoids the only real long-term solution whether we like it or not: income redistribution, an idea that drives our home-made oligarchs into fits of pique and panic.

Continue reading

Minimum Wage Deal Cut in Senate

The Senate has just passed the minimum wage bill which will go to the president as part of the supplemental package funding the war in Iraq. The bill, worked out in Conference Committee mainly by the Democratic majority, will cut the $$$12Bil$$$ in corporate tax breaks originally demanded by Senate Republicans under a threat of filibuster to a still-extortionate $$$4.8Bil$$$.

An improvement of sorts, I suppose.

Though the Senate initially approved tax cuts worth about $12 billion over five years, House negotiators wanted less than $2 billion. The final figure, $4.84 billion, includes several provisions, including giving expanded tax breaks to restaurants and other small businesses that hire disabled veterans and residents of poor neighborhoods as well as allowing small businesses to write off a greater portion of their investments for tax purposes.

Continue reading

Welfare and Medicaid Cuts Raise Infant Mortality Rate

Conservatives kill babies.

Not with their own hands, of course. They don’t strangle them in their cribs. They let their anti-life policies do it for them.

For decades but especially for the last 12 years, the very same conservatives who scream that the removal of an unformed scut of cells in a womb is murder have been systematically depriving real life pregnant women who will be carrying to term of luxuries like food and adequate medical care because they’re “too expensive”.

At the Federal level, Medicaid and welfare have been consistently cut every year conservatives have ruled the roost in order to trim taxes to the nub for the rich, hand over $$$billions$$$ in corporate welfare to their masters campaign contributors, and prosecute a war nobody wanted on behalf of neoconservative imperialists too dumb to know enough to come in out of the rain. In primarily liberal Democratic states, some of that safety net has been replaced but in the predominantly-conservative Southern states, it hasn’t and the results are coming in. They’re not pretty, but then nothing much in conservative-run America is these days.

The policies of so-called “pro-life” conservatives are raising infant mortality rates in the South to the such a point that Third World countries have lower rates than parts of the US. Are we proud yet?

Continue reading

Environmental Change: Unless the Corporatocracy Does It, It Don’t Mean Much

From Mark Morford:

 Just look around. It feels as though your heart is being eaten by angry capitalist cockroaches. Like your id is being munched by deranged zombie architects. And your eyes, oh God your eyes, they can’t help but be burned like charcoal as they take in mile after mile, town after town, dreary suburban dystopia after dreary suburban dystopia of massive gluttonous eco-mauling overdevelopment, more Wal-Marts and SUV dealers and scabby strip malls and so many generic prison compounds that are apparently actually tract-home complexes it makes you want to rip out your soul with a pickax and feed it to the few remaining wild coyotes in Joshua Tree before someone shoots them all to make way for a new Home Depot.

This, then, is the conundrum: On the one hand, we are ever trying to convince ourselves that we can make a difference on a humble individual basis, in our daily lives, little by little and one recycled Evian bottle at a time, and yet the destructive proof to the contrary is so vast and omnivorous it seems like a nice rerun of “Bambi Meets Godzilla.” It can feel as though your little eco-home, your little ethically raised wool rug mean about as much in the overall scheme of earthly health as a speck of organic lint in a nuclear waste dump.

***

McDonald’s eventually dumped the Styrofoam. But here’s the story’s big kicker: Just that one simple shift, that one tiny change in corporate behavior affected an enormous industry all the way down the line, so much so that they figured it was the environmental equivalent of something like 50 million people deciding to recycle plastic bottles. It was at once staggering and humbling.

In other words, sure you can do your part at home, sure your drop in the environmental bucket helps get the plastic wet, but real, serious change can’t even begin until the corporate and political leviathans decide it’s good business to pretend they have a soul.

FEMA Replaces the Red Cross: Is Martial Law Back in Play?

After FEMA’s shameful performance in the wake of Katrina, one would have thought that nobody in their right mind would assign them the key disaster-relief role, but that’s exactly what just happened.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency will replace the American Red Cross as the agency in charge of coordinating the provision of shelter, food and first aid to victims in disasters under an agreement disclosed by a Senate panel yesterday.

The change in the government’s emergency plans, formalized in letters between FEMA and Red Cross leaders Feb. 21, follows criticism of the way they cooperated after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and a new law that bolsters FEMA’s role in providing emergency housing, human services, case management and financial help.

That graf is a doozy. FEMA and the Red Cross were both criticized for not co-operating? Maybe my memory is deficient, but I don’t remember the Red Cross being criticized at all while FEMA screwed up everything it touched. And it continues to. So, what? Now they’re being rewarded for being prime fuckups?

The FEMA takeover will be administrative and will not affect the Red Cross’s traditional direct relief operations, which include opening shelters, providing food and raising money, which totaled more than $2 billion after Katrina, spokeswoman Laura Howe said.

Oh, great. The authors of the biggest administrative clusterfuck since Elphinstone got thrown out of Kabul has just been given the responsibility for administering disaster relief.

Continue reading