Creating a permanent underclass

Add the good burghers of Pennsylvania to the list of those who would balance government budgets on the backs of the poor.
This month, Pennsylvania, governed by Republican Tom Corbett, a former businessman, plans to make the amount of food stamps that people receive contingent on the assets they possess, a move that places the commonwealth among a minority of states. His state budget, like others put forth by the new GOP wave of governors, includes a multi-million tax cut for the wealthy job creators, who have yet to deliver on that assumption.
As reported by the Pennsylvania state government, the Department of Public Welfare said that as of May 1, people under 60 with more than $2,000 in savings and other assets would no longer be eligible for food stamps. For people over 60, the limit would be $3,250.
Houses and retirement benefits would be exempt from being counted as assets. If a person owns a car, that vehicle also would also be exempt, but any additional vehicle worth more than $4,650 would be considered a countable asset.
That means the 1999 Ford Escort a family of four might want to buy as another used car so maybe another in the family could take a job and work to improve that family’s economic situation, would make them too rich for limited public support.
This is the politics of cowardice. Rather than take on hard questions, they beat up on the poor.
This is the politics of defeat, the politics of blame. Politics that divide the nation’s citizens into winners and losers and set the stage for the creation of a permanent underclass.
Thirty-six states have done away with such additional qualifications because they are counter productive. In New Jersey a family four who earned 185 percent of the federal poverty level, or roughly $41,000 a year, qualifies for food stamps. For someone over 60 or disabled, the state follows the federal assets limits of $3,000, and $2,000 for others.
California this year, removed the value of a second vehicle from the equation.
The bill sponsor’s reasoning was as follows:
“Asset limits are doing more harm than good for three reasons:
1) Inefficient: because counties are forced to administer a complex asset test on low-income households that studies have shown are without assets; 2) counterproductive: because achieving economic security requires the accumulation of savings; and, assets limits discourage families from building their savings; and 3) inequitable: because they completely exclude families who have only slightly more economic resource from participation than families who are currently eligible for the benefits.
Michael Sherraden writes in his 1991 book, ‘Assets and the Poor ,’ wrote, ‘For the vast majority of households, pathway out of poverty is not through consumption, but through savings and accumulation. Simply stated, not many people manage to spend their way out of poverty.’ “
How this is a good idea is a rural state like Pennsylvania escapes reason. Jobs tend to be clustered near population centers. How is making it harder for a willing worker to get to that job center a better way to help that family? Wouldn’t that family be better off if they are able to add to that $4,650 they saved?
Being a member of the working poor is hard enough. As the “ALICE” report on those in Morris County earning between $20,000 and $60,000 done by the United Way of Northern New Jersey showed, each step up the economic ladder out of poverty has costs that sometimes exceeds that family’s ability to pay. To earn extra income the family faces the additional costs of transportation or child care, for example. Food stamps help cover those additional costs.
But, if you are one of those who thinks that everyone on a form of public assistance is stealing from you, just move on. The rest of us will hope that you never lose your job, never develop a catastrophic illness, get divorced, never become a victim of a flood or accident, never have a disabled child or become a battered spouse, or are subject to any of the social ills that can place a family in financial jeopardy.
But if you do, reach out: Someone, and yes, someone from government, will be there to help.
The problem with the Pennsylvania rule change is that will not have the great economic impact one might think, simply because there is not as much welfare fraud in the system as one thinks.
In New Jersey, for example, recent news stories show again that most of the people gaming the state system are the elected officials, not the working poor.
One study of this Pennsylvania change said it would save $50 million, out of a $27 billion state budget, or $3.93 in taxes for every Pennsylvania resident.
The real flaw here is that this sort of policy making is based on a stereotype that says all poor people are welfare queens, bums, live in urban areas, or, as described recently by N.J. Gov. Chris Christie, are couch potatoes pulling down economy waiting for their next handout.
He then singled out those on Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security.
Don’t know about you, but it is a concern when I heard a group of teen-agers talking about how they can not wait until they are poor and sick enough to qualify for Medicaid.
But I’m not sure how someone who has worked a lifetime and contributed to Social Security is a bum when they try to collect upon their retirement, or when at age 65 their health insurance automatically swaps them over to Medicare.
The stereotype obviously breaks down.
In New Jersey during the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009 many families who were once middle class or upper middle class showed up at food banks and soup kitchens for the first time.
Many people forced from their homes last fall by floods are still renting apartments while decisions about their damaged homes are still being made. These are families paying mortgages and paying rent. Policies such as the Pennsylvania asset change would made it harder for some of these families to regain their former economic status.
Know what, it doesn’t matter to the bullies on the political right. Why else would the U.S. House of Representatives pass a budget that cuts social spending, raises no taxes on those able to pay and increases spending the military said it does not want or need?
This is a nation that thrives on hopes and dreams and the wish that our children have better lives than we do. It is a nation, as all are, that believes that hard work is the key to making a better live for all of us.
We are the people who ask “what can I do to help?”
We are not the people who ask, “I’ve got mine, what’s your problem?”

About michaelstephendaigle

I have been writing most of my life. I am the author of the award-winning Frank Nagler Mystery series. "The Swamps of Jersey (2014); "A Game Called Dead" (2016) -- a Runner-Up in the 2016 Shelf Unbound Indie Author Contest; and "The Weight of Living" (2017) -- First Place winner for Mysteries in the Royal Dragonfly Book Awards Contest.
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