I spent two weeks touring the U.S. last year in my capacity as the U.N. special rapporteur on extreme poverty. My visit, at the invitation of the federal government, was to investigate the extent to which government policies on extreme poverty met human rights obligations. My report came out last week, and the conclusions are stark.
Poverty rates in the United States are shockingly high for one of the richest countries in the world and for a country that recently decided it could afford to spend $1.5 trillion on tax cuts, which were partly funded through proposed deep reductions in welfare spending. More than 40 million Americans, including 13 million children, currently live below the poverty line and many millions more are precariously perched not far above that dismal standard.
But the Trump administration has identified a solution. In essence, its key anti-poverty policy is to imply that many of those receiving welfare benefits are not really eligible. They are, so the story goes, simply refusing to work when they easily could do so.
When the federal government invited me to visit the U.S. at the end of last year, I heard many anecdotes from officials about today’s equivalent what former President Ronald Reagan used to call “welfare queens.” The 2018 equivalents apparently spend their time surfing the net, whiling away the hours on social media and watching cable television, all paid for by welfare.
Thus the president’s budget for the 2019 fiscal year decried “stubbornly high” enrollment in welfare programs and described millions of Americans as being “in a tragic state of dependency on a welfare system that does not reward work, and in many cases, pays people not to work.”
Government departments are following through by moving full-steam ahead with schemes to deny benefits to people unless they work, undertake job training or volunteer. The administration has talked about a major legislative overhaul of all welfare programs. While this has not happened, presumably because the prospects for success are not high and midterm elections are on the horizon, major welfare reforms are going forward that will undoubtedly result in denying benefits to millions of existing beneficiaries.
Take Medicaid. New guidelines enable states to obtain federal authorization to attach “work and community engagement requirements” before very poor individuals are eligible for benefits. Ten states have so far moved to do this.
In Kentucky, Medicaid enrollees will have to spend 20 hours a week doing a job, job training, education or community service. Over half of the state’s enrollees will be affected and officials expect up to 100,000 to drop off the rolls as a result of the new requirements. In Michigan, a bar of 30 hours a week has been proposed.
When it comes to nutrition, one American in eight relies on food stamps from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), providing an average of $1.40 per person per meal. The latest House version of the 2018 Farm Bill would cut $20 billion over ten years from the program and introduce work requirements for eligible adults aged 18 to 59. These would start at 20 hours a week, rising to 25 hours in 2026. There would also be harsh “lock-out provisions,” cutting benefits for 12 months for a first time failure to meet work requirements, and for 36 months for any subsequent failure. Up to seven million food stamp recipients would be affected and, over time, one million are expected to lose all benefits.
Finally, when it comes to housing the secretary of the Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson, has proposed to triple rents on the poorest tenants in federally subsidized housing and to permit local authorities to impose work requirements on public housing tenants.
On the face of it, these policies might seem admirable. Surely work is preferable to welfare and taxpayers should not be subsidizing those who are work-shy or downright lazy. The reality, however, is very different.
First, allegations of widespread fraud are unsupported by the evidence. I requested the administration provide me with evidence but received none. Available figures show an “error rate” (the sum of both overpayments and underpayments) of 3.66 percent in SNAP payments and a rate of 4 percent for public housing. By comparison, Defense Department travel reimbursements had double that error rate.
Second, far from being designed to respond to actual problems, these work requirements are almost identical across widely different programs, suggesting an ideological determination to punish the poor rather than an attempt to improve social protection programs.
Third, the assumption that there are millions of beneficiaries who could, but will not, work is simply not valid. The Kaiser Family Foundation has shown that of almost 25 million relevant adult Medicaid recipients, 42 percent are already working full-time and 18 percent part-time. Of those not working, 14 percent suffer from illness or disability, 6 percent attend school, 12 percent are caregivers, and 7 percent have other reasons not to work.
Fourth, the reality is that the billions saved from introducing harsh and intrusive requirements will be more than offset by billions of dollars in new bureaucratic structures being established to police complex rules. (Kentucky alone has set aside $374 million to police its requirements.) That amount will also be offset by the added costs of providing emergency assistance to those who have been struck off the organized rolls.
The bottom line is that this slew of additional requirements, imposed on people who, in the vast majority of cases, are genuinely and unquestionably struggling to survive, is justified solely on the basis of ideological opposition to the notion that the government should provide even minimal levels of social protection to the poor.
This is the same government that provides massive tax cuts, deductions and exemptions to the wealthy. The administration’s welfare policy is, in essence, unjustified, punitive, gratuitous and cruel. The human capital costs will be far greater than any savings.
Philip Alston is the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.
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