Monday, March 16, 2009

Merit and Motivation

The next time someone tells you that poor people don't deserve help because the real problem is that they don't work hard enough to deserve food, health care, and homes, remember how many of them are being deliberately obstructed.

I know that we like to act in America like our culture is a perfect meritocracy, that rich people earned their money and poor people earned their poverty. I can't tell you how many times I've heard that Americans don't need help from the government; they just need to stop being so lazy. They don't need a hand; they need a slap across the face to wake them up and get them moving.

The worst part is, I've heard this from poor people. They don't even know they're being lied to, so they go right ahead and hate themselves because the people who benefit from their poverty tell them they deserve to be hated.

No longer the polarizing, racially tinged political issue it was when Ronald Reagan attacked "welfare queens," the welfare system today is dying a quiet death, neatly chronicled in the pages of academic and policy journals, largely unnoticed by the rest of us. Yet its demise carries significant implications. Among the most serious: the rise of what academics call the "disconnected," people who live well below the poverty line and are neither working nor receiving cash benefits like Social Security disability or tanf. Estimates put this group at roughly 2 million women caring for 4 million children, many dealing with a host of challenges from mental illness to domestic violence. "We don't really know how they survive," says Blank. (...)

In 2006, the Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence conducted a survey to figure out why so many women were suddenly failing to get tanf benefits. They discovered that caseworkers were actively talking women out of applying, often using inaccurate information. (Lying to applicants to deny them benefits is a violation of federal law, but the 1996 welfare reform legislation largely stripped the Department of Health and Human Services of its power to punish states for doing it. Meanwhile, county officials have tried to head off lawyers who might take up the issue by pressing applicants to sign waivers saying they voluntarily turned down benefits.) Allison Smith, the economic justice coordinator at the coalition, says the group has gotten reports of caseworkers telling tanf applicants they have to be surgically sterilized before they can apply. Disabled women have been told they can't apply because they can't meet the work requirement. Others have been warned that the state could take their children if they get benefits. (...)

Even as it blocks potential applicants, Georgia is also pushing current tanf recipients off the rolls at a rapid clip. Sandy Bamford runs a federally funded family literacy program in Albany where single mothers can get their geds. tanf allows recipients to attend school, but Bamford says officials routinely tell her clients otherwise: In a single month, one caseworker informed three of her students (incorrectly) that because they had turned 20, they could no longer receive benefits while completing their degrees. One was about to become the first in her family to graduate from high school. She quit and took a job as a dishwasher. Students as young as 16 have been told they must go to work full time or lose benefits. The employee who threatened to drop the students, says Bamford, became "caseworker of the month" for getting so many people off tanf.

So the next time you hear someone--or yourself--grousing about what a problem those useless lazy criminal poor people are... just remember that you probably don't have a safety net anymore, either. And all it takes is one stroke of bad luck before people start lying to you, too. You'd just better hope that someone is around to help you who cares a whole hell of a lot more than they're told to. Or at least someone who'll help you out in exchange for sexual favors which, as it turns out, many unemployed are still not willing to give. Think of the edge you'll have!

The tanf office once sent a client of hers to see a local government official about a job. The official told her he'd be glad to help out if she'd have sex with him. The woman filed a police report, but the man was never prosecuted. (...)

As for people like Clark who can't seem to get and keep a full-time job, Walker responds simply, "Can't? Won't."

Clearly the problem is with their work ethic. If single moms wanted jobs, they'd spread their legs for whomever they could in order to get an interview. Whatever it takes to compete, right? It's all fair, right?

It's not your fault, right? What are you supposed to do about it?

(h/t Feministe)

1 comment:

Laura Jean Karr said...

I think that is the main thing people forget, is that they too could be homeless at any moment.

The tent cities popping up across the country are testament to that issue.

My father used to say that "if they had a job, they wouldn't be homeless", I didn't understand that train of thought then and still don't.